Tuesday, January 26th
After visiting Auschwitz II-Birkenau Monday, we made our way to Auschwitz I today. The first thing we did when we got there was watch a video about Auschwitz that was made up of photos and videos taken at the camp before and during liberation. I think it was a rather old video, though obviously it was hard to tell because you couldn’t figure the age out based on the footage. It was interesting though, especially because parts of the video were from the video shot by the Russians when they liberated the camps. There is a fairly famous part of that video when the Mengele twins are being liberated and walking between two sections of barbed wire. Eva and her twin sister Miriam were the two twins at the very front of that line, so being there with 75-year-old Eva and watching 10-year-old Eva on the video was interesting.
After the video we toured the camp itself. Though in reality, we had been in the camp the entire time. The visitor’s center was not built post-WWII when the site became a museum. The building used as the visitor’s center was actually there when the Nazis were there, and had been used to register and tattoo the prisoners, preparing them to become prisoners of the camp. I find it interesting that this is now where the visitors are registered and prepare to enter the camp.
Auschwitz I is significantly nicer than Auschwitz II-Birkenau because before it was taken by the Nazis and turned into a concentration camp, it had been Polish military barracks. All of the barracks were made of brick, they were two-stories and were actually divided up into rooms (though I’m not entirely sure if these were there when it was a camp or not). Auschwitz I is also much more of a museum than Birkenau. Most (I wont say all, because I don’t think this applies to quite all of them) of the barracks now serve as exhibit spaces. It is rather interesting for me though, as a museum person, because the majority of the exhibits in the barracks haven’t really been changed at all since they were first installed in the ‘50s or ‘60s. It’s pretty obvious that that is the case too, they aren’t modern exhibits at all. For most places I would definitely be unhappy with an exhibit that hasn’t changed in in over 50 years, but at Auschwitz it works. I didn’t know what to expect from the exhibits, but having seen them now, I can’t imagine them any other way. They are very stark. Very black and white, I don’t think there was any real color in the exhibit installations at all. Very blunt and to the point. That’s appropriate for Auschwitz. It is what it is, there’s no use trying to doll it up or present the material in an interesting and innovative way, it speaks for itself.
I noted yesterday that visiting Auschwitz II-Birkenau didn’t seem to affect me in the way that it affected many of the other people on the trip. I didn’t sense any physical, emotional reaction in myself, I just felt numb and empty. Auschwitz I was very different. The victims are remembered by their absence here, by the things they left behind. A toothbrush, a pair of glasses, clothing, a suitcase. Only they aren’t singular. There isn’t one toothbrush, one pair of glasses, one shirt, or one suitcase. There are cases, rooms even, full of them. In one of the barracks, an entire room in the upstairs was merely a corridor flanked on both sides by glass. Behind the glass, filling the rest of the room on both sides were shoes. Mostly brown, but occasionally a white pair, or a red pair of women’s shoes that were stylish in the ’40s. There were just thousands of pairs of shoes. It was really overwhelmed by the magnitude.
What really affected me most of all, out of all the exhibits was the hair. 1,950 kilograms (that’s 4,300 pounds) of hair cut off of the heads of women who were killed in the gas chambers before they were burned in the ovens. I walked into that room, and I had to catch my breath. It knocked the wind out of me. Looking at this hair, which filled the entire lengthwise wall of the room, just a sea of human hair, it finally hit me. The emotions that I should have been feeling, they finally came alive for me at that moment. These weren’t glasses, or suitcases, or shoes. Not commodities that could have been bought or sold. It would be possible to buy thousands of pairs of shoes and visually replicate that exhibit. But hair. Human hair. Hair that, 65-70 years ago, had literally once been part of a living human being’s body. That affected me.
In the afternoon after lunch we visited the gas chamber and crematorium that is at Auschwitz I. This gas chamber was not nearly as effective as the ones at Birkenau, where the actual mass killings took place. The gas chamber at Auschwitz I was the first one they used before Birkenau was built, it’s where the Nazis perfected their abilities to kill more quickly and effectively than ever before. Here we had our own memorial ceremony. It was actually a bit amusing. There were signs in the crematorium that said candles could not be lit inside the building and there was a rope blocking the ovens off so you couldn’t get next to them. Well Eva completely disregarded both, moved the rope, walked right up next to the ovens and proceeded to have us all bring our candles up so we could light them and have our ceremony. No one tells that woman what to do. We each walked up to the ovens and light a candle, saying “I light this candle in remembrance of…” and then whatever we wanted to say after that. I lit my candle in remembrance of all the victims of the Holocaust, and all those before, during, and after who have been victimized for who they are and how they were born. The ceremony affected me pretty strongly too. I’m not one to cry , but I was choked up when I went to light my candle, and my voice shook when I spoke. Afterward, I was still choked up, my eyes watered, and I had the beginnings of those dry, shaking cries, the ones that just rack your entire body. It was truly powerful for me, and I know for everyone else too. After we had all lit our candles, Marv (one of the Jewish men on the trip) sang Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. I love Hebrew and think it’s a beautiful language, so that was lovely as well.
As we left the camp for the day, I stopped by the book shop and picked up a package of photographs. The photographs are of many of the things I had taken pictures of myself, but they were taken by professionals, so of course they are far more beautiful than any of the pictures I’ve taken myself. They only cost 20 zloty for the two packages, that’s about $8 US maybe, so it was definitely worth it.