Remembering the Tragedy and Agony in Auschwitz
The day before I went to Auschwitz was my first day in Krakow, Poland. My three friends and I checked in at a hostel that only cost 12 euros per night. It was located on what we called Wedding Dress Lane, because it had over ten bridal shops on the block, just past the 24 hour pierogis, and around the corner from the bar where a Polish boy was shouting, “12 shots for 15 zloty!” It’s hard to believe we never took him up on his offer. Such an excessive amount of shots for what amounted to about $3.50. And he shouted it so triumphantly.
The day before I went to Auschwitz, my friends and I meandered into a jazz club, and I ordered the girliest drink on the menu. We headed back to our hostel early to drink wine and play cards. It was the perfect evening to top off a day of travels. But soon we began talking about how to mentally and emotionally prepare to see Auschwitz. We shared stories from our childhood: how we learned about tragedies, where we were on 9/11, history classes. It’s one thing to learn about tragedy when you are a child in school, and it’s another to see it and be present in the space where it occurred.
Hours later, we started our journey through Auschwitz. We saw uniform brick dormitories and the famous sign, “Arbeit macht frei” or “Work will set you free.” I had seen these in pictures a thousand times, but being there was like a very unfortunate dream. I peered through glass walls to see piles upon piles of human hair. I saw small mountains of shoes and suitcases and pots and pans brought by prisoners who thought they were on their way to a better life. Our tour guide, Paulina, encouraged us to look at just one shoe in the pile and imagine who it belonged to. I’m at a loss. Paulina revealed how many thousand of pounds of seized property and hair we were looking at, and then she said this is a mere fraction of the total amount. The rest has been moved elsewhere. Next we entered the dormitories where prisoners slept, three to a twin bed, and we see pictures of prisoners on the wall. The images include a name, date of arrival, and date of death. It is difficult to find a person who lived longer than two months. But along the walls of thousands of prisoners, I see a woman who survived six months here. What a force she must have been.
We looked outside the dormitories to see the wall where prisoners were shot for petty crimes. We visited the cells where prisoners were starved to death. I hovered near the cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe gave up his life for a stranger, who eventually became free. Finally there is only one building remaining. Paulina does not go in with us. She points us toward the entrance without even looking at it directly. This is the building with the ovens. It occurs to me that just about everyone in Poland must know someone who died in Auschwitz. The Nazi’s murdered 1.5 million people here, and it’s only one hour away from Krakow.
We spent a little time praying and reflecting outside by the burned buildings where the Nazis tried to destroy evidence of their crimes. The sun felt warm and the breeze was cool against my face. I could see gorgeous mountains in the distance, past the layer of barbed wire fences. What an eerie contrast to see the beauty of the sky and Earth, to even hear birds chirping, yet know that unspeakably horrible tragedies occurred here. It’s as if the Nazis were making one last attempt at propaganda. Or perhaps rather it was a testament of how beautiful Poland is in spite of its trials and hardships. I chose to think the later. Instead of dwelling on the negative, I wanted take with me this feeling of being so incredibly grateful. I am grateful for the basic gift of safety, which cannot be overstated, and for the unity of good peoples around the world who visit these sights and grieve together. It was humbling to forget myself for a moment and realize my worries, insecurities, desires, and doubts are insignificant. My problems are small, and my blessings are many.
That evening we made our way back down ‘Wedding Dress Lane’ and debated whether we should stop for pierogies or wait for dinner. I felt weary but also strangely rejuvenated, like after a good long cry. We were exhausted, but I think we understood each other and the world a little better in some way. And we had the rest of the week to fall more in love with this beautiful little country.
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