For many people around the world with the most basic understanding of history, Auschwitz is where the Holocaust happened. This common misconception understates the mass-scale, widespread systematic extermination of a race of people that was mandated under the Third Reich. In reality, the Holocaust not only took place in Auschwitz-Birkenau, but in 22 other main camps and an infinite number of mass execution sites spread out across Central Europe. Perhaps Auschwitz’s infamy is derived from the sheer number of victims. There were approximately 1.3 million deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau alone. Millions lost their parents, grandparents, and siblings. Today, 1.3 million is just a number on the page of a textbook that students copy down into their notes. The Holocaust has become a trigger word for sadness and a somber veneer. Is it possible today to fully understand the immense suffering and human losses that occurred? Our group of students from New York traveled to the small town of Oswiecim, to behold Auschwitz-Birkenau with our own eyes. There we attempted to understand.
A long, emotionally heavy day ensued. Our tour was the shorter one, approximately 3 and 1/2 hours of walking among barracks in the hot June sun. The initial reaction of many of the students upon our arrival was shock. This shock was not due to the camp itself, but the touristy atmosphere surrounding it. Families pushing strollers of sniveling children and couples taking silly selfies quickly eroded the pseudo serious atmosphere. It was difficult to imagine that this place of attraction was once the home of so much death.
At the main gate, large crowds competed for an advantageous place to take a picture of the famous inscription, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” We couldn’t help but think what a cruel ploy it was for the Nazi guards to tell their prisoners that work would make them free. Inmates of the camp would do hard labor, day in and out, believing they would someday be released. They did not know that the freedom they were working toward was death.
The rest of Auschwitz I was preserved as a museum; however, little was left in its original state. At times, the long lines of people and the incessant picture taking made the site seem like some sort of grotesque zoo. It soon became apparent that what made the camp so terrible was the presence of the unjust suffering, the decaying corpses, and the inescapable hopelessness. That Auschwitz no longer exists. The new Auschwitz is a memorial, a collection of pictures, quotes, and objects striving to capture a tragedy that cannot transcend time.
Through much of the tour, it was possible to adapt a detached facade. The experience became a haze of sadness. Every once in a while, a certain exhibit would connect with one of us on a personal level. At these moments, the immensity of the tragedy came crashing down all at once and the enormity of the crime committed was realized. New emotions such as anger, helplessness, and disgust mixed in with the omnipresent sadness felt by all.
Many of our classmates were able to experience this together in one specific room. Our guide told us that no pictures would be allowed out of respect to the victims. We were then led into a long rectangular room, where beyond the glass lay piles and piles of human hair. The remains of real human beings were displayed: a mix of blonde, brown, black, and gray. It was all too easy to envision humans being shaved like sheep, their bodies burned to ashes and their hair sewed into the stitches of blankets and clothing for profit. In that moment, humanity scared us.
Other displays tried to connect to visitors with various degrees of success. Arielle Ingrassia reflects on her experience: “I was most affected in the room filled with pictures of children, emaciated, skin tightly drawn across their small skeletal frames. There was a look of pain and confusion in their eyes, like they didn’t quite realize what was happening to them. There, I thought of my ten year old brother, and how trusting he is of the world. For a second, I allowed myself to empathize with an older sister in another time, her brother at the mercy of the swastika. For a second, I felt my heart rip to shreds. Looking around I realized that my group had already moved on to another room.”
In the new Auschwitz, individual memory lives on the strongest. Collectively, the memory of the place and its true meaning has been diluted by the tourists, the lines, and the haze of prescribed sadness. When an individual is able to find a piece of themselves inside a place like Auschwitz, their connection to the place and thus their understanding is deepened immeasurably.
Arielle Ingrassia, Quinn Cahill