Auschwitz-Birkenau, Part IV

So, here we go.

I feel like I should coin the acronym IDKWTS – I don’t know what to say… and I don’t…

Ahhh Erica it’s not about YOU and YOUR feelings! Of course it’s not.  But how else are we to “interpret” this horror? Answer: There, of course, is no way. There is no translation in the history of humanity and the history of any language ever uttered on this planet. Because this is not a “human” crime or crimes, is it? …But isn’t it ALSO deeply “human?” And by that I mean, (and I’m NO expert on any mammals or other species), aren’t we the only species to hate because someone’s last name is “Klein” or “Aaronovich?” Aren’t we the only ones that condemn someone for having a Torah portion (bar/bat mitzvah) instead of a first communion? This is nothing new. I am far from the first to say this.

But here are my pictures of Auschwitz II.

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The actual place. That picture we’ve seen so many times. The train tracks…

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I thought this trampled-on rose was “thought-provoking” – in an awful way – to find…

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The ruins of Crematorium II-V from afar:

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For the rest of this post, I can only show pictures and the inadequate words of the signs displayed – in English and Hebrew (on purpose) – sorry I cut off the Hebrew in the second picture.

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Maybe more to come in a future post. Not sure. Not sure what can be said.

Erica

 

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Part III

How is it that I’m on “part 3,” and yet I hardly feel like I’ve begun? Because this is the part that, unsurprisingly, I have always been and still am hit the hardest.

My interest bordering on obsession with the Holocaust, Jews, and Israel began when I was 7 or 8 years old. I was at the school library at Holy Family, my grade and middle school, and the librarian recommended that I try the book “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry. It’s a story of a Jewish girl escaping Denmark during World War II. If I remember correctly, I had said something to the librarian (Mrs. Hall) like I had “run out of books I want to read” because I was always, always a voracious reader and apparently because I’ve always had a bit of an attitude (haha).

I remember starting it that day and not being able to put it down. I remember that my Dad called me and my sister to dinner, and I went into the bathroom Greta and I shared to wash my hands. I remember literally sitting down on the floor of the bathroom (it was an odd bathroom, with carpet), and having to be called again and again to dinner. (Note: sorry for this next mouthful of a sentence, but I’m not sure how else to put it.):  I remember thinking as an (about) 8-year-old – if I was going to tell someone – namely if I would have told myself a day ago that humans gassed other humans “in bulk” – this is awful, but I thought of Sam’s Club, where you buy bulk products and not “regular size” – if I would have told myself this, I would never have believed it. Except it was true. It was real. If it were a made-up novel, it would be too ridiculous to be real. But it was real.

Even at 8, I remember very “child-like” questions that entered my mind. For example, I wondered that if the Nazis truly believed Jews were “sub-human” like they proclaimed, why would they do experiments on them? Because, I thought, if Jews are not the same, then why would they think experiments on Jews would have the same results on “real” humans? Didn’t the Nazis see the fault in their reasoning if they truly believed this?

So I begin this post with the infamous sign – “stop” both in German and Polish with the skull and crossbones (with a guard tower behind it):

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“Crematorium 1” is mostly preserved in its original condition. It started operation in August 1940 in what was originally an ammunition bunker. The largest room was changed into a gas chamber. There were three furnaces or incinerators for burning bodies. After the Nazis completed Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II, which I will cover in the next post) in July 1943, the operation of this building ended.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to post mostly pictures because this part of the “experience” was and is not only indescribable but incomprehensible, unimaginable, unfathomable
Note: The “captions” for the pictures are above their corresponding picture.

Crematorium 1:

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Sign/plaque when you walk into the building (English and Hebrew on purpose):

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Actual canisters that contained Zyklon B, a pesticide used for killing people in the gas chambers:

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The gas chamber itself:

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Hole in the ceiling where the Zyklon B was inserted:

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Incinerators:

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Enough seen. Enough said. Never enough seen. Never enough said. 

 

 

And I’ll leave you with a  picture of the fencing containing “Auschwitz I”:

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Erica

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Part II

I feel like a broken record saying I have no idea how and what to say in these posts. I often don’t know how to start my writing (exhibit A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, etc.: my graduate school essay that still languishes 75% done but with no beginning or unifying theme), but clearly this is in no way the same. So I’ll again preface this: I cannot hope to come close to what has been written about this place, but I will do my best to share what I saw on that cold Polish November day.

So I obviously left off listing some of the “exhibits” towards the first part of the tour. Sobering and horrifying do the “displays” no justice. They don’t just speak for themselves, they shout in anguish. They scream, as if each pair of shoes, each stolen piece of luggage was determined to tell the story of their owner who never got the chance to. Never in a place of hushed horror have I heard such terrified, yet determined echoes. Really.

