Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp is probably the most infamous concentration camp in existence today. This is due partly to its scale and size, and the number of people that were killed here before it was seized during World War II. And, partly, because it’s the best tangible example of how the Germans perfected the technology of death during a time when they had made plans to eliminate an entire ethnic group from the face of the planet. I spent an entire day walking with a guide, and on my own, through the open fields – reflecting on the horrors that occurred here and realizing how easy it is for fear and hate to manifest into something so unconscionable.
Located a mere 45 minutes from central Kraków, Auschwitz is an easy drive from the city. As you pass beautiful green hills and small villages on your way to the camp, you feel a sense of peace and quiet that fills the air. Life is simple and “normal” here – just steps from one of the most horrid places ever built by man. I met my guide at the entrance and was immediately given a headset to hear her voice and the bombardment of information that I would need to process throughout the day. I knew the tour would be informative, but had no idea just how informative it would end-up being.
I spent the day going in and out of starvation cells, past walls where thousands were shot and executed, through buildings where evil science experiments were conducted on live humans and into gas chambers where women and children were led in hopes of a cleansing shower – only to meet an unexpected and agonizing 20-minute death by suffocation. Unfathomable.
As each piece of information came, it got worse and worse – illustrating a picture of life here and the events that have made-up this place’s story. Auschwitz is largely an open-air museum where you can nearly touch history. Glass cases house actual hair that was shaved from victims’ heads, eyeglasses and other possessions that were stolen. Throughout the grounds memorials have been constructed to honor various spots where large amounts of people lost their lives. The worst for me were the gas chambers, and the haunting pictures snapped of victims walking to their deaths.
Though Auschwitz is not necessarily a pleasant place to visit, emotionally, it serves a purpose both in historical relevance and for our modern-day minds. Today, it is a reminder of what hatred can breed, how intolerance can lead to the spread of propaganda, which can lead to human suffering.
Whether you’re Jewish or not, no matter what your heritage, this place is important. It’s important for anyone who has a desire to understand more about the human mind and condition – in all its forms.