My day started out rough before I even opened my eyes. Whether I woke up on my own, or my pounding head did the work for me I didn’t know. What I did know is that last night was coming to bite me in the butt and I clearly had way too many vodka shots.
Damn Polish vodka.
Groaning I got out of bed and stumbled to the showers, cursing myself for being such an idiot. Just like back in Rome, this was clearly another case of incredibly bad planning. For a girl who rarely ever went on tours, I had a really bad habit of partying too hard the night before the ones I took. But despite a difficult shower, and an even more difficult attempt at eating breakfast, there was no way I was skipping today. Today I was going to get a glimpse into the horrifying past of the Nazi regime in Poland. Today I was going to Auschwitz; the world’s most notorious concentration camp.
The bus tour started out rough, and although I had originally planned to sleep off my hangover, (or was I still drunk?) that plan quickly went down the drain as our guide inserted a video for us to watch in an effort to prepare us for what we would soon experience. I sobered up quickly as image after image of sick emaciated children filled the screen; the victims of the Nazi regime. Some were alive, others were corpses. Despite the poor quality of the footage and small screen, the images damn near broke my heart.
As we pulled into the Auschwitz concentration camp we were greeted by a young Polish woman who would be our guide for both this camp, Auschwitz I and for Birkenau, which is commonly referred to as Auschwitz II. The following few hours were nothing short of completely fascinating, especially since our guide was the daughter in-law of an Auschwitz survivor.
As we passed through the gates we came to stand under the iconic entrance; a gate topped with the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei which translates into Work Will Free You. What, for me, was an incredibly sobering sight, was for other’s the perfect opportunity for a ‘selfie’. I cringed as a watched three Asian girls, then a South American couple, pose with big smile and peace signs in front of the entry way to, what was for many, a literal hell.
As we crossed through those gates ourselves our guide introduced us into a world of horror. We learned the history of the camp; the largest of the Nazi death camps. Originally the ‘workers’ were the Polish people, political prisoners who were brought to the camp in 1940. Soon they were joined by Jewish prisoners who, like the Poles, were forced into slave labour. Our guide shared with us how families; parents, children, husbands and wives were torn apart upon arrival; separated by the weak and the strong which would determine who would work, and who would be exterminated.
As we walked through the halls of the buildings we looked upon endless photos of the prisoners who were murdered during their time at the camp. We passed through dark cells, and saw the remains of what had been left behind; an endless array of shoes, clothing, and personal items. Tiny baby clothes and shattered pairs of glasses. And perhaps the most powerful sight of all; the seemingly endless collection of human hair, proof that these weren’t just random items left behind, these belonged to stolen lives.
As we passed through chamber after chamber, corridor after corridor, past the walls were prisoners where murdered and the posts from which others were hung, I couldn’t help but feel like this was surreal. How could something like this ever have happened? After years of history lessons, veteran speeches, and war museum visits nothing could have prepared me for this.
But despite the jar of human ashes, the leftover items, and human hair, the most moving moment for me took place standing in front of a map of the camp.
“Where is everyone here from?” our guide asked.
A chorus of ‘England’ circled my group of, primarily, older couples. A younger couple piped up that they were from Norway, and when it got to me, the last of the group, I said ‘Canada’.
“Canada?” our guide asked. “Well for the people of the camp, this was Canada.” She pointed to two areas on the map, buildings titled Canada 1 and Canada 2. She continued to explain that these were the buildings believed to hold all the personal items and belongings of those imprisoned at the camp. They called it Canada because it was their biggest hope, and to them, Canada meant safety. It was at this point, after a couple of hours of sorrow and devastation that the tears I had been holding back let go, and streamed down my face.
Our last stop at Auschwitz I was the gas chamber and crematorium. Inset into a small grassy hill it looked like nothing, until we walked inside. The mood became instantly more somber as we took in the lone vase of roses that was the only colour in the cold, grey room. We all notably shivered as we gazed around us, especially when we noticed the holes in the ceiling where the gas was released, and even more so when we entered the crematorium.
After a moment of silence, we left, slowly exiting through the gates that had trapped so many not so long ago. Because, as heart breaking as this camp was, our guide told us, Auschwitz II-Birkenau was even worse, because it wasn’t made to be a work camp. Birkenau was created to kill.
To be continued on Tuesday November, 11th: Remembrance Day. Find part 2 here.