In one of the barracks, with its recreated conditions (more about this later), the hallway is lined with photos and “information” about people who never got to leave Auschwitz.

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This hit me hard, to say the least. The faces are like mug shots for “crimes” they committed like being Jewish or an “intellectual.” They wear the uniform “striped pajamas” as a novelist once coined the attire. The eyes. Not one of these people left Auschwitz alive. Not one of these people got to ever experience freedom again outside of the barbed wire fences. (Note: There were just as many pictures of females, I just happened to capture the men).

Sorry for the glare (you can see pictures of women in the “background”), but here are two examples: the first I took because (selfishly) like me and my dad, this man’s “crime” was the audacity of being a lawyer (an “intellectual”).

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This second person doesn’t even need a profession to be a “criminal” – he is a Jew. The black eye he has goes without saying.

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You can’t see it in the picture above, but all Jews had their Star of David stitched into their clothes above their prison number (below).

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The audacity of being born a Jew. How dare they.

Because there is too much for me to begin to write about, I will conclude this post with a sign outside this particular barracks. Only at Auschwitz would this be reduced to a mere sign. I took a picture of both the English and the Hebrew on purpose.

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Erica

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Part I

As I wrote in my pre-visit post, I have visited this place so many times in my head through books and survivor accounts, documentaries and movies, that I both knew what to expect as in what I would see, but no idea what to expect about how I’d feel seeing it.

Of course, this is and was never about me and my feelings except that I was able to proverbially “bear witness.” This post will be about me, though, in that I can only write through my eyes, education, experiences, and biases. And honesty.

When we arrived at Auschwitz, I got off the mini-bus with 6 or 7 other people. We walked a little way before taking a left and beholding… throngs of people in lines guided by those dividers they have at the airport and Disney World. More on this later. I checked my bag into storage because it was too big according to the guidelines, passed through a metal detector, and was directed back and forth among employees who eventually gave me a headset (but no sticker – I went back to inquire why I didn’t get a sticker) and told me to wait outside for the English tour. I saw people with various colored stickers depending on the language of their tour: Polish, Italian, French, German, English, Spanish, etc., and after about 10 minutes the English tour guide arrived. I had to find her amid a sea of groups forming in different languages with color-coded stickers.

In many ways, I think this is good. The more people that see and are educated by this place, the better. I recently got an update on my phone from CNN that read, “A CNN poll finds anti-Semitic stereotypes are alive and well in Europe, while 1 in 3 people surveyed know “little or nothing” about the Holocaust.” …Impossible for me to believe… except that … it’s real.

I want to stop and say that this is NOT what the majority of my Auschwitz-Birkenau posts will be about, but the atmosphere was something I felt was – I don’t know the word (s) – inauthentic, inappropriate, too much like an “exhibit.” I knew that this was not the “experience” for me, so at times that became more and more frequent throughout the tour, I separated myself from the group and walked alone with my thoughts. More on this later.

Before I begin, the most startling fact that I learned at Auschwitz-Birkenau was that the camp was largely created for the annihilation of Hungarian Jews. For all my reading, watching, and learning, I never knew that Hungarian Jews were specifically targeted. I have never visited Hungary (I hope to soon!), but for certain reasons, Hungarian Jews are always in my mind.

Our tour started outside the visitor’s center, and I saw it immediately: the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the camp’s entrance, with the stark brick buildings in the background on one side, and the black and white mechanical arm posted in front of the entrance. (Note, The “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “work will set you free” false propaganda/hope originally came from Dachau outside Munich in Germany. My dad and I went there a few years ago and saw the “original.”)

In what would become a familiar “feeling” – I was both buried in the emotions of screeching injustice, horror, and awe at finally standing “here,” and yet I also felt an utter lack of anything except a hollowness, a heaviness, and a hopelessness. There it was. I was here. It wasn’t a movie set or footage from a documentary or pictures from survivors’ accounts.

We walked down the path to the still-surviving barracks. I had “been” there before.

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I knew much of what to expect from the “exhibits” from my lifelong interest bordering on obsession, but as much as I knew, I was in no way prepared. We went through room after room of old barracks that now housed tens of thousands of shoes, family pottery, luggage, and everything else that could be stripped from the Jews and other prisoners when the arrived at the camp.

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There was a room where photographs were forbidden that was filled entirely with hair shorn off of Jews when the entered the camp and then used to insulate Nazi uniforms.

There were original documents kept by the ever-meticulous Germans documenting their plans and intentions.

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There is so much more to say, and I have only begun to scratch the surface. In fact, I’m quite dissatisfied with this post because I feel as if it is a very clinical overview of the first exhibits in the camp, and I don’t want my posts to be like that. In posts to come, I hope I can convey in some way the impact actually seeing this had on me and my reflections. However, I felt I had to in some way “set the stage,” so I guess that’s what I hope this post accomplishes. For now, I will leave you with this:

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Erica

Before Auschwitz

So. I’m writing this before on the ride there because I know I won’t have the words after – writing or speaking about this in a way that has not been said more truly or “elegantly” – and by that I mean horrifyingly – by hundreds of others.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is the German name for the Polish town Oświęcim, so that’s where I’m headed.

