It was a beautiful day at Auschwitz, and it didn’t make sense.
Not a lot of things made sense that day – not the blue sky or the gently warming sun, not the pleasant red brick of the buildings or the green grass or anything about Auschwitz, really. The existence of the place is beyond comprehension, but there it stands, just outside Krakow, Poland. If there’s one thing I understand after studying the Holocaust here, it’s that I cannot possibly understand the Holocaust. Yet there we all were, touring and trying to make sense of it all.
Auschwitz is a museum now, standing as a testament to the Nazi horrors that happened within its barbed-wire walls. We were given headsets to better hear the voice of our guide, and she led us through the entrance gate and its wrought-iron lie: Arbeit Macht Frei. Work Makes You Free.
We walked through barracks that have been converted to multi-floor museum rooms, displaying things like Nazi documents, prisoner uniforms, and maps of Europe showing the far reaches of the continent from which Jews were deported to Auschwitz. We saw photos taken illegally of people who had just arrived on rail cars to the nearby extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. One photo shows a line of young children, just after the selection process. I realized with a jolt that they are walking toward the gas chamber. “On the way to death,” the caption reads.
Part of the museum is devoted to displaying the masses of items stolen from the prisoners by the Nazis. The Jews deported to Auschwitz didn’t know where they were going to, and were encouraged to bring their suitcases; now hundreds of those trunks are stacked to the ceiling behind glass display cases. Some have the owner’s name painted on: Klara, Franz, Margaret, Sara. I wondered what they were like, these forgotten people, lost in the commas of seven-digit casualty statistics.
The masses of stolen items are breathtaking. There is the famous room of shoes, each of its walls a display case stretching as far as you can see, with mountains of deteriorating shoes behind its glass. Elsewhere is a pile of eyeglasses, some pairs gut-wrenchingly small – toddler-sized. Another huge display holds two tons of hair, shaved from the heads of the prisoners to make cloth and pillows for German soldiers. Standing in that room, I could not cry, but a heaviness pressed on me and it was suddenly hard to breathe. I couldn’t look away.
At the conclusion of the first part of our tour, before we took the bus to Auschwitz-Birkenau, we stepped into a small gas chamber. Sunlight streamed in from holes in the ceiling through which poison gas canisters had once been thrown. The walls were concrete, and somebody had left flowers on the floor. We stepped out, boarded the bus, and nobody spoke for half an hour. I guess sometimes there are no words.
At Birkenau I walked the very train platform where hordes of prisoners were dropped off and sorted into two groups: those who would live, and those who would die. The expansive, 600-barrack camp was half-destroyed by fleeing Nazis who tried to burn the evidence of their crimes at the end of the war. But we could see the rubble of the giant, destroyed crematoria, looking eerie in the afternoon sun. “A million bodies were burned here,” our guide reminded us. “You are walking on the ashes of thousands of people.”
Visiting Auschwitz was difficult. It was heartbreaking, disturbing, and confusing. There are decades between me and the things that happened there, and it was hard to escape the detachment I felt from everything. The weather was nice, the air was calm. I wondered if I should have been crying, if there was something wrong with me for feeling almost numb to the place. But my friend James said it well when he pointed out, “It’s not about what I felt. It’s about what happened to them.” I didn’t go to Auschwitz to feel something; I went to see and learn and try to understand; to connect, in some distant, terribly incomplete way, with the people who suffered there; to give the victims my respect by acknowledging their suffering. As my professor Peggy put it, “We’re witnesses now.”