"Work will make you free..."
While on a mission trip in nearby Slovakia, I was able to take a day trip to Poland for the purpose of seeing Auschwitz. Many people cringed when I told them about my plans, but if you know me at all you will know that WWII history is my most favorite historical subject.
And not to see Auschwitz would have been the biggest regret of my life. I have always wanted to see it.
For one of my books, I will set my protagonist inside a concentration camp during WWII. As a result, I wanted to see the most famous and the largest of all the camps.
When we think of Auschwitz, we mostly conjure up the harsh black and white images taken by the Nazis as they documented their abhorrent work. Yet they were more than proud to document their efficiency in carrying through the Final Solution.
I wanted to walk where so many have walked before. I wanted to see for myself the gates, the barbed wire fences, the barracks, the famous guard towers and so much more.
As I walked, I was mostly struck by the heat. I had no idea the prisoners had to deal with such heat. I thought they only dealt with the harsh winters, but if a prisoner survived the winter they had the summer to deal with. On average, a prisoner lived only two months after entering the camp due to the harsh conditions: torture, disease, hard labor, starvation.
We walked through the rooms only to be hit hard by the humidity. The sweltering heat made it hard to breathe. I began to complain. I even felt faint.
One visitor did faint and they tried to carry her out.
Then I thought about how she would have been shot if this had been 1944.
Our guide took us outside where we saw the area where prisoners once had to stand at attention for 19 hours. If they fainted, they were shot.
It was hard to complain about the heat after that.
Birkenau was the scene of Hitler's Final Solution carried out by Heinrich Himmler. This leader of the SS (Schutzstaffel) was the mastermind behind the extermination camps. He and his Einsatzgruppen were extremely organized and, therefore, admired by Hitler because they could carry out the gruesome task easily.
Himmler himself is responsible for over 6 million deaths. Birkenau saw up to 10,000 people killed in the gas chambers a day.
As I walked the paths of Birkenau, I almost expected to see the ghosts of prisoners walking by, it was that eerie.
At one moment, we heard the enthusiastic singing of some girls. They were singing in Hebrew and clapping their hands. We saw them walking by proudly waving the Israeli flag. My heart was so warmed with this sight.
Then, it hit me. I wondered if any of the female prisoners had sung the same song while there at Auschwitz Birkenau. I got chills.
The Results of Research
Researching for a book can be a fun experience.
But I knew this trip would not be fun. I knew it was essential, but would not be pleasurable.
This research was fascinating to say the least. This was the first time I had the chance to walk where my characters will actually walk. I saw the barracks where they will lie almost freezing and starving to death. I saw fences that will enclose them into this hell on earth.
I am forever changed just from visiting Auschwitz. I firmly believe every human being should travel there if for no other reason than to ensure this atrocity never happens again.
...Yet the worldview that caused this horror is still out there.
That means it could happen again.
I suppose we shall see.
But I am happy to say that there is life at Auschwitz now. It is no longer a death camp. It is a Memorial to those who were murdered. For those who suffered. For those who lived.
Yes, my research took me down this path. I said goodbye to Auschwitz hoping I would not be back again.
Once in a lifetime is enough.
Your turn: What are your reactions to this post? Would you go to Auschwitz if given a chance? Why or why not?