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A visit to Auschwitz

Sarah Mervosh | Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The red brick buildings were all identical, organized by number and arranged neatly in rows.

The place was teeming with tourists, who swung their cameras on their wrists and wore headphones perched on their heads to listen to their tour guides.

The sun was shining down, reflecting softly off my hair, forcing me to squint a little.

If you didn’t know better, you might think this was some sort of college campus.

If you didn’t know better, you might not know this was a place where atrocities beyond comprehension were committed.

If you didn’t know better, you might not know this was Auschwitz.

But I did know. We all know. And because of that, I tried to see it for what it really was — a place where countless people died, a place where officers had no empathy, a place where prisoners fought to keep their hope and lost.

So I forced myself to look beyond those neat brick buildings and the spring sunshine and the flowers hesitantly peeking out of the grass.

I looked to the barbed wire surrounding the camp and wondered how many people threw themselves at those spiky, electric fences in hopes of putting an end to their misery.

I looked to someone’s empty Coke bottle, with a red label that was too bright and colorful for a place where only blacks and grays seemed appropriate, because I imagined those colors to match the numb, deadened hearts of the prisoners.

I forced myself to look inside the buildings at the photographs, the statistics, the countless suitcases that had once contained all the belongings that comprised a life, but were never to be reunited with its owner.

I saw the hard, wooden bunks where prisoners had lied and died, where diseases like dysentery and diarrhea and a lack of toilet facilities made sleeping on the bottom bunk disastrous.

I went into the basement of building 11, where the Nazis tortured prisoners for smoking during work, for going to the bathroom during an undesignated time, for attempting to help another prisoner. For any reason they could find, really.

There was a starvation cell and a cell where prisoners were kept in complete darkness for longer than a human mind was meant to endure. There were tiny “standing” rooms where Nazis stuffed up to four prisoners in a room made for one or two people and forced them to stand all night long.

But as you know, the cruelty was not confined to building 11. Between buildings 10 and 11 was an execution wall in front of which thousands of people were shot dead. Today, flowers and rosaries decorate the wall in memorial.

There were the crematoriums, where hundreds of people at a time where gassed and cremated. I was able to go inside one that was still intact and stand where the victims stood when they undressed, when they realized what was happening and panicked, when they took their last breath.

It sent shivers down my spine.

But I found myself walking a little too fast past the ovens where they burnt the bodies and feeling a little too relieved when I was back out in the sunshine. As much as I felt a duty to take in the tragedy and revere the lives lost, it was almost too much for me to comprehend.

What got to me the most, though — more than the places where so many people lost their loved ones, where family names were extinguished forever — was the exhibit of human hair.

When the Nazis killed the Jews, Gypsies, Poles and others, they extracted the gold from their teeth and shaved the women’s heads with the intention of making a profit off the goods.

The hair took up an entire room in the museum. Mostly brown, with some caramel and blonde strands scattered throughout, there was enough hair to make a tall pile that would span the width of South Dining Hall.

Words cannot explain why this gigantic mound of matted hair stood out to me as the single most disturbing thing I have ever seen in my life.

Soon, it was approaching lunchtime and my stomach began its usual cry for food. I knew it would be several hours before I would eat again so I grabbed some food before we left for Birkenau, the larger of the two camps that people generally refer to as Auschwitz.

But I felt guilty chomping on potato chips on the bus. It had been only four hours since breakfast and I was already hungry, whereas people who were in the concentration camps got only a small bowl of vegetable soup and a piece of bread for the whole day, every day.

Birkenau looked more like what I had pictured with its large open fields, the train tracks that were used to deliver the masses to their demise and an exit nowhere in sight.

The Nazis had attempted to cover up their atrocities by blowing up the crematoriums at Birkenau before the Allies swooped in and discovered them. The remains still sit there today, in a field that has small, white flowers blooming in it.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the human ashes from the crematorium had fertilized the field, making it lush. That would be just an utterly sick irony or maybe some sort of sign from God.

We eventually wrapped up our three-hour tour, and frankly, I was glad. I was exhausted and felt numb to the impact of the tragedy.

It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but that I couldn’t care. It was as if my mind shut off once it hit a threshold of painful information.

It wasn’t until I climbed in bed that night that I was able to truly feel the impact of my visit to the camps.

The gigantic pile of braces and crutches, taken away from the handicap. The mountain of shoes, whose owners are long gone. These images spiraled in my brain.

The disturbing reality that I was simply unable to cope with all the tragedy I witnessed in that few hour time span. If the human spirit can barely stand to hear about such atrocities, how could it have endured them?

The realization that even though I had pictured Auschwitz to be bleak and snowy all year round, there had been days like the one I experienced when the camp was still running.

Days when the sun smiled down at prisoners, reminding them of the sound of laughter and better days.

Days with a cool breeze, which prisoners probably wished would pick them up, lift them over the barbed wire fence and carry them away.

Days that smelled like grass and budding flowers, reminding the prisoners of spring and rebirth.

But for most of the prisoners, those better days never came. There was no escape or sense of renewal.

Just a bleak monotony.

Hunger.

Disease.

Loneliness.

And worst of all, a loss of hope that followed them around like a shadow.

Except for them, there was no tomorrow. The sun never set. And so their shadow never lifted.

All they had was their identification number, this shadow of despair and the memory of who they used to be.