Yesterday the weather changed from bright, almost aggressively sunny and warm, to dark, foggy, and chilly. While upsetting, the weather seemed to set the mood for our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. I don’t really have much that I feel I can say about the experience, it was very emotional and sobering to walk around the two complexes and to learn about the experiences at the death camps while looking at the actual sites where these mass exterminations and examples of torture and forced slavery took place.
I was personally very affected by a room in the museum at Auschwitz one which showed stacks of suitcases, all of which had their owners names, and often birthdates written on them. According to our guide, when arriving at the camp, people were often unaware of where they were heading, and rather than expecting to be immediately murdered or forced into the labour camps, many families thought they were being relocated out of Germany, and thus brought with them valuable belongings and things of sentimental value, things that could help them start a new life. Instead, as soon as they got off trains, they would have their luggage taken away from them, losing all of their belongings. The museum had rooms showcasing collections of shoes, combs, kitchenware, clothes, and luggage which was taken from these people. In the room with the luggage, amongst the names written on the bags, many of which matched names of friends I have, people I know, there was a suitcase labelled “Emma Kater”( I think this was the last name, but am not entirely sure), which struck me on a personal level I hadn’t felt prior.
Our tour guide made it very clear that visiting this camp meant visiting a mass grave, and that the goal of Auschwitz was death, whether it be through the immediate extermination through gas chambers, or through overworking and starving those forced into labour. All around us were examples of murder, and there was a constant awareness that everywhere one walked, we were walking on ground that was prior walked on by people taking their last steps, who eventually or immediately died as a result of the inhumane and horrific practices of the SS. It was further sobering to consider how recent this genocide actually was. When we visit historical sites, often we are looking at ruins hundreds, if not thousands of years old, yet these death camps were in use 73 years ago.
It was important to both refer to the camps as mass graves, but also to draw importance to the ways in which we remember the holocaust, and the issues with holocaust tourism. While we were there, I saw a few groups of visitors taking lots of photos of the camp, not just of the camp itself, but of themselves smiling in front of buildings, using this place as a backdrop for a photoshoot and to demonstrate that they themselves were there. We saw this same thing happening at the memorial for the murdered jews in Europe in Berlin and it made our group very uncomfortable and angry, and our guide went to go discourage this type of interaction with the site. I found it important to look at the camp and visiting the camp as a way to remember and interact with history rather than as a place to tour for the point of going. When you are running around, trying to snap the right angle for the perfect picture, it is important to remember that the ground on which you are running was a site of murder, and the memories of the people who walked here and died here deserve our remembrance.
The entire experience was emotional, and by the time I got back on the bus, I was exhausted. I was also very upset, and the levels of homesickness I have been feeling already were intensified. Thinking of the families getting torn apart, the mothers who had no idea they would never see their children again, and the survivors who felt guilt about living while their families were murdered made me miss mine so much more, and after a brief reflection and cry, I reached out to my family, arranged time to talk, and then spent the rest of my day resting and reflecting.
I’m left thinking of something our guide said at the end. We were looking at the ruins of a gas chamber, and the chambers in which bodies were burned. She stressed that this was created by, built, and thought up by humans. Humans were responsible for murdering millions of other humans. And that if this happened before, it could happen again.