"Sometimes even to live is an act of courage."
~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca
As a teenager raised in a comfortable middle-class home I was shielded from all the horrors of the world. All I knew of terror was what I saw in movies and read in books. Each time I heard of war, ethnic cleansing, abuses of power, or even murders in my hometown, I always felt disconnected from them. Maybe that was how our society wanted it to be so that the youth of today would feel safe and secure. Then September 11th happened and my world of blissful ignorance was shaken. For the first time I had a taste of just how bad things could get. Yet in the months that followed once again I distanced myself from such matters because I really didn't want to believe something so horrible really existed. That is the way it remained until our family visited Europe a year ago. When my family left for Europe that summer, I remember being a little apprehensive about our planned day trip to an old World War II concentration camp. I was curious but I was also afraid. I knew that I would be walking on ground where people died terrible deaths, but still the reality didn''t sink in. To me it was just another murder story. Nothing was as fresh or as horrible as 9/11. Back then I wasn't prepared for the truth; but now I have realized that I was long past due.
When my family left for Europe last summer, I remember being a little apprehensive about our planned day trip to an old World War II concentration camp. I was curious but I was also afraid. I knew that I would be walking on ground where people died terrible deaths, but still the reality didn't sink in. To me it was just another murder story. Nothing was as fresh or as horrible as 9/11. Back then I wasn't prepared for the truth; but now I have realized that I was long past due.
After spending time in Western Europe we moved into Poland. When we arrived in the sleepy town of Oswiecim it seemed to be an eerily quiet place. People continued to live there now like in any other town, seemingly oblivious to the remains near by. It was here that during World War II the Nazis built what became their most dreaded concentration camp: Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was a Nazi concentration camp located in southern Poland near the city of Krakow. Established in 1940, it was used firstly to house Polish political prisoners and criminals. Soon, however, Auschwitz became one of the chief instruments of Hitler's "Final Solution," to liquidate all the Jews of Europe. Along the way Auschwitz collected the leading figures of all the nationalities in Eastern Europe who were considered "enemies," of Nazi Germany. Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Czechoslovakians, Albanians, French, Russian, Romanians, Gypsies - even homosexuals and the mentally disabled were imprisoned here. Over the next five years, through starvation, exhaustion and just plain murder, the Nazi's managed to kill over 1.5 million people in this concentration camp.
We started our tour in the first building, a world-renowned museum. As we took a moment to peer at pictures that hung on the walls, I thought to myself, "Oh great, another museum tour." I did not expect to actually walk on the ground of a former concentration camp. We entered a room, where our tour guide was waiting. He smiled, told us his name and said, "Welcome to Auschwitz."
"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames, which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments, which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never." - Elie Wiesel, describing his first night in Auschwitz in his autobiography, "Night"
As we walked outside and towards the compound, we saw electric fences with barbed wire along the top to our left. It was on these electric fences where many prisoners tried to gain freedom but only found their death. The sight of these fences made me feel uneasy. These fences had caused pain, great pain to many people. I identified my feelings of uneasiness as fear. I swallowed hard and kept walking.
We entered the camp under a gate, which said, "Arbeit Macht Frei," which means, "Work Shall Set You Free." In a perverse way those words were literally true. Hard labor with no food or sleep would give you freedom - freedom in the form of death. As we walked through the gate our guide told us that at times there would be an orchestra playing there. Made up of inmates, the orchestra was forced to "greet" new prisoners as they arrived. A small comfort for nothing. To our right was the registration building where prisoners were tattooed and thus given the mark that would forever remind them of their suffering if their nightmares were not enough. When you entered Auschwitz you no longer were a human being. You no longer had a name. Instead you became a number.
"On 1 October 1943, I entered Birkenau, sometimes known as Auschwitz II. That was the day I stopped being Stefan Petelycky and became number 154922." - From Stefan Petylycky's autobiography, "Into Auschwitz, For Ukraine."
To our left was the kitchen where only once daily food was made for the prisoners. The kitchen reminded me of John Lahola, our family friend, who survived Auschwitz and after the war immigrated to Canada. In his memoirs he spoke about the strict regime of this camp where attempts to escape were punished by torture and death. It was here that Lahola also came face to face with another equally insidious threat to his survival: hunger.
As the SS guards cut back on food rations, famine stalked the camp. In the face of starvation the pursuit of any form of nourishment became a never-ending obsession. But to be caught stealing even one extra crumb of bread meant immediate death. Corpses piled up as one prisoner after another succumbed to his hunger or was caught stealing food by the guards. As we walked past the kitchen I remembered John Lahola relating how he survived the three terrifying years he spent in Auschwitz.
