Visiting Auschwitz has always been a dream of mine, and I believe it is an experience that every person should have. It was one of the most powerful and heartbreaking days of my life. We decided to take a guided tour and I am very glad we did. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and was able help us to comprehend the horrors of the camp.
There are two camps at Auschwitz: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. We began in the Auschwitz I camp, which is significantly smaller than Birkenau and was established first. It consists of a small village of old Polish army barracks. It was mainly used as a working camp and held prisoners, and some people were also killed there. It contained around 15,000 prisoners on average.
Birkenau is less than two miles away and was meant for 125,000 prisoners. It was also the sight of the death camp and main gas chambers. Birkenau had at least 1.1 million people enter the camp during the three years it was used, and an estimated 90% of these prisoners perished there. Many of them were sentenced to death in the gas chambers immediately upon arrival.
The large gas chambers in Birkenau are where most people were killed. Many people also died of starvation, disease, and some were shot or hung. Upon arriving at Birkenau in very crowded, hot train cars, prisoners undergo a selection process, during which the children, elderly, and anyone unfit to work were immediately sent to the chambers. The rest were held in the camp as workers, but most were only kept alive for a couple of months before being killed.
The gas chambers could hold 1500 people at one time, all of whom could be killed in 20 minutes using a hydrogen cyanide-based gas. The prisoners were forced to remove their clothing and enter the chamber, where they were murdered, and then their bodies were moved to the crematorium where they were burned. In the days leading up to the liberation of the camp, the Nazi’s destroyed much of the Birkenau camp, including the gas chambers. The remnants remain to this day, but it is not possible to enter the chambers.
In Auschwitz I, there is one small gas chamber that was used in the beginning as a trial chamber before the Birkenau chambers were built. We were able to enter the chamber and looking at the pipes where gas flowed and trying to imagine the suffering and death that occurred there was heartbreaking. I have never stood on such devastating soil.
Many of the old barracks in Auschwitz I have been converted into a museum where visitors can see living conditions for the prisoners, as well as see the average food portions given to them per day. There are pictures hanging from the camp that were taken illegally and show the brutality in the camp. There are pictures of survivors the day they were rescued, starving and weak from their time there. There are piles of the prisoners’ belongings that were found in a camp. Perhaps the saddest thing I have seen was the room filled with thousands of children’s shoes that were collected from the undressing room in the gas chamber.
The entire experience was eye-opening and horrifying. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Poland, I suggest you visit the camp. It is impossible to imagine or understand the pain and suffering that occurred during the Holocaust. It is impossible to imagine the evil and cruelty of the Nazis. It is important, however, to attempt to learn about and see the place where so many people were murdered. We must be educated so we can remember and mourn all of the innocent men, women, and children of the Holocaust.