I had been in Europe at that point for nearly a month. Starting in Prague and continuing dutifully along the iron curtain’s former borders, we had already visited Leipzig and Berlin. A week before, we’d spent time in Warsaw—a city of magnificent beauty and charm. It was here, in Poland, between Warsaw and Krakow, that I celebrated my 20th birthday. I was fortunate to have such a momentous event in both cities, cities I had long studied, but I was not ready for what I would encounter.
Our group left Warsaw in the morning and arrived in Krakow a few hours later. Once in Krakow, we unpacked our bags and then embarked on a bus trip to the village outside of Auschwitz. There, years of WWII studies would clash with evil’s reality: past and present horror dramatically colliding.
What strikes me the most about the place is its sheer size. Its enormity is breathtaking. The pictures, statistics, and countless paragraphs I’ve read about the Shoah fail to convey its unimaginable scope fully.
Auschwitz 1 felt like a small neighborhood of death. Walking between its tidy rows of brick blocks, framed by thin Cypress trees, one can easily forget the crimes committed here. Playing on a loop in the back of my mind are the voices of survivors recounting their experiences; their memories make me hesitant to walk on the gravel. I feel like a trespasser as my mind keeps screaming that I shouldn’t be here, that what happened here is too dark and too wicked ever to comprehend.
We enter the first block, walking through showers and rooms upon rooms where new inmates were first brought. It was here that their dehumanization, first begun with the Nuremberg Laws, continued with the ghettos and cattle cars, now reached its final stages. Inmates’ hair was shaved off, their clothes were stolen, and a tattooed number robbed their identities. As we leave the building, our tour guide tells us how prisoners had to stand for hours during roll call; no matter the temperature, any slight movement was punishable by death.
Filled with chills and unshakable nausea, I slowly follow my group into the prison block. Passing by the show trial rooms where no innocent ruling was ever given, we descend to the basements where many prisoners were held. A cold chill hit me, and the walls are damp. We see the cells, no bigger than one or two people, often had four or five times that many. Prisoners here would be starved, suffocated, or finally executed by a shotgun. All of this done before the larger structure of the Shoah would be created.
Leaving the blocks, I think the journey is over. As the silence that has consumed my group until then begins to fracture, I see the single smokestacks of the only remaining crematorium rising above an earthen mound. It’s not over. Our reverential silence resumes as we enter the gas chamber, first the undressing room, then the chamber itself. Because of a backup somewhere in front of me, I end up standing in the gas chamber longer than usual. It feels like an eternity. It seemed as though I could hear the screams, feel the despair, sense the loss—I was overwhelmed. I thought I didn’t belong there, that I was intruding on some unimaginable horror which I have no tools to comprehend or understand.
As we board the bus to continue our journey towards Auschwitz II, my mind is numb, and my heart is heavy. Looking out at the fields we pass, I grow more and more anxious until finally, the faint outline of long-buried train tracks begin to emerge. Suddenly, I see it; the famous guardhouse, train tracks, and the Shoah’s imagery on full display.
When most people think of the Shoah, they imagine just this site. Perhaps it’s that scene in Schindler’s list when a train pulls up to the guardhouse in the dark of night, shouting, fighting, horror. In reality, of course, there are three Shoah’s; Shoah by bullet, Shoah by work, and Shoah by gas.
Shoah by bullet took place across the bloodlands of Eastern Europe. Millions of Jews lost their lives before gas-chambers or Auschwitz were created. Whole villages were brought to forests, lined up, and murdered by a procession of bullets. Later iterations of the Shoah were developed to be, as the Nazis said, “a more humane solution to the Jewish problem.” Of course, there was no Jewish problem, but then again, realism or morality never stopped the Nazi’s.
Shoah, by work, came next. After being rounded up into ghettos, Nazi authorities realized they could use the Jews as slave labor. Jews were forced to work in factories for the Reich. Some were sent to German farms, others to more important cities—and thus more ghettos. Auschwitz was first used as a labor camp. It was expanded to include Auschwitz II because Himmler desired to turn the complex into a plantation center for agricultural development.
Shoah by gas came last. The experience of most victims, Shoah by gas, was also the fastest form of genocide. Shaped by years of German murdering of Jews, it was the most sinister step in the Shoah’s evolution. For most victims, there was no “Arbeit Macht Frei,” no striped pajamas, no roll calls. Within thirty minutes of arriving in cattle cars, they were processed, robbed of their possessions, murdered in a gas chamber, and burned. Most of the sites where this happened no longer exist. Quick to be erected, these factories of death were just as quickly taken down and destroyed by retreating Nazi forces in WWII’s final days.
Auschwitz was a mix of both Shoah by work and gas. It’s on the long procession through the camp that this becomes clear. On one side of me is the ruins of the women’s barracks, opposite the men. A sea of red brick chimney stacks seems to stretch forever. Ahead I walk along the pathway to the gas chambers. As the hot June sun relentlessly beats down on me, I realize I am walking where millions walked for the final time. The thought haunts me.
“Seeing Auschwitz changes, you,” at least that’s what my mom told me before I left for Poland. I’m not sure I believed her at the time. How could I? I’d spent years studying this trauma; indeed, I was desensitized, right? I believe her now. To see this place where so many—too many—people died is soul-crushing. In Europe, I have seen the most spectacular heights and most horrific failures of humanity.
Reaching the end of the road to Auschwitz’s gas chambers, our group is surrounded by its ashes and ruins. These are the ashes from which our modern world was built. We believed, foolishly, that we would never repeat the Shoah by never forgetting the trauma in these bloodlands. Of course, the suffocating tragedy I can’t escape from is that we were wrong.
Auschwitz exists not because it was fated to, not because it was inevitable; Auschwitz exists because we let it. I try to think about other things, but my mind can’t help but return to those endless chimney stacks. I wish I could tell myself we learned our lesson that it’d never happen again, but as I write, those same smokestacks are being built in China, in Yemen, in Chechnya, in India. How many more chimneys will rise until we realize a better future is not created by words or wishes but by action? Remembering is not enough; I know this now. Indifference is the real enemy of love. Our future is not set; it is not fated; we make it. Tonight, I go to sleep wondering what kind of future we’re building today, but I begin to cry when I close my eyes because all I see are more chimneys.