Auschwitz: “Work Will Set You Free”

Trigger Warning: This post describes graphic details of Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.

Work will set you free.

These are the words written upon the entrance sign as you enter Auschwitz I. These are the same words of hope and positivity that more than one million people read and believed after having been stripped their basic civil liberties, to then being forced from their homes to various Jewish ghettos, and then finally to another new “home,” all for their crime of being Jewish (or being deemed as “racially inferior.”) The Holocaust is one of the largest mass-murder in the history of mankind. With ninety percent of the victims being Jewish, approximately one million people were murdered inside the walls of Auschwitz alone.

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World War II and The Holocaust have always intrigued me. I’ve taken initiative to learn about as much as I can throughout my life. I read the Diary of Anne Frank and then made it a priority to visit her house in 2010. I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, and attended a Holocaust survivor speech at my university. I spent almost 5 hours at the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC. I’ve paid my respects at the atomic bomb memorials in Japan. I’ve watched various films, studied various photos, and heard various tales of Hitler, the SS, and the unspeakable horrors that took place inside these concentration camps across Europe. But it still didn’t prepare me for Auschwitz.

When we arrived at Auschwitz, I saw the abandoned train tracks, and I got goosebumps. The sun was shining. In any other situation, it would have been considered a beautiful day. But it felt wrong to have the sun shining, the sky so beautiful and blue, on something filled with such horrors and sadness.

I expected to feel a lot of things at Auschwitz. I expected to feel sadness, confusion, anger, and uncontrollable grief. And I did. But above all, the emotion I felt was numbness. It was almost as if what I felt was so horrible, I couldn’t feel anything at all. In a way, I guess I’m only human. How can anyone ever comprehend, or feel anything while standing in the exact place where almost one million innocent men, women, and children were murdered for absolutely no rhyme or reason? I’ve tried asking myself, “Why?” and “How?” but It’s impossible. I do not believe that any normal person is capable of applying actual human logic to Hitler or the Nazis. In Sophie’s Choice, William Styron quotes, “‘Someday I will understand Auschwitz.’ This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will ever understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: Someday I will write about Sophie’s life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world. Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable.”

The first part of Auschwitz I includes a guided tour, and consists of walking through the streets and of the former camp as well as the renovated quarters of former prisoners. I was surprised at how okay I was, until we arrived at the buildings where prisoner’s left-behind possessions were kept. The first room consists of 2 tons of human hair. Two tons of shaven human hair.

Our guide told us what we were going to see. But it still didn’t prepare me for the reality. I think that was the first time I actually remember being physically sick to my stomach. I actually felt myself slightly keel over, gag, and become physically weak at the knees. And then before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face, and I tried to suppress the sobs. I couldn’t look at the walls, at the hair, for more than a few seconds at a time. I physically couldn’t.

Next came the giant pile of thousands of glasses and spectacles. Then, the thousands of labeled suitcases. The two entire rooms filled with shoes. The pots and pans thrown into a pit, in a never-ending pile. Signs of hope the prisoners had to begin a new life here in Poland. With the exception of human hair, we were allowed to take pictures, but I just couldn’t do it. I really couldn’t.

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Tins of gas used within the showers to kills thousands of innocent people.

From there we moved onto the Memorial Wall, where thousands of prisoners were shot for absolutely no reason. A wall this horrible shouldn’t look so beautiful.

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What really got me was seeing the camps’ living conditions, the aligning hallways filled with “mugshots” of the “prisoners” in their striped “uniforms,” scripted with their names, their prisoner number, and dates they were born, entered, and died in Auschwitz. The average lifespan was between 3-4 months. I wanted to look at each and every individual in the face, and give them the respect they deserved. I wanted to say something, anything, to every person in these photos, and tell them that I was there, and that I cared, and that I was so sorry this happened to them. We ended the tour in some of the previous gas chambers and furnaces used to burn prisoners.

From there we moved on to the second part of the tour, at Birkenau (Auschwitz II).

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This iconic picture is all too real. It’s here that the selection process was made: upon descending from the train, men and women/children were split into two separate lines. From there a doctor would decide, within a matter of seconds, if a person was made fit to work. If he or she was, they went to the right. If they were not, they were sent to the left- to the gas chambers.

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From there, we too, made our way to the gas chambers, or at least what remained of them. They were bombed and destroyed by the Nazis at the end of the war, in attempt to cover up the crimes committed.

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We also had the pleasure of witnessing a beautiful ceremony performed by Jewish men and women from Israel, paying respect to their ancestor’s who had perished in Auschwitz.

