Last Updated on June 29, 2023 by Katie Buerk
The Holocaust is something we’ve all learned about in various classes all throughout our education. We hear the horrors that happened in concentration camps like Auschwitz, we read books about it, watch videos, see pictures, but it’s a whole different thing to stand in the actual camps where such horrible atrocities took place. Auschwitz is a particularly sensitive place for Hungary because Hungarian Jews made up the majority of its victims.
Town of Oswiecim
I took a 9-hour train from Budapest to the Polish city of Oswiecim, where the two major concentration camps Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau are located. I don’t know what I expected the town of Oswiecim to be like — maybe deserted, but it was quite the opposite, almost suburban. There were neighborhoods with neatly trimmed hedges next to a slightly dilapidated train station and giant mall. It looked like any other normal town until you arrived at the tragic places that it’s famous for.
To enter Auschwitz, you walk past rows of barbed wire, past what used to be a lethal electric fence, and under the infamous sign stating “Arbeit Macht Frei,” German for “work will set you free.” As you walk along the dirt roads of this camp, you walk between buildings that look harmless but were actually home to inhumane living conditions, medical procedures (more like torture and forced abortions), and the graves of innocents. Some of these buildings now house items of the departed. You’ll see the many suitcases of those who thought that they were coming to the camp just to live and work but never got to see their belongings again, or the baby shoes and clothes of the children that were deemed too young to be useful and were therefore immediately “disposed of,” or the glass room filled with two tons of hair that was shaved off of victims right before they were sent into the gas chambers. These are the personal items that remind us of the people who had families, belongings, hair, just like you and me, that were murdered just for being who they were.
I found myself feeling emotionally and physically heavy after walking through the camp, seeing the wall used for formal executions of those who broke rules, standing inside one of the original gas chambers used, and seeing the electric fence that people would run into if they couldn’t take it anymore. It’s formally called “Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum,” but it’s not like any other museum you’ll go to.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the hub of the transportation for the Jews that were brought to Auschwitz and is where it was decided who lived and who died.
Home of the rightly-named “gates of death,” the infamous railway ends at this camp and on either side are the labor camps divided by gender… and right past those, hidden by trees, were the two most-used gas chambers. As the people were led off the trains, they were separated by gender and then made to walk in front of doctors (like the well-known and cruel Josef Mengele) and soldiers who decided if they were fit for work or medical experiments. If one was not fit for either of these areas, whether they were old or young, man or woman, they were sent straight to the gas chambers where they thought they were just going for a shower and sanitation.
When the Nazis realized that they were going to be defeated, they conducted a mass execution of the Jews in the camps and incinerated their bodies so that they could be easily thrown into ponds near the chambers and not found. So, the grounds around the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau are a mass grave site, the earth around it being tested and showing large amount of human DNA in the ground and water of the area. After doing this, the Nazis cowardly blew up the gas chambers to try to hide what they had done.
For a place that had so many horrible things happen there and is responsible for millions of deaths, it seems almost uncomfortable that it should be a spot where so many tourists visit each year. But, it’s important to see and visit because it’s a part of history that should never be forgotten. It makes us uncomfortable because it’s hard for us to imagine so many people being a part of something so cruel, but it did happen. By not visiting Auschwitz or thinking about it, I personally don’t think that it does the memories of those who died in places like this justice or give them respect. This atrocious event took place only 73 years ago and — although it now feels like distant history — it’s important to remember because, as philosopher George Santayana states, “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
This post was contributed by Katie Buerk, who is spending her fall semester studying abroad with AIFS in Budapest, Hungary.