I recently had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Nazi concentration camp.
It is near Krakow, Poland, and you can visit and take a guided or unguided tour.
Auschwitz is a set of blockhouses that you walk through to see the process of selecting and exterminating prisoners. In Auschwitz you get a glimpse of the horrible conditions, and the shear number of people who came to, and died in, this prison camp.
You then take a bus or shuttle over to Birkenau, about a mile away. It is in its untouched condition from when the camps were liberated in 1945. And for as far as the eye can see there are chimneys from the demolished barracks. There are watch towers, and an endless ghost town of horror. You can see the remains of the killing room and crematoria, and the International Memorial of the Nazi Victims.
It was horrifying and terrifying, and sobering, and so much more.
I want to share the top 5 reasons I think everyone should visit Auschwitz at least once, and why I never want to return, but am sure I will.
Reason One: It makes it far more personal.
I have known for many years about the atrocities that went on at this extermination camp. I have heard the stories of the prison warden’s wife having lamp shades made from human skin, and of the gas chambers.
They were sad, they were unfortunate, but they were distant. They were statistics, facts, and numbers, and just stories, from a war that happened before I was born, and seemed far away. But the truth is it was not that long ago, with people much like me. It is a plane ride away.
Visiting the camp, and seeing the pictures, the buildings, and the items left behind made it so real. I began to relate.
I began to think, what if that was my child? Or me? Would I have survived? Would I have been able to pick gold from dead people’s teeth? Would I have been able to keep hope and faith alive?
I have no answers, but I know that those “stories” took on far greater and more personal meaning to me after my visit. Standing there, and seeing the vastness of Birkenau, and realizing that this is a place where millions of people were imprisoned and killed, made it more real than any movie, history book, documentary, or historian could ever do.
Reason Two: It promotes gratitude.
Walking through the buildings and grounds of Auschwitz and Birkenau was depressing. I felt heavy, sick to my stomach, and had a lump in my throat from the first room I entered. Seeing the piles of hair, shoes, and personal belongings was devastating in a way I never imagined. And yet it was also humbling.
I felt so much gratitude for my own circumstances. For my own problems and trials. For my family, for my country. Gratitude overwhelmed me as I walked and looked and listened. I was not grateful this tragedy occurred, but I am grateful that my trials in comparison are so minor. It gave me so much perspective about the “trials” and “problems” in my own government, because as awful as it is sometimes, or discouraging as it feels, and as much as I feel like certain policies or people are harming my country, at least it isn’t like what happened in the Holocaust.That perspective is invaluable.
**Note: I have edited this post because of the way a single comment about the perspective I gained about my own political administration has been taken, twisted, and presented in ways never intended, or expressed. People are going to see what they want to see, and will find reasons to hate no matter what. However, because it was causing hatred, and meanness, and because if I learned anything at Auschwitz it is that hatred and meanness can lead to horrible, unspeakable things, I deleted it. If I can do anything at all to have less hatred in this world, less ugliness, less cruelty, and less meanness, I am going to do it. I thought about this a lot, this is my space, and my post, and my feelings, and I don’t need to change them because you disagree with me. But I will change what I wrote in order to help promote more love and more peace. Because that is what the world needs more of.
Reason Three: It educates.
A visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is eye opening. It is hard to wrap your head around how so many people could be involved in the hatred, cruelty, and mass murder of so many others.
I couldn’t help but think: How??? How could this happen? How could anyone kill a little child, or a man, or a woman, just for being a Jew?
And the only answer I could come up with was ignorance and propaganda. The Nazi propaganda machine skillfully exploited the lack of knowledge of millions, to the point that entire nations and religious communities were put at risk for extermination.
Seeing this made me commit to being more vigilant in educating myself, and widening my views, love, and perspective. The facts and tidbits learned while touring were educating, but the impact was far more so.
Reason four: It gives hope.
As I walked through the many buildings, and heard tales of the horrible things that happened there, I couldn’t help but notice some of the beauty. The young man holding his sibling. The individuals helping others, the sacrifices people made. The hope these people had for a brighter future. Did you know some Jews purchased their tickets to Auschwitz? They thought they were going somewhere better. Little did they know.
In the rubble, in the piles of shoes, hair brushes, and luggage, there was proof of human dignity, honor, patriotism, devotion to family, love, and hope of survival. Even in the most extreme situation, where the chances of living even a few months were slim, there was compassion, love, friendship, and more. This gives me hope.
Reason five: To Remember.
I will never forget. A visit to Auschwitz seared in my mind and heart the horrors of the past, and a commitment to prevent them from happening in the future.
It is far too easy to become blasé about this history. To think, “It could never happen again.” And to carry on without a second thought. But living history is important, and the scars from this conflict are there, waiting to be seen.
Remembering these horrors, visiting and seeing them, can help to insure we never repeat them. They can help us to avoid religious intolerance, persecution of minorities, bigotry, hatred, abuse, and discrimination.
As we were boarding our plane to visit Poland, there was a girl in the line in front of us with a swastika tattoo behind her ear. At the time, I rolled my eyes, and thought, “To each her own, I guess.” But after visiting Auschwitz, I couldn’t help but feel sick for her. I hope for better for my children. I hope to educate them and help them see and know that hatred and persecution is not okay. And that challenging prejudice, discrimination, and hatred should be a priority.
This post is going live today, on Memorial Day, so instead of a Mother’s May highlight, we would like to post this as a tribute to so many who protect our freedoms, who fight against the very things I saw at Auschwitz. I am so grateful for them, and I am so grateful for the experience I had of visiting this truly horrible place. It left me with a dark, depressed, and sickened feeling, and while I never want to return, I am determined to take my children to see for themselves what ignorance and hate can result in. Even writing this post I am again feeling heavy and sorrowful. And so it is with gratitude that I thank our troops, and those who have lost their lives in honor and freedom of religious belief, freedom from persecution, freedom from prejudice’s name and more.