I’m searching for what to say, about how and why I got here, on this bus, at this time. I can reach back to the age of 7 or 8 when I first read the book Number the Stars in one night. I vividly remember going to the bathroom to wash my hands for dinner while reading the book, and laying down on the bathroom floor because I couldn’t put the book down. Or the countless hours spent at the public library in Green Bay searching subject categories for World War II biographies or Holocaust. Or the dog-eared pages of my parents’ World Book Encyclopedia volumes of “H” for “Holocaust” or “I” for Israel or “J” for Jew, and so on. Or how so many of the “choose your own topic” school projects or book reports were about this time, this place. Or when I went to NYC with my mom and my grandparents at age 10 and the Broadway show I chose to see was “The Diary of Anne Frank” (with Natalie Portman as Anne, I later realized).

I don’t know why I’ve been drawn to it for so long – since 7 or 8. It goes without saying that it isn’t a topic most kids younger than 10 are interested in. But I was, and I am.

I have been to two concentration camps before, Sachsenhausen and Dachau, but this, of course, is the “big” one, the one that seems to encompass all others. It seems to be the most horrifying, the most unbelievable.

I have “been” to Auschwitz in my mind hundreds of times through books and documentaries and movies. Even before I get there, I can see it in my mind’s eye, especially the entrance.

I could go on forever about it, and it doesn’t seem real that I’m finally going. Will it be so surreal it feels like a “movie set,” will I feel the 1 million lives that were silenced and ended there, deep in my bones like cement that weighs me down and makes not just my soul but my body feel heavy and stuck in nothing short of blinding horror? I don’t know.

All I can do is hope that by going there, by coming here, that I see it as clearly as is possible in the context of the decades of history I’ve basically studied this place, preparing for a place that no one is ever fully prepared to see. I hope that I can proverbially “bear witness” to this place that must never ever be forgotten, downplayed, minimized or even treated as a tourist attraction. It isn’t. It never will be. And I don’t come as a garrulous tourist to only gape at the horror, to see it without really seeing it. I hope I come here and do what little I can to honor and remember what happened here, not for myself, but for the people who came here and never left, and for the families they never got to meet or never got to have.

To those who are reading this whom I speak directly to, and you know who, I wish I had more eloquent words.

We’re getting close now. The sun is coming out from behind the clouds. How unfair that a place like this should ever see sunshine again.

Erica

The “Getting to Auschwitz” saga

I’m on a bus for the approximately hour and a half ride to Auschwitz.

Before I reflect on that, I don’t think anyone has ever tried harder to get to Auschwitz. I have a ticket for a guided tour that starts at 10:30, and I wrongly assumed that the people at the train station would be familiar with a ticket like mine. I did my own research, of course, and I know there are three different stops at Auschwitz. I asked at the information booth and showed my ticket, which is for a tour once I get to Auschwitz. The lady at information told me to go to the ticket counter. The young woman at the ticket counter has to ask her colleague about my ticket because at first they told me I should leave the station at 10:30, which I knew wasn’t even on option based on the timetables on the website. They then told me I had to leave at 8:45, but then changed it to 8:30. I tried to pay for a ticket, but the woman kept saying 8:30 when I asked if I had to pay on the bus.

Long story short, the older bus driver wouldn’t let me on the bus, and it was 8:27 at this point, so I ran back to the ticket counter and excused myself in front of the line and the people being helped, and urgently told her I had 3 minutes, and the driver wouldn’t let me on the bus. She told me to wait, and then told me to go to information. There was no one at information so I ran back to the ticket counter. She ignored me, and I saw the information counter lady sauntering back to her desk. I told her the driver wouldn’t let me get on the bus, and she just said, “I don’t know,” and then continued to repeat the “gate,” G7. I realized I was getting nowhere so I ran back out to the stubborn bus driver, and he continued to shake his head until I took out my Polish money and gestured at it. Finally he said “12,” and I gave him 12 Polish zloty (plural?), and he shoved the change into my hand without looking at me, and let me on the bus.

I wasn’t expecting to get a free bus ride to Auschwitz, but the people I asked wouldn’t “let” me pay them. I tell this story because I’m sure I looked like an obnoxious American running back and forth, trying in desperation to pay someone to let me get on the bus to Auschwitz.

I don’t expect everyone to speak perfect English, but I had wrongly figured that they would be “used to” tourists showing them a ticket like mine.

This is hardly worth mentioning given where I’m going, but I wasn’t going to let anyone cause me to miss my tour.

Here we go.