Last week my roommates and I ventured to Poland to visit and tour Auschwitz concentration camp. This was something we have been trying to do for a long time as our program took a trip there in early October that we unfortunately were unable to attend. The experience was humbling to say the least. Each of us had learned about World War II and the actions of the Third Reich/Nazi Germany, yet touring Auschwitz put everything into an entirely new perspective. The genocide that took place from 1939 until 1945 was absolutely horrifying; some of the exhibits within the museum were difficult to even witness.
Our day began at 4:30 a.m. in Prague when we woke to begin our ride to Poland. We arrived at around 10:30 and waited for our tour to begin at 11:15. The first half of the tour was around the main camp of Auschwitz I which was founded in 1939. We learned that Auschwitz was originally an army barracks for Polish soldiers, but was abandoned during the invasion and eventual occupation of Poland. We were with a group of about 20 other people, and interestingly enough were the youngest of the group by far. Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and implored that although what took place there was horrific, it is important for people to honor and remember the lives of those lost at Auschwitz, and to never forget the atrocities that occurred there as well. Personally, I found walking through the entrance the saddest part of the entire tour. There is an arched gate that read “Work Will Set You Free” in German. Our guide immediately explained how this was an obvious lie, and that the life expectancy for any person to enter Auschwitz was less than 4 months. People were worked until exhaustion and, as we knew, murdered after they no longer were of use to the Nazi German soldiers. We preceded to walk throughout the camp, moving through various barracks that were set up as exhibits. There were photographs taken by the Nazis as well as prisoners of the camp that were absolutely breathtaking. The actions and decisions of the German Army were simply appalling; for some of the exhibits, I had to look away as I could barely stomach the sights. I learned in middle school that 6 million Jewish people were murder during the Holocaust, and that 1.1 million of those deaths occurred at Auschwitz; however, learning about it through a textbook is entirely different then seeing where and how these events took place.
After about two hours, we were finished touring the camp of Auschwitz I. We then drove about five minutes to the location of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. This camp was built in 1941 by prisoners of the camp because Auschwitz I was becoming overcrowded. This camp was simply known as an extermination camp; the area of this camp was devastating. To put it into perspective, the area of Auschwitz I was about 25 acres; the area of Auschwitz II-Birkenau was over 400. Walking through the gate along the train tracks that would bring cars full of prisoners was truly sickening. Massive trains would come through the camp and one-by-one, prisoners would be unloaded, separated, and either sent immediately to work or immediately to their death. During the surrender of Nazi Germany, soldiers were instructed to destroy as much of the camp as possible so much of it was piles of brick and rubble. Every gas chamber was destroyed, though you could comprehend the horrors by just looking at the size of the area used. We went through multiple barracks that were still standing, and our guide informed us that over 800 people would be in them at one time. It seemed to us that the barracks were big enough for around 100 people. Prisoners were forced to sleep five to a bed, from the floor until the ceiling; the images displayed were incredibly disturbing to say the least. After about an hour and a half, our tour ended and we were free to roam the area until departure at 3:30.
The main thing my roommates and I discussed was that these events took place less than 80 years ago. To me, this was extremely difficult to comprehend: how an entire regime could conduct these horrific acts on specific groups of people is simply mind-blowing. We returned to Prague at around 9:00 p.m. It was a very long day to say the least, but entirely worth it. We knew this was something we would probably never have the chance to do again, and although it was disturbing, it was a life-changing experience.