Needless to say, it has been an overwhelming day as we toured Auschwitz II/Birkenau. It seemed appropriate that we were walking in the rain most of the day since Birkenau is one of the most depressing places you will ever see. We arrived and all received headsets so we could hear Eva from wherever she was as she told her story, but most of us stuck close enough to be near her as she shared her experience. We walked into the camp from the main entrance, through the gates, which we were told were closed, never to be opened again once prisoners were inside. We immediately looked around and saw the remains of hundreds of barracks, some were still in tact, many were not and only the foundations and chimneys remained. We followed the 3 train tracks to a cattle car where Eva stood and told her story of getting out of the cattle car with her mother and twin sister and was separated from her father and other sister, never to be seen again. It was an emotional scene as she shared that she never got to say goodbye to her mother. She described the screaming and the tears on the scene, and the smell of smoke and decay as soon as they got off the cattle car. After telling the Nazis that they were twins, they were taken to the barracks to be stripped, heads shaved, disinfected, and received their tattoos.
After the cattle car, we continued to follow the train tracks into the camp and made our way to one of the gas chambers that had been destroyed by the Nazis in attempt to conceal evidence of their crimes. We also saw gas chambers that are still standing. Large areas were obvious in the ground where the people had been- the gas chambers were below ground, with the crematorium on top of the gas chamber, and Dr. Mengele’s lab was on the top floor of one of the crematoriums. We were all amazed at just how large the area was where the gas chamber had been. Some ashes still remained.
We then toured several barracks where people lived while in Auschwitz. Some had their own latrines, and others did not. We saw the bunks, where 700 people would be crammed into one building, with anywhere from 5-7 people per bunk. Just the thought of it was unimaginable. All of the buildings we saw were built by the prisoners themselves. The materials came from homes and buildings of the village when the Nazis invaded and took over the area.
We toured the main latrine, where 3,000 people a day would be allowed the use it only twice, and we heard the horror of people fighting just to use the restroom in some attempt at a humane way, but of course disease was rampant and you can just imagine how awful it would have been.
Later, we went to the building where Eva experienced some experimentation, mainly where she had blood drawn and had testing done. This was the first time she had actually been in the building since her time at the camp, since it was being restored so people could go inside. We also saw the remains of the barracks where she lived with the rest of the twins.
After lunch, we went to the very back corner of the camp, where we saw the sorting and prep rooms for the prisoners that were not immediately sent to the gas chambers. We saw the rooms where they were disinfected, their items taken from them, their heads shaved, and where they received their tattoos. (Eva was in a different part of the camp, so was not at this particular location). For some reason, this part of the tour had the most eerie effect on me. I walked into one of the large rooms where we were told that the prisoners would stand, sometimes for hours, cold, naked, starved, and literally stripped of their humanity and dignity.
We then looked at a photo exhibit, which was really awesome, but emotional to see. There were walls of old pictures that were found at the camp after liberation- pictures of families, children, weddings, happy times of those who had perished in the camp. It was a beautiful honoring of those who had died, but very very sad. They looked just like any of us.
Since it was a very overwhelming day, I am still processing a lot of emotion and what we experienced, so for now, I will leave you with some comments and quotes from Eva that struck me today as we experienced Birkenau.
“Realize that this soil we are walking on is soaked with the blood, sweat, and tears of millions of people.”
“How is it possible that green grass grows here now? It was always gray with ashes. Green is a sign of life. There was no life here.”
“It was absurd that the Nazis tried to eliminate evidence of the camp.”
“The smell hit us when we stepped out of the cattle car.”
“The air was never clear in Birkenau. It still isn’t.”
“I never let go of the image of being liberated.”
“The will to live is everything.”
“Luck plus the unbelievable will to live- these are the ingredients for survival.”
“I thought the whole world was a concentration camp experiencing what I was experiencing.”
“It’s kind of spooky that some things look new when I remember how they looked then.” (Commenting on the restoration of some barracks)
“I still feel triumphant that I beat the odds.”
“What would human beings do in order to live just one more day?”
And a quote by Desmund Tutu that she said, “There is no future without forgiveness.”
And finally, some initial thoughts about today’s experience:
The camp still has that shadow of death hanging over it, and an eerie feeling. When you walk in, it feels empty, desolate, frightening. It is cold and gray- it seems strange to think about there ever really being sunshine there. In Auschwitz, thousands of people died per day, millions over the time it was in operation. We were standing on the graves of millions of people. That is a life draining experience.
Eva’s strength, courage, sassiness, sense of humor, and her self confidence are amazing and life giving to be around. Just hearing her story, listening to her, and being around her, it’s obvious how she was able to survive Auschwitz.
It was awesome to be a part of a group touring the camp with a survivor. There are 82 people in our group, but there were other groups around the camp today. Word spread quickly that a survivor was giving a tour and sharing her story. We had several people who “adopted” our group, including a 17 year old Canadian girl who couldn’t help but run up to Eva and introduce herself, saying that it has been her dream to tour Auschwitz and meet as many survivors as possible. Eva was an inspiration everywhere she went. Her presence was definitely made known.
We’ve had many great conversations throughout the day amongst ourselves and what our experiences have been, and we are all processing what we have seen and will continue to see. Tomorrow we will spend the day at Auschwitz I. I hope to post after that and continue to share with all of you.
Thanks for reading.