Spring Break, Part 4 (Auschwitz)

Destination #6: Poland

My trip to Poland was especially hard to write about, but I did not want to leave this part of the trip out of the blog. Our trip to Auschwitz is something that profoundly impacted me and it is worth sharing.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Becca and I caught a night train from Vienna to Oświęcim which was cheap and worked out well because we had the whole cabin to ourselves so we could sleep. Turns out we both slept horribly but it was a good option in theory. It just ended up being a good example of “you get what you pay for.” From the train station it was a kind of short, kind of long walk to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Walking through the neighborhoods surrounding the concentration camp, it put us both in a somber mood before we even arrived. The skies were cloudy and gray, it was chilly, black crows were flying overhead, and I couldn’t help but think about all of the people who were sent to this terrible place, the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. In the whole scheme of the world, the time of the concentration camps wasn’t too long ago, just in the 1940s. It hurt my heart to think about all of the things that went on behind the gates we walked under, reading “Arbeit macht frei” which translates into “Work is liberating.”

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We walked through the blocks used for the men’s camp, the blocks used for the women’s camp, the blocks for Soviet prisoners of war, and the blocks where both women and the sick were subjected to medical experiments. The SS doctors specifically utilized the women prisoners for sterilization experiments.

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A lot these blocks are now used for the displays explaining the different areas of the concentration camp, and so as you walked through, there were artifacts, explanations and things to read. One of the buildings we entered housed different displays of the evidence of the mass murders – prisoners’ clothing and property that was taken from them upon their arrival to Auschwitz. Walking though this building was emotionally one of the hardest parts for me. Upon arrival, all prisoners had their heads shaved. This hair was found and used as evidence of the committed crimes. This hair is now part of a display, and piles upon piles of hair rest untouched behind a wall of glass on both sides of the room. Also upon arrival, the prisoners’ clothes were taken from them before they were given a uniform. This included all of their shoes. Which leads to the fact that there is another room housing the hall of shoes. I think a person’s shoes say a lot about them, and these shoes definitely have so many stories to tell. About 110,000 shoes are piled up behind the glass walls on either side of the room. Other rooms housed piles of glasses, brushes, suitcases, and other personal items that people were forced to leave behind. Little did they know, they would never see their things again. One last exhibit that made a lasting impact on me was the exhibit having to do with the medical experiments. It also had enlarged photos of women who were prisoners in Auschwitz, taken after they had been in the camp for a long time, literally starving to death. They were reduced to skin and bones and weighed a fourth of their initial weight when they entered the camp. I have never seen anything like it and even just recalling the images is difficult to stomach.

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One of the last things we did at the camp was walk through the gas chambers. As I sit here and write this, I cannot help but be filled with sadness as I remember the overwhelming grief that enters your body as you enter the chamber where unsuspecting people awaited mass murder.

Overall, the Nazis sent at least 1,300,000 people to Auschwitz, a majority of them Jews, but also including Poles, Gypsies,, Soviet prisoners of war, and people of other ethnic groups. Also, of the 1,300,000 people who were in Auschwitz, 1,100,000 of them died there, a majority from the gas chambers.

Becca and I had planned to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau too, but after seeing Auschwitz, we decided that was about all we could handle. Overall, I didn’t take many pictures from Auschwitz because I didn’t feel right taking them. I am, however, immensely glad I had the chance to see this place with my own eyes, remembering all of the research I did back in high school on the topic. This is a place I think everyone needs to see because it is a part of world history that shaped our lives today.

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A half a day in Krakow, Poland concluded our spring break trip, and the next morning we caught our flight back to Dublin. Overall, the wide breadth of experiences Becca and I had were irreplaceable, breathtaking, moving, and impactful. The amount of the world we were able to experience during the short two week break was impressive, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

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I am sending a big thank you to Becca for being a wonderful travel partner, and to everyone else who encouraged me to take this trip. It was filled to the brim with life-changing experiences, my eyes have been opened to the world, and I could not be more blessed!

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