A dim light reflects off blue-stained concrete walls. There are cracks in the wall, yet the structure is still pretty solid. There are no windows or doors to let the sunlight in. A low ceiling causes voices to echo inside.
The feeling of walking through a gas chamber in Auschwitz, the largest concentration camp located near Warsaw, Poland, was something I could never have experienced by reading a textbook or watching ‘Schindler’s List.’
Millions of prisoners were executed in chambers like this. Surrounding the gas chambers were crematoria, with tall brick chimneys and wooden doors.
All of the gas chambers, crematoria and living quarters were, for the most part, very much intact. Even the stains from Zyklon-B, the poisonous vapor that was released into the gas chambers to kill prisoners, left a painful imprint on the walls.
When I arrived at Auschwitz, hundreds of people were already there taking tours and reading information about the Holocaust. Tour guides made their way through various parts of the large area, narrating facts and figures of the Holocaust. But numbers could only say so much. What I saw said a lot more about what really happened during the Holocaust.
The various displays weren’t just pictures and memorials of the victims, but actual items that once belonged to those who were taken into Auschwitz.
Displays of human hair, shoes, eyeglasses, toothbrushes, luggage, hair brushes and kitchen utensils were heaped into large displays for passersby to see.
As I walked past the displays, the amount of relics that were still intact was unfathomable. Cans marked ‘Zyklon-B’ and signs written in German still laced the barbed-wire fences outside the living quarters. Even the guard towers still have their original ladders and windows.
History was still making itself known here. Auschwitz wasn’t just a place to go learn about the Holocaust and the events leading up to it, but also a place to feel what it was like for so many prisoners who lived under terrible living and working conditions.
When I learned about the Holocaust in my high school history classes, I considered it to be a horrific event that happened a long time ago, without any deeper thought of what it might have been like to experience life in a concentration camp. Actually being there, inside the perimeter of Auschwitz and walking through the same living quarters and gas chambers as the prisoners did many decades ago, made me realize that this history didn’t in fact happen that long ago.
I didn’t just learn more about the Holocaust that day, nor did I learn just ‘how sad’ the place was, but I thought of the past, present and future and what reasons led up to events like the Holocaust.
A concentration camp that included living quarters, outhouses, gas chambers and crematoriums were erected on multiple acres of land. Many of these camps existed all over Poland all because of an instilled hatred of a certain group of people. The feeling of knowing the motives behind the creation of these camps was frightening. I wondered if the hundreds of visitors who passed through Auschwitz that day went away with the same feeling I did. How can hate really affect us?
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