Auschwitz and Birkenau — Uprooting Expectations

I woke up early this morning, before Audrey, Maddie, and Kelly had gotten up from our comfortable hotel beds at Hotel Batory. I laid there, knowing that Kelly’s alarm would go off soon and figuring that I’d just wait for everyone before going down to breakfast. I should have known that it would take everyone else an hour to get ready.

Long story short, when we finally headed down to breakfast, a look of shock washed over my face. No more bread, meat, and cheese breakfasts for me! I wish I would have gotten a picture, but there was just so much food and I got distracted. I grabbed a waffle with some berry sauce and some apple sauce, then snagged a bowl of cereal and a glass of juice. I went back to get another plate full of some kind of unique egg, some jello, and salatka jarzynowa, a unique Polish dish that is somewhat like a vegetable salad held together with mayonnaise and sometimes containing lobster (which I believe the one this morning did). Hmm…what else? Oh, an apple tart too.

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I wanted to eat some more, but my mishap waiting for everyone else had cut me short on time, so we had to just hop on the bus. It was a pleasant ride, although our tour guide who’s travelling with us will not be quiet for more than about five minutes at a time. While I appreciate all the helpful information, I’d really rather not hear her voice for an hour and a half at a time booming through a loudspeaker directly above my head. Does wonders for my ears.

After a lengthy but otherwise pleasant ride in the bus, we pulled into the Auschwitz museum, where our day was slated to begin. I’m going to tell you now, I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about Auschwitz and Birkenau, even though I enjoyed visiting it. Not because I don’t want to talk about it, but because it’s just one of those things that’s pointless to try to convey in words. You need to see it for yourself, in person. But I’ll still walk you through what we saw. As for emotional reactions — they’ll be different for each person. For some members of our group, it was the Death Wall; for others, it was the more than 15,000 lbs of human hair, and for others it was the miniature shoes which once belonged to children of the concentration camp.

Anyway, we got headphones as soon as we entered, and a nice tour guide named Anna spoke into a speaker and I could adjust the volume and not have to stand right next to her in order to be part of the tour. It was fantastic. So I could go see what I wanted to see while still listening. We started at the entrance, where I finally got a good shot of the banner that I’d wanted to get a picture of for years.

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Arbeit Macht Frei. “Work makes one free.” One of the great lies which the Nazi party advocated.

After passing under that doorframe, we paused for a moment to look at a guard tower monitoring the entrance to the camp before proceeding down the frigid stone streets in the light of mid-morning.

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It was extremely eerie to walk through Auschwitz, a camp that had always been immortalized in my mind as a place of extreme horror and hideousness, only to see that had I been unaware of where I was I would have believed I was in a nice complex of lovely summer homes lining a cheery autumn street. The place was nothing as I imagined it would be. Perhaps in our minds we conjure a sickly, bedraggled image of the camp because of the horrible things that happened there, but it was almost unreal to see those expectations so easily broken apart.

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The only thing to suggest that anyone had ever been kept here against his or her will was the barbed wire disappearing into the foggy distance.

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Although we were not allowed to take pictures of everything in the camp. one of the first things that I did snap a shot of was an urn full of ashes from some of the Jews burned in the crematoriums, as well as an identification card of another prisoner of Auschwitz I.

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Upstairs in one of the buildings was a miniature model of how the gas chambers worked, how people lined up outside, and how the workers used the crematorium.

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We also got to see pellets of the poison which the Nazis dropped into the gas chambers through holes in the ceiling.

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Out of respect for the victims of Auschwitz, we did not take pictures of the room which contains 15,400 pounds of human hair from those who were gassed. Therefore, I also do not have pictures of the cloth made from that human hair.

Moving on to the next room, we were taken aback by the number of shoes piled along two long walls — shoes whose owners never made it out of Auschwitz alive.

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I wondered to myself why there were no shoes for children among this pile. Turning the corner, I found out why. They added another room just for that, since there just isn’t enough space for it all. Children’s shoes, toys, everything was there.

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We went through many other rooms containing the labeled suitcases of gassed prisoners who’d hoped that their belongings would be returned after their stay in the “work camp,” a guide for the triangular symbols prisoners wore to identify them, and an entire hallway of pictures depicting some of the documented prisoners of the camp. Walking outside, we entered a gated courtyard and laid eyes on a black wall at the far end of the stony field — the Death Wall.

At the Death Wall, Jews were turned facing away from the Nazis and then shot in the back of the head in mass executions. The windows of the barracks next to the wall were boarded up so that no one could see what was going on just on the other side of the wall.

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Walking through a pathway between the rows of barbed wire, we approached the ominous chimney jutting from the green hill underneath which is Auschwitz I’s gas chamber. Once again out of respect, I did not take pictures of the gas chamber or the crematorium connected to it. However, as morbid as it may sound, this was my favorite place in both Auschwitz and Birkenau.

It was real, for lack of a better word. It no longer felt like a museum, like a disconnected piece of history. It remains virtually untouched, and so I saw the same drab grey stone walls, the two peculiar holes in the ceiling, and heard the same vast silence that the original Auschwitz prisoners did. Entering into the crematorium, I found it unsettling how much the furnaces looked like simple bread ovens, their half-circle openings grinning eerily.

After a short break, we left Auschwitz I and went to Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau. This one did not have the same unsettling effect that its predecessor did, at least in my opinion. So open, with the sun shining down and casting almost pretty shadows among the rustic wooden barracks, I found it difficult to take the same attitude.

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Birkenau was the larger of the two concentration camps, and it was built about a year after the main camp at Auschwitz. It had very large crematoriums and gas chambers, but they were burnt down after the war ended in order to try to conceal any evidence.

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One of the most interesting things in Birkenau (to me, at least) was a glimpse into the toilets that the prisoners used. They were only allowed to use the toilet twice per day — once when they got up, and once when they were done working. However, keep in mind that many of them were very sick and had diarrhea and other bowel issues. This is all that they had.

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Climbing to the top of one of Birkenau’s towers, I surveyed the concentration camp one last time before I left it forever. Unlike those in the past, I could leave.

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Believe me, there is A HUGE AMOUNT that I skipped over. I just can’t contain everything from Auschwitz and Birkenau into a blog post. But I hope that at least you got a glimpse.

*****

After the bus ride back home, I went out with a group of fellow students to eat dinner at a restaurant whose name I couldn’t see due to some scaffolding. I ordered what were supposed to be sweet dumplings filled with cottage cheese (turo in Hungarian).

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Unfortunately, they tasted nothing like what I thought they were supposed to, and to be honest I couldn’t finish them. It was like eating one giant glob of plain old starch after another. I tried, I really did, but I just couldn’t manage and was very disappointed.

Needing to balance out all that heavy starch, I went with everyone else to wander around the main square in about 20 degree weather to find a cafe where I could get some sweets. Along the way, we ran into a very jolly chocolatier who tried to convince us that he was an oompa loompa and entertain us with all kinds of corny jokes, which was quite entertaining.

Finally, though, we found a nice cafe in a stone basement.

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I ordered a brownie and a donut to satisfy my sweet tooth, and both were quite good! The donut tasted like you would expect, and the brownie was still warm but a bit less chocolatey than I was anticipating. Still, I enjoyed it and it cheered me up after my less-than-savory dinner.

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A hop, skip, and jump after that led us back to our hotel. Sorry for such a cursory overview. 😉 You just can’t pack a busy day like this into a blog!

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