“Those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”George Santayana
I distinctly remember the first time I learned about the holocaust. I was in fourth grade and we were presenting our history projects of the year. I think I did mine on the Donner party that year, but when my friend Catey presented her project on Anne Frank and the holocaust I was simultaneously horrified and fascinated. It was from that point on that I wanted to learn all I could about WWII and the holocaust. I couldn’t understand how humans could be so horrible.
Some 25 years later, I find myself a bit of a 1940s history buff. From fashion, to hair styles, to military battles to the history of the world, I find it all very interesting. We swing dance and attend 40s events all the time here in England (or at least we did before there was a pandemic). But this past trip to Poland wasn’t a time for dancing. It was a time for reflection. We took a trip to Auschwitz, Birkenau and spent a heavy day reflecting on the atrocities that humans committed against other humans.
I struggled with what to write for this blog since it’s definitely not the typical travel story. But I felt that it was something important that needed to be said, even if it’s been said before. In discussing these thoughts with my friend Brittney, she suggested I look at it as travel being humbling. And I was inspired.
Because that’s exactly what my venture to Auschwitz was. Humbling. And necessary. I personally think everyone should make a trip to a Auschwitz one day. And it’s not a weird fascination or a tourist attraction to check off the list. But it’s a location we all need to see with our own eyes. To learn about what normal people did to other normal people.
Walking through the gates of Auschwitz, the iron letters in German still stand, lying to you. “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work will set you free.” Though the sun shone bright as we walked with other tourists through the camp, I couldn’t help but shiver. I couldn’t imagine the hope that some would have when they entered, thinking that this was solely a labor camp, and not what it truly was, an extermination camp.
If you were to look up and down the rows of brick barracks today, it’s hard to imagine the terror that ran rampant through the camp. Formerly Polish Army barracks, the Nazis took over the area in 1940 as a quarantine camp for Polish prisoners. Because they were created for the Army previously, I felt like these buildings looked very much like any other military base. It wasn’t until you get to the “halt!” signs with skull and cross bones in front of the watch towers, and the massive concrete and barbed wire fences that you immediately remember where you truly are.
1.3 Million people entered both Auschwitz I, the main camp and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, located a few km away. 1.1 Million of them perished within those gates. As most of you know, the majority of these victims were Jewish, 960,000 to be precise. Of those 960k, 865,000 were sent immediately to the gas chambers where they were promised “a shower” before “being taken care of in their new home.” Most of those sent to the gas chambers were children until 14, the elderly and the infirm. To “avoid the chaos” of tearing a young child from its mother, most mothers of young children were also sent with their children to the gas chambers.
But while Hitler and his high ranking Nazi’s wanted to “free” the world of the Jews, they also felt that several other types of people also weren’t fit to live in the new Nazi run world. These included, captured soviet soldiers, Roma gypsies, non-Jewish Poles who defied the Nazi regime and various other Europeans who tried to fight against the barbaric laws of the Third Reich. 74,000 non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and up to 15,000 other Europeans were all killed in Auschwitz. Death came from every side, be it in the gas chamber, through exhaustion, starvation or disease that ran rampant in the unhygienic conditions of the camps.
Even as someone who thinks they know a lot about the Holocaust, I found myself astounded at the things our guide told us. At one point I stood before a massive pile of human hair, tears welling in my eyes as our guide told us that 40,000 people would be standing before us if they could come and reclaim the hair so ruthlessly taken from them. Shaved from the scalps of those who entered the camp as prisoners, this hair was intended for use making felts and fabrics for the reich. When the Soviets liberated Auschwitz, they found several large bags of human hair ready for dispatch back to Germany. The idea of this makes me physically ill to this day.
One other room made me sad and angry was a room full of shoes. There were shoes for males and females of all ages but the one that stuck out to me was a dark green pump. Standing towards the front of the pile, it was gorgeous. In another lifetime, that would be a shoe I’d love to own and wear. I loved it so much that it made me stop and stare. And as I stood there, I started to think of the woman who also loved it. A woman who was lied to, told they were being resettled, told to bring her things as they were just moving camp. A woman who thought maybe she could wear these nice shoes in their new home. But it never happened. We don’t know who she was or if she even died in the camp, but it’s likely she did. It’s likely she never dressed up again. Never again felt the joy of dancing or dinner or the theater.
I think about that shoe and that woman often. I hope she’s found peace in the afterlife and knows there are people down here fighting to tell her story. To tell all their stories. Like I said before, Auschwitz isn’t a tourist attraction. It’s not a place to go take photos and ooh and ahh over the monstrosity. It’s a memorial, a graveyard even, for all those who lost their lives there. But also, it’s a classroom where we can teach future generations about the horrors of the Third Reich. Because we need to teach them, we need to remember. Should we forget, history is bound to repeat.