Finally, we visited a memorial of human ashes, the sleeping quarters (three stories of wooden planks- 8 to a bed), with a cement floor and wooden roof and absolutely no insulation. The final stop was to the toilets, which prisoners had the privilege of visiting twice per day.

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Human ashes memorial

I’m glad I went to Auschwitz, and although I’ve managed to write it down, I’m not really ready to speak about it. Even re-reading what I’ve written makes me realize that the final paragraphs describing the things we saw are lacking emotion. But I promise it’s there. It’s just that even thinking back to everything I saw still makes me feel numb.

“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940 – 1945”

Bisous,

Dana

10 thoughts on “Auschwitz: “Work Will Set You Free”

  1. Hi there Dana,

    Very heartfelt post in my opinion, so thanks for sharing.
    I do wish to point out though, if I may — you say “The Holocaust is the largest mass-murder in the history of mankind,” but actually it is only 3rd largest (30 million victims), after killings under Mao Zedong (60 million) & Joseph Stalin (40 million).

    We truly live in an unbelievable world, for both the good and the bad.

  2. Hi there, I’ve never been to a concentration camp but read every word you wrote. I don’t know if I’d be strong enough to see everything on display. The amount of hate in the world then and now is just too much sometimes. I get what you mean though about feeling numb. I had an emotional reaction to the 9/11 memorial and museum when I visited for the first time while home in September and it was really hard reliving that day — was just all too real because I was in lower Manhattan on 9/11/01. The personal effects of people were on display at the museum along with photos and audio and video. It was all tastefully done but I had to leave early and didn’t really want to talk about it after. My heart goes out to everyone who lost their lives in these horrible tragedies. ;-( Well-done post.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Diane. It’s amazing the amount of anti-semitism that exists especially in Europe, and even France. It’s not something I have ever been exposed to, so it’s something I have a hard time even “understanding” the history behind it– in the same way I’ve never understood the discrimination of people of color, women, LGBTQ, etc.

      I went to NYC in 2004 and 2009, but the memorial wasn’t what it is today, and I would like to go see it as well. I can imagine the feeling would be very similar. I can’t believe you were in Manhattan the day of the attack. Wow. Visiting sites like these are one of those shared experiences that people don’t need to talk about in order to share and understand each other’s feelings.

  3. This is very similar to what I experienced when I visited Dachau. I feel Auschwitz may be more visceral because they have the possessions of the prisoners who were kept there on display, including their hair. Dachau does not have anything like that but you do walk through the gas chamber during the guided tour. No one is sure the gas chamber was ever used, though I think it was–any historical record may have been destroyed by the Nazis. I remember taking a picture inside the gas chamber and then deleting it from my camera because it just didn’t feel right. I also couldn’t bring myself to take a picture of the whipping block. In fact, the whole concentration camp system started with Dachau (and it was also the longest running). What got to me most were pictures of the bodies of dead prisoners piled up everywhere when the Americans finally arrived to liberate Dachau. I’m not sure if I could visit Auschwitz to be honest–Dachau was upsetting enough.

    1. If I get the chance, I think I would go to Dachau. I agree with you, some of the pictures just felt wrong to take. There were not any pictures of piles of dead bodies of Auschwitz, but I can only imagine what kind of feelings those photos would bring. Thanks for your comment.

  4. It feels weird to “like” this post because it’s about a place and crimes that are so horribly unfathomable. I’m also one of those people who finds the Holocaust horrifically intriguing—I seek out Holocaust literature and films (have you seen “Nuit et Brouillard” by Alain Resnais?) and I also really want to visit concentration camps (and am perversely jealous that you and Anne visited Auschwitz).

    I’ve felt a similar numbness to what you described just in reading and hearing about the Holocaust and I can’t imagine how magnified the numbness and the shock are when you’re face to face with the reality of it all and there isn’t a screen or a page that you can cling to to distance yourself from it.

    1. Thanks for your comment and your book recommendations. I will definitely check them out!

      Definitely hard to put things like this on such a lighthearted platform. Sometimes you just have a mutual understanding with those whom have experienced similar things

  5. Wow. Thank you for sharing. It is such a reminder of how horrible and massive something become from profiling/labeling/discriminating. I can’t imagine the emotions you experienced. I assume Hnry Golde is who you saw/heard at UW OshKosh? He came to Horning Middle School and I brought Allie & Maddie to hear. So moving. We can all learn so much from him. I recall him saying, “I dont hate Nazis. I don’t hate anyone. Hatred is what caused this all to happen.” I cried listening to him, I dont know that I would be strong enough to visit a former concentration camp.

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