I visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp this past July while on a work trip in Poland. I went because I wanted to see what evil looks like so that I could identify it in the future. I went without anyone I knew. These are some observations from my trip.
I took a shared van with other tourists to the camp. Everyone except the driver was from North America or Asia. The mood was festive on the road. We talked about what brought us to Poland, what we missed about home (Chipotle in my case), and which restaurants to check out.
The city where the camp is located, Oświęcim, is unremarkable. It’s a sleepy town with houses, churches, and warehouses. Had it not been for the presence of a concentration camp, I would have thought I was in a small town in the midwest.
Everyone went quiet when we entered the camp’s outskirts. We crossed a bridge and saw the railroad tracks that head into the camp. This moment marked the beginning of the descent.
Everyone was required to be part of a tour group. We listened to our tour guide through radio headsets. I liked this because I had some control over the pace. I could spend extra time on something that interested me and still catch everything the guide said.
Standing on the railroad tracks where people deboarded was an eerie experience. It was the site where death certificates were figuratively signed because it was where “selection” occurred. This involved a fake doctor visually “inspecting” people and determining whether they were fit to “work”. Typically, women and children were told to go one way and able bodied men another. The women and children were then told to strip and enter a room to “shower”. Our tour guide told us something I’ll never forget: before entering the “shower” room, some tied their shoes to each other so that they could easily retrieve them later.
Walking inside those rooms is a haunting experience. It is dark and cold. There are holes in the ceiling—the only sources of sunlight—where Zyklon B canisters were dropped from. My stomach felt hollow and light.
The crematorium is an equally dark experience. I distinctly remember how black and burned the ovens were.
A lot of the bunkers have been converted into museum exhibits. Some of the exhibits contain possessions of the people killed there. There are entire rooms full of shoes, suitcases, and cooking ware. The suitcases still had the name of the owners on them.
There is one particular exhibit that I won’t be able to erase from memory. Before entering it, we were told to turn off our cameras. We then entered a large room full of tons of hair—enough to fill an entire shipping container. The Nazis—ruthless in their “resource” management—exploited everything they could from their inmates including their hair. They used it for making furniture among other things. Hair doesn’t lose its structure over time; it mostly stays preserved. I saw ponytails and buns.
This was the hardest moment for me during the tour. I remember feeling hot and numb walking out of that room.
I saw Israeli tour groups. Many of these groups were full of teenagers who wore the flag of Israel as a cape. I saw some Israeli groups sitting in a circle far away from the tour path. They seemed to be having a roundtable like discussion with an adult moderator. I would have done anything to listen in on that conversation. I am curious how this part of history is taught to Israeli children. I am curious how it affects Israeli thinking today.
Oddly enough, I’ll never forget how gorgeous the day was. The sun was out and there was a cool breeze. It was about 75 degrees F and not too humid. The dirt was dry and the grass was bright green.
I believe you have to experience love in order to share it. I believe you have to experience evil in order to prevent it. I visited Auschwitz because it helped me understand what evil looks like so that I don’t fail to identify it in the future. If I can identify evil, then at worst I can stop it and at best, I can preempt it.
If you get a chance to visit Auschwitz, do it. Don’t look at it as a “buzz kill”. Look at it an example of what hate is capable of manifesting itself as. Look at it as a place where evil briefly triumphed. Look at it as proof of what happens when people look the other way so that next time, you don’t.