I had learned about various horrendous aspects of World War II’s Nazi Germany throughout junior high school. While I had always wanted to travel, I had never really considered that I might actually end up on the grounds of one of the most well known sites of mass murder in the history of our modern world (nearly 1.5 million innocents were exterminated between the multiple sites that made up the concentration camp). And yet there I stood, breathing in the crisp yet heavy air of a gloomy day in Southern Poland’s Auschwitz. The rain held out for us but the frosty winds cut deeply through our not-so-protective layers as we trudged from stop to stop along our guided tour of the “work” camp.
Our guide casually spoke of the atrocities that occurred within this double-fenced barbed wire world, almost as if she had explained its history so many times that the script was now just mere words. My heart broke at the thought of these misfortunes being so easily glossed over. Perhaps that was not all the case in her mind, but rather a cultural misinterpretation on my behalf. Regardless of her delivery, the tragedy of Poland’s past; and growth since the war, was not lost on me.
We worked our way past cases filled to the brim with stolen possessions of the victims: shoes, luggage, kitchen utensils, brushes, hair; through hallways lined with photos of the imprisoned; into tight jail cells created for suffocation and discomfort; past the gallows and through the gas chambers; and along the once electrified barbed wire barriers.
Despite the years of brutality engrained in the history of this place, I felt neither evil nor malice in the air. This surprised me, as I half expected a dark cloud of tense wickedness and churning resentment to loom throughout the space; a giant invisible middle finger pointed directly at Hitler and his mindless trolls. But that was far from the case. I actually sensed contented silence. And peace. That finding definitely made me think…
From there, we moved on to Birkenau, a branch of Auschwitz where we stood on the very train tracks that shuttled hundreds of thousands to their final fate at this site just decades before. Evidence of Germany’s attempt to falsify the despicable truth of these “work camps” stand tall in rows of naked brick chimneys, their wooden houses burnt to the ground in haste as the allies grew closer. Their gas chambers, reduced to rickety shambles. This experience and the feelings it evoked will remain rooted in my core.