I stepped into hell a little over twenty years ago. I paid to get there.
In September of 1999, I took a tour bus from Krakow to Auschwitz and Birkenau. I was traveling alone and bought my ticket at the Jewish bookstore instead of from the hotel. I figured people buying tickets at the little bookstore stood more of a chance to be going for the right reasons.
The bus was small; on board were eleven tourists, a guide and a driver. I took a seat next to the window near the front. My fellow travelers were loud and abrasive, even in the early morning hours. After about ninety minutes, we arrived in a massive parking lot, the kind you’d expect to find outside a football stadium. I carried my camera, but took no photos.
Our super perky tour guide herded us off the bus and immediately brought the group over to the remains of one of the showers. The showers that released Zyklon B on the unsuspecting occupants, packed together like sardines inside the concrete structure, until they were dead. Inside, the guide said, we’d see claw marks against the concrete from people desperate to escape. My fellow tourists all marched down to the site. I refused. I knew what they did to my people in those showers.
I waited alongside the structure, shaking, until they returned, laughing and joking. Then we walked into Auschwitz, underneath the “Arbeit Mein Frei” sign, “work sets you free.” Inside Auschwitz, we learned far more about the political prisoners than any other group. We were shown the torture barracks, the hanging yard and other brutal spots, but the focus was on the Poles and the political prisoners. Jews were practically invisible in a place that served as the cemetery for so many.
We moved on to the exhibitions – the glass case filled with hair shorn from humans, the massive piles of shoes stolen from their owners before their death or enslavement, the luggage waiting for reclamation. It was overwhelming. Tears streamed down my face without me noticing. How could people do this to other humans?
From there, we were taken to Birkenau, coming in at the back of the camp. Birkenau was built for the express purpose of exterminating the Jews. The Final Solution. At the back entrance was a memorial – for the Russians, the Poles, the Gypsies, the Homosexuals and the Jews. Once again, minimized despite the magnitude of the loss.
I stepped away from the group, over to a small pond, looking for beauty amidst the horror. I didn’t find it. The pond was grey from the bones and bone fragments that lined the shore. I shuddered and walked away, hoping my shoes weren’t carrying someone’s remains.
As we walked through the camp, we saw the railway stop, where people who had somehow survived days of travel stuffed into cattle cars without food or water were unloaded and sorted. Selected, as they called it. To the gas chambers, to the medical experiments, to enslavement. All in the blink of an eye.
I entered one of the wooden barracks. Inside, the dark room, the temperature dropped about twenty degrees. Some of the wooden bed frames had names and initials carved, as if something would remember the occupant. I stared at the beds, knowing three or four people shared each bunk. I inhaled. The smell has never left me. The scent of disinfectant, death, cold, fear, hate, of pure evil.
I stumbled from the barrack; my eyes blinded by so many tears. Outside, it was warmer, but I felt as though I’d never be warm again.
Guard towers lined the walls, making sure no one could escape from hell.
I still haven’t.
Today, we commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz seventy-five years ago.
I wish we’d learn.