Miles and Smiles Away: Final Thoughts on Auschwitz-Birkenau

Approaching Birkenau. Photo taken May 2018 by Riley Smith.

A few days ago, I shared with all of you the first portion of my personal experience visiting Auschwitz, primarily the museum.

It was a lot to process and while I originally thought that I could summarize my visit to Auschwitz I and II in one post, I was overcome with words when I actually sat down to write.

This is surprising, considering when we left the camps to head back to Krakow, I felt like I had absolutely no words to say.

With that in mind, we headed to the second part of our tour, Auschwitz II – Birkenau. This is the biggest camp, 3km away from Auschwitz I, consisting of gas chambers and crematoriums. It held over a million people at once.

Walking through Birkenau, in sweltering heat under a blazing sun with hundreds of other visitors, was some way, some how, strangely peaceful, yet horrifying all in the same breath.

For me, it was as if the atrocities that occurred there are a distant memory, a part of a faded past, but also a dark shadow ever present in our modern reality, breathing heavily down our necks at the same time.

(There is also a third camp, Monowitz (or Buna), which was a labour camp. It was completely destroyed).

At Birkenau, where 7,000 corpses were burned a day, we saw exactly what the prisoners would have seen upon arrival.

Railway to hell, Birkenau looms. This is exactly where prisoners fate would be determined by inspection. Photo taken May 2018 by Riley Smith.

After embarking a horrific train ride to the site, prisoners fates were decided – life or death – with one simple hand gesture by the doctor on the platform. One way was ‘to the showers’ and the other was to the camps, to work in despicable conditions until exhaustion, hunger, and disease won out.

At Birkenau, children were burned alive in pits.

At Birkenau, men were put on one side of the camp and women on the other, leaving families divided.

At Birkenau, barrack 25, the death barrack, women were sent to wait to be transported to die.

“They were going to the gas chambers and they knew it,” Barbara, our guide, told us. “They had no food, no water, no washrooms, and sometimes they waited a few days.” 700-1000 women would be held in the small space at a time.

Walking through the barrack was absolutely haunting.

I trailed a little behind the group so that I could take it in for a moment privately. I closed my eyes in the dark bunker and stood with my face as close to the barred windows as possible to see if I could possibly put myself for a second in that position.

I couldn’t.

In 1945, the Nazis fled and – in an effort to hide their crimes – burned down the gas chambers and crematoriums. These ruins are part of what remains at Birkenau. Despite the Nazi efforts to destroy all the evidence and keep the crimes hidden, Barbara told us, they took photos and documented absolutely everything, as if a part of them wanted their actions to be known, preserved…

The ruins… Photo taken May 2018 by Riley Smith

When the Soviet army liberated the camps in 1945, they found documents, blueprints and layouts, outlining the exact breadth and technical logistics of the camp, allowing them to piece together the horrors despite the destruction left.

We learned that the Soviets had some idea of what was happening in the camps from talk as they liberated across Poland and other occupied territories, but nothing could have prepared them for the horrors they would find at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Those who were strong enough were sent to towns nearby on foot, but so many prisoners were riddled with disease and completely emaciated. Many died from these affects even after being liberated.

Initially, the Soviets could not film inside the camps because the S.S had cut the electricity. Prisoners had to be transferred out immediately because they were starving. After they had regained some of their strength, the Soviets asked some of the women to go back into the camps so that they could film their conditions.

These women had been sent to Auschwitz following the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, and they were very resilient, brave people to re-enter. I shivered at the thought.

Filming was integral to preserve what had happened, and the film in particular that our guide had us watch, ‘Liberating Auschwitz,’ utilizes a lot of this footage in order to piece together what happened, and also for use in the Nuremberg Trials against the Nazis.

Today at Birkenau, amidst the eerie rails, the standing barracks, the ruins, and the gas chambers and crematoriums, stands a few memorials that help us to immortalize the memory of the lives lost in the camp.

This includes, as depicted below, the top piece of one of the chimneys atop an original crematorium.

Original chimney from crematorium stands at Birkenau. Photo taken May 2018 by Riley Smith.

Around this area monuments in a number of different languages heed the same haunting warning. The English one is pictured here –

A somber warning, decorated with stones, an everlasting tribute to the death. Photo taken May 2018 by Riley Smith.

There was also a red rail car memorial to honour the Hungarians who lost their lives at Auschwitz, the number reaching an astounding 430,000.

These memorials serve as a solemn reminder that we cannot escape the past – that we must continue to talk about it.

I strongly encourage anyone making the journey to this part of the world, to make the stop in Oswiecim to see it for yourself. As I’ve said many times before – I firmly believe that knowledge is power, and only by arming ourselves with the information and wisdom of the past – no matter how dark, or shameful, or painful that past may be –  can we progress as better people than we were before.

And while the Holocaust was the worst crime against humanity in our modern history, please don’t go thinking that it is an isolated incident.

When I visited Cambodia last summer, with my good friend Logan Kennedy, we paid a visit to the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, a horrific and calculated mass murder of 2 milion Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge under leader, Pol Pott from 1975-1979.

Survivors are on site to share information and insight, which really speaks to their resilience.

This happened in a post-Holocaust world, and there was little to no international public outcry.

In a closer-to-home context, the cultural genocide of our Indigenous people is a serious and disgraceful issue that we as a Canadian society should be working to reconcile, and that we should be talking and learning about. Again, these crimes and indignities occurred both pre and post-Nazi regime.

There is plenty of opportunity to learn more about that right home in the Sault, from our Indigenous communities and by visiting Shingwauk/Algoma University, a former residential school.

In the meantime, I will be drinking in even more historical information. If anyone wants to take a gander or borrow any of the books I purchased from the Auschwitz store, please let me know!

My cherished souvenirs.

If you happened to miss part one of this piece, click here.

For the other segments I have written about my travels so far, click here.


  1. To You Riley, thank you sooooo much for taking the time out of your travels to provide us with such important, descriptive, heart wrenching stories.
    For the record, I could care less where you did/didnt stick commas or semicolons or how long your sentences went on for.
    I was so taken with all the historic information you provided us with. Despite the disgusting, horrifying, upsetting atrocities that took place. It was very emotional. Each story had the tears rolling down my cheeks and trying to imagine the horror.
    Once again, thank you for sharing your personal experiences with all of us. I really did enjoy reading and learning from your stories.

  2. First of all Mr Harrelson, you are unbelievable! I’m not even sure why you decided to read Riley’s stories. Especially if your only point was to be a negative know-it-all!!! You totally missed the importance of what she was trying to convey.
    Btw, I apologize if you dont like where i stuck my commas or if my sentences went on too long. My bad!!

  3. I am at least happy to see that Riley’s educational background isn’t focused on writing skills and English. This article was difficult to read because of the overuse of commas. The sentences run on far too long and contained multiple thoughts that should have been expressed in separate sentences. In many cases where a comma was used, she should have ended the sentence or used a semicolon. The article also occasionally mixed tenses. Please reread your articles carefully next time before hitting ‘send’.

    • Hi Ted! I am so sorry you don’t enjoy my style of writing. I am fresh to the field out of 5 years of school and still learning everyday! That being said, I do hope you can see past the writing style to the moral of the story and hopefully still get a taste for what I am expressing and experiencing. Sharing my travels has been been a very personal journey for me so I am hopeful that you can still appreciate the sentiments and thoughts! Until next time, Riley.

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