A kitchen worker, Lahola was forced to carry large pots of soup from the kitchen to the serving area. I remembered Lahola telling me that before he picked up the pots, he would wrap a rag around his hand. Then he would slightly stumble on purpose to spill soup on to his cloth so that it soaked up into the thin material. After he finished his work he would quickly go back to his barrack and squeeze the soup from the rag into a cup to feast on these meager servings. This sudden memory made me pause as an unwelcome thought entered my mind. "You know a man who walked on this very ground as a tortured prisoner for three years. You know him." The stark reality of it frightened me.
"When you are no longer able to change a situation, you are challenged to change yourself." ~ Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor.
As we continued our tour, shadows began gathering in the camp, as well as in my mind. We walked through the rows of barracks, each about the size of a school auditorium, pausing to go inside some of them. Inside these buildings were blown up photographs on the walls - pictures of prisoners arriving into this place of pending death. "Such innocent faces," I thought to myself. "Didn't they know to run away? Why did they stay?"
The tour guide told us that when the prisoners arrived they were stripped of their belongings, which were taken to two holding barracks, called Kanada I and Kanada II. Ironically these barracks were named after Canada, a place highly regarded all over the world, but hard to get to.
We continued to walk through different rooms, most the size of a classroom, where the belongings of many people were piled high behind a glass casing. The glass casing divided the rooms in half and we stood behind it gazing upon the truth. Eyeglasses, hairbrushes, toothbrushes, combs, and suitcases piled high enough that they almost reached the ceilings.
Some of the suitcases had names on them. These things didn't just belong to anybody they belonged to somebody. An actual person. A human being. A person stripped of everything, including their humanity, and here was the physical proof. Each item was a reminder of the person it belonged to. Each item was a testament to its owner's murder.
Then we entered a room that was the largest of them all. Never in my life did I think I would see something so raw, so robbed of its humanity. Behind the glass casing laid 7000 kilos of human hair. After the prisoners were poisoned with Zyklon B in the crematoria their hair was removed from their lifeless bodies and brought here. I prayed that witnessing that horror was a dream, a nightmare. But no, it was very real. We began to walk again.
We walked to the end of the barracks until two buildings, "Block 10," and "Block 11," came into view. We stopped between those two buildings where there was a small courtyard with a wooden wall at the end. I was puzzled. What was so important about this courtyard?
The tour guide pointed to our left and said, "That was the building where Dr. Joseph Mengele and over two hundred other doctors performed numerous "scientific experiments" on inmates from the camps. For example, they would experiment on twins and dwarves to try and find out what made them different from the Aryan race. In one case, the doctor sewed a pair of twins together to make them conjoined twins. After the experiments the doctor would kill his subjects by injecting chloroform into their hearts. Then he would study their organs. In other cases the doctors sterilized women, literally killing them from the inside out, first destroying the womb and then the rest of the body. Often, before the women died they were raped to test the effectiveness of various forms of birth control." I could feel the color drain from my face. A thousand girls my age had seen hell here and I was afraid? I didn't have the right! The tour guide pointed to the building on our right.
"That building was referred to as "The House of Death," he said. There prisoners were punished by being tortured to death. It was also where prisoners were "tried" for their crimes, and then, sent to the execution wall that is directly in front of us. Over 20, 000 people were murdered at gun point there." He pointed to the wooden wall. I looked down at the ground and wondered where all the blood had gone. Twenty thousand people had spilled their blood over this courtyard, shot to death and there was no blood. Why wasn't the ground stained permanently from the blood? The years had washed the blood away but their memory remains.
Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured... anyone who has suffered torture never again will be able to be at ease in the world. ~Jean Amery (Auschwitz survivor)
We moved into Block 11, and the tour guide showed us the rooms where the SS guards stayed and worked. Most had whole rooms to themselves while in all the other barracks from 700 to 1000 people were shoved together in a shelter that normally housed 200. We entered the basement where the prison cells were. This was a prison within the prison used for torture. We walked past solitary rooms, which were used to starve inmates to death. Other rooms with no windows were used to suffocate inmates. We came upon cells, which were used for exhaustion. These cells had only a little square passage at the bottom used as a door. With the entire cell being not much larger than a closet, it was meant to hold one man uncomfortably in solitary confinement. But in Auschwitz four or more inmates were confined in that cell together. There was only enough room to stand shoulder to shoulder. This resulted in their exhaustion. "It was here in one of the rooms in the basement where Zyklon B was first tested on inmates," said the tour guide. I found tears were flowing down my cheeks, and I wanted to laugh. I didn't know when I started crying, it was like I was beyond emotion. We then went outside, past the barracks to the other side of the camp, past a hospital and past apartments of senior officers. There was only one place left to visit.
