WARNING: While it does not delve too deeply into the minutiae of the Holocaust, this post does handle a subject that is quite disturbing.
Before you read the title of this post and panic, let me explain why I decided to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum. World War II and the Holocaust was a frequent topic in my history classes from seventh grade onward, for a variety of good reasons. As an unintended consequence of this frequent exposure, the events that I was learning about existed only as grainy black and white photos and statistics floating between my textbooks and my memory. It was a faraway concept that had nowhere near the emotional currency it deserves, and I wanted a more tangible understanding of this history from which I now felt distant.
Put shortly, I succeeded in my mission. Visiting the former camp was horrifying. It was a slow-creeping horror, similar to the way one doesn’t notice shadows lengthening until the sun is almost gone.
As a historical refresher, the older portion of the Auschwitz concentration camp (called Auschwitz I) was a converted Polish Army barrack that functioned as a prison camp from 1940 to 1942. From 1942 until the camp’s liberation, Auschwitz’s function transitioned from a prison to the largest of the “death camps” – a facility designed for the mass murder of Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazi state. The secondary camp, Birkenau, was built during this period and was the camp complex’s focal area for mass murder . In total, between 1 and 1.5 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
As stated before, Auschwitz I is the older of the two camps, and being a former Polish Army barrack, is mostly full of red-brick buildings that look entirely innocuous from the outside. Auschwitz I is where the main offices of the Museum are, and we were obligated to take a guided tour of Auschwitz I. Entry to the museum is technically free, but there is a fee for the tour.
Our tour guide was amazing – she was very knowledgeable about the camp history, though she had to cover an insane amount of material in ninety minutes and at times was speaking so fast I thought she was speaking in Polish. Though being on a budget, I was glad in retrospect that I took the tour – there were so many things that I had not known about that place. Being able to see and walk through these things also was a more profound exercise in understanding the horrible things that happened there.
That said, it was jarring to be walking around what might otherwise be an inoffensive-looking compound of brick buildings, while every twenty feet the tour guide pointed out places where different atrocities occurred. I am not implying that this was done nonchalantly, but when these things are being objectively described by an informed guide, the sheer scale of human violence becomes abruptly and horrifyingly present in a way it previously wasn’t. Even though it all looked very different than the picture I had constructed in my head from numbers, survivor stories, old photographs, and history lessons, the visit grounded my prior knowledge in the physical experience of the place.
For example, in many of the buildings in Auschwitz I contain physical exhibits that include items confiscated from the detainees. There was a room where seven tons of human hair removed from prisoners was piled high behind a glass wall. To my horror, some of these were braids still intact and tied with ribbons, neatly snipped from someone’s head over seventy years prior. One of the things that I found most disquieting about that room was that I found a clump of hair that was the exact same shade and texture as my own. Photography was prohibited in the hair room for good reasons, but I cannot forget those sights.
Birkenau was on a whole separate level from Auschwitz I. It is a few kilometers away from the first camp, but there is a Museum-run shuttle bus that runs between Auschwitz I and Birkenau. You are not required to have a tour guide to look around Birkenau, but we were given the option to continue with our tour guide into Birkenau, which we did. Watching the rebuilt and modern town of Oswiecim pass by on the bus after spending ninety minutes in the well-preserved Auschwitz I was surreal.
Birkenau is not quite so well-preserved as Auschwitz I. It is a massive field, split down the middle by a train track and covered in long, low wooden barrack buildings. Some of these are still standing, but only the foundations of the majority of camp structures remain today. Since many of the buildings are no longer standing, you can see more clearly just how large the camp was.
A brief refresher: most individuals who died in the Auschwitz camp died in Birkenau (90% of inmates). Though building began in 1941, in 1942 the main function of the camp was the mass extermination of Jews. The railroad around the camp was extended and diverted to facilitate the unloading of train cars full of people into Birkenau. According to our guide, Birkenau housed the 10-20% of prisoners who were not immediately selected for the gas chambers.
This statistic made the total death figures for the camp and for the entire Holocaust (1-1.5 and 6 million people respectively) suddenly present in a way that they had not been before. I could look out over this vast piece of land and see that this only held a tiny fraction of those who were brought to this place. Having that small fraction physically represented, in my mind, created a horrifying visualization of the sheer mass of people who did not escape the gas chambers. If this huge area held only 10-20%, then how massive was the remaining 80-90%? Understanding those numbers in such a physical way gave a new weight to the hundreds of thousands of people who had been killed. These people had only existed in my mind as a statistic, or an anecdote, or a smaller story in what had seemed like an impossibly large and horrible historical narrative. I hadn’t realized it until then, but I had no metric or sense of scale for what “a million people” looked like. Let alone six million.
Here’s something you won’t hear in conversation very often: I’m glad I did go to Auschwitz. I am grateful that the visit gave me a better understanding of the scale of what occurred there, regardless of how uncomfortable the experience was at times. Even with study, I am unsure if I would have gained the same understanding without visiting.
Sources for specific pieces of information (not including facts from our tour guide) are linked directly in the text.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum “History” Page (accessed 4 March 2016) Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
The Museum’s historical background on Auschwitz II-Birkenau (accessed 4 March 2016).
The Museum website’s historical discussion of the Shoah (Holocaust) and the number of victims (accessed 4 March 2016).
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum’s website, and their page on visiting are very helpful if you want to plan a trip. I would recommend reserving a slot for a tour online in advance, otherwise the wait at the museum can be an hour or two (at least).
The Museum has a comprehensive history section as well, including much more information than I provided here.