Auschwitz – From my travels at Kasteel Well in April 2012

The sun is high in the sky; the land around the death camp is barren, the grass starting to show through the dead brown earth. Where were you when the ghettos became mandatory living space? When millions of people were pushed around like cattle?

Where were you when the holocaust started and Auschwitz-Birkenau turned from labor camp, to death camp?

Most people can say they weren’t alive, or they were too young to recognize what was going on. Even so, the damage the Nazi’s did is still etched on the country of Poland like a gruesome scar.

Pulling into the parking lot outside of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a ticket is handed through the window, as though this were a Disney park. The information center is barren and drafty, the doors never properly closing. People of all ethnicities filter through, speaking to each other in different languages.

There are snippets of Japanese, Chinese, Polish, German, but mainly, people communicate in English. The tour starts with everyone turning their headsets on. The technology feels out of place with the stone buildings looming in on all sides.

In rows sit the barracks, the blocks where male prisoners were housed. The stone looks almost new, as though the barracks were built the day before. They sit in rows, evenly apart, leaving enough space for a tank to fit between them.

Walking into the buildings each one houses a different set of memories. One shows the faces of prisoners, each one another victim of the Nazi’s torture.

Another shows rooms full of items taken from prisoners. A 20 foot by 30 foot room is almost filled to the ceiling with tin cans and mugs. An entire side of a room is filled with chunks of hair cut from the heads of inmates.

Back outside, once the door closes on the memories of Auschwitz, the sun sparkles again. Over head ravens fly through the air, crowing loudly, breaking the eery silence that settles over the camp.

The camp began in 1942, as an overflow for the prisons in Poland. The Nazi’s viewed the Polish people as encroaching on their territory, and started forcing them into the labor camp, which later became known as Auschwitz 1.

In these labor camps inmates would work menial jobs, making rubber for tires, working on the railroad tracks, or helping the Nazi’s bring in new prisoners.

Through the center of the camp is a large uneven section of road. Here a wall was built up, separating the men from the women. The wall was torn down, leaving nothing but a large jagged chunk of rock in the middle of the aisle between barracks.

They are all identical, all the buildings are made of brick and stone. The only thing different is the numbers on them, identifying them as building: 1, 2, 3, until the final building, 24.

Leaving the camp, right near the entrance is the last standing gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The structure is almost entirely underground, with the only thing above ground being the smoke stack, which would billow out clouds of noxious black smoke.

Inside it is dark, with a square foot sized hole in the ceiling to let in some light, an attempt to convince the prisoners they weren’t about to die. Through the chamber are the cells where the inmates were sprayed with Zyclon B, the toxic chemical used to murder them.

At the end, coming out of the building, the furnaces shine in the sunlight. This room has a door, and windows, allowing it to look almost like a bakery. Then the memory kicks in, that this isn’t where their bread was made, this is where they burnt the bodies.

The tour of Auschwitz 1 ends with the gas chamber. Leaving the tiny compound and heading outside, to the world where people are enjoying their sandwiches and juice, is startling. The sun is still bright and warm, and people are laughing. No one seems phased by what they just saw, or where they just stood.

At the parking lot of Auschwitz 2-Birkenau, no ticket is handed to you. The cars are parked, and people exit, walking to the front entrance, under the guard tower which sits unused for years.

Once inside the compound everything is different than Auschwitz 1. The air is still scented with pain, but here, there is more hope. There are large expansive spaces between buildings, the barbed wire seems to disappear into the background, and the ruins of gas chambers sit far off in the distance, too far to be concerned about.

Everyone walks slowly, either enjoying the day, or taking in the scene. The images presented aren’t all that shocking. Long wooden buildings sit in large open fields.

But, inside the buildings it is dark, almost too dark to see in broad day light. Eyes adjust and glance at on one of the walls, of the barracks for women and children, there are cartoons. Not cartoons like Daffy Duck, or Bugs Bunny, but happy, sweet drawings. These are the images that gave hope.

This barrack has three shelves, three spaces for bodies to sleep, stacked as many as could fit. Inside images stream through, of emaciated bodies pressed against each other for warmth.

The next building houses the toilets, or what they called toilets. Here are a series of holes which filter into a large trough.

Farther along, past an old cattle car (one they transported prisoners in) are the ruins of the two biggest gas chambers. Here they sit, held together by mortar and steel. Fragments are hanging off, waiting to be knocked down by the next big storm.

In the space between the two a monument sits with 21 plaques in 21 languages. Each one delivers a message of memory and prayer for the events that happened at the camp. The plaques are covered in painted stones, flowers in all states of decay, and pebbles.

Walking away from the camp the walk seems much further, the barbed wire seems sharper, and the air smells distinctly of something unpleasant burning.

Once on the outside, safely in the van, life shifts slowly back to reality, and the events that transpired at Auschwitz-Birkenau those many years ago drift back to haunting memories, tugging at thoughts whenever the subject of Poland is brought up.

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