As we walked past a hill the guide told us that the camp commandant, Rudolph Hoess, was hung on a platform here following the Nuremberg trials. "A suitable place for him to die" I thought to myself. From there we could see the top of a large chimney above the trees. We walked past the trees and suddenly it came fully into view. The ground seemed to fall away from my feet and I felt dizzy. This moment was the one I had been dreading most. Surely we wouldn't enter this place where evil, ash, and blood were forever trapped in its foundations. I remember telling myself to calm down, that we were only going to look, and then walk away. But then the tour guide and my family moved ahead. Shaking, I reluctantly followed.
We entered the first room, the size of a classroom, with low ceilings and no windows. It seemed that everyone in the room stopped breathing. As the tour guide began to speak in a gruff voice, he described how the poisonous Zyklon B gas would flow through showerheads, killing off nine hundred people at a time, twice a day. At that moment I wanted to scream out that I was only sixteen and wasn't ready to be subjected to such horror. It wasn't right. Then I imagined a six- year-old girl on the floor naked and trembling, screaming out for her mother to take her away from this awful place when instead all that came was death. I thought of Anne Frank whose diary I had read. She was my age when she died in the camp. She had questioned the same things I questioned - wondered about her future, like I wondered about mine. Both of us had come to this place and in the end found our answers. While I found answers through witnessing Auschwitz, she found her answers through her own young death. I was the one who was weak, and I was the one who was alive. It wasn't fair. But it was the truth. We moved into the next room.
In the next room, which was just as big as the last, there were tracks on the floor and four open ovens spaced evenly across the room. In front of them were carts that were just big enough to hold two or three human bodies. A bouquet of flowers lay on one of them, a humble memorial to the lives lost there. I was overcome with sadness. All I could do was stare. The tour guide's voice began to fade from my hearing. One and a half million and more people died on the ground I was standing on. How could this happen?
I walked up to one of the stoves and peered in. For a moment, I imagined the acrid and putrid smell of human fat burning and a body being charred to ashes. I stepped away and for the first time looked at my family. They were just as ashen faced as I was and their faces were gripped in grim lines. We all stood in the room in silence, just letting the permeating feeling of death sink into our bones. This was a feeling we would never forget.
As we left the building our tour guide pointed to the empty space in front of us. He said, "Often there were too many corpses so the guards had to take the bodies to empty trenches to burn them there. This area in front of us was where they would pile up the bodies until they were taken away." This reminded me of Stefan Petelycky, who like John Lahola, was placed into Auschwitz for being in the Ukrainian underground which during the Second World War fought against both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In the last days of the war, while Petelycky was still in the camps he collapsed from exhaustion and severe illness. Still alive, his body was thrown on top of a pile of corpses. He didn't have the strength to move himself away. He lay there until two friends of his came by and saw his body still twitching beneath the pile of corpses. They rescued him. Today he lives in Vancouver Canada.
"The camps remind us that evil is real and must be called by name and must be opposed." ~President George Bush, on a recent trip to the camps, May, 2003
As we walked outside I began to feel weak and completely deflated. My father asked the tour guide why he worked at Auschwitz. The guide answered that he felt it was necessary to tell people the story of Auschwitz because it was something that should never be forgotten. As we walked back toward the museum I looked upon the profile of an endless row of barracks. I knew that this image would haunt me for the rest of my life. I thought to myself, "How incredible it must have been to survive Auschwitz, to live a normal life after surviving this hell and be able to continue on with life." I wondered if ever I was placed in the same situation if I would be able to do so. Survive and live? I realized that no one can completely understand Auschwitz for to truly understand Auschwitz you would have to be dead.
As the philosopher George Santayana once said, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." The greatest weapon we have is human awareness. We gain the power to stop such atrocities from happening again if we become aware of how they happened in the past. Auschwitz was not the first human atrocity, nor as 9/11 so painfully reminded us, would it be the last. We must never forget such events because to do so would be a great insult to every life that was lost. But just knowing that evil exists in the world isn't enough. We must realize that we have the power to prevent it. As Albert Einstein said, "The world is too dangerous to live in - not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen."