A personal journey back to Auschwitz

by Beacon Staff • November 16, 2005

In April of 2004, I visited the Auschwitz camp complex during the March of the Living, an annual program that brings thousands of Jewish high school students from around the world to Poland and Israel. The actual March of the Living event takes place on the internationally-recognized Yom HaShoah-Holocaust Remembrance Day-and includes a walk from Auschwitz I to its more notorious counterpart, Auschwitz II-Birkenau. What was once a journey to death has been transformed into a march of life. To have many thousands of exuberant Jewish youths, full of potential, trample on Hitler's Final Solution was as life-affirming a scene as could ever be. The March of the Living, however, was an orchestrated way to bear witness. Now, not even two years later, three friends and I traveling through Poland had a day to quietly and independently explore the frightening capability of humanity. The emotional trek began in painfully ironic fashion: on a train. Not wanting to join one of the many bus tours, the only means to reach the camp was by rail. The age of both the train and the tracks was apparent, but this was obviously incomparable to the abhorrent conditions endured when the camp functioned. Unlike all those swallowed by Nazi megalomania, I ate a light breakfast while seated in a warm coach. I enjoyed freedom of movement, while they had been forced to stand in place. I had the choice to travel here; their fate was externally determined. I had a return ticket; theirs was one-way. My cost was financial (14 zlotys); their cost was mortal.

Roughly 70 minutes after departing Krakow, the train pulled into a sparse station. A light fog blanketed the tracks and the sun struggled to penetrate the biting air. The four witnesses walked through the quiet town and soon arrived at the camp.

Auschwitz I is now a museum. As such, the sturdily constructed, multistoried brick barracks that once housed Polish soldiers, then Soviet POWs and finally European Jews are now used for exhibit halls. A few have been converted to administrative offices and some are closed to the public entirely. As a result, Auschwitz today has the feel of a sterile portal to peer into a horrific past.

Very few of the barracks actually present the portrait of daily life in Auschwitz. Most are dedicated to the various nationalities interred there. There is an exhibit for the Austrian Jews, the Yugoslav Jews, and the Jews from Italy and France, and I find this rather inconsequential. The suffering transcended national boundaries, so to divide those tortured in Auschwitz into their respective geographic origins is a rather moot endeavor.

The barracks preserving evidence of Nazi atrocities, however, are entirely different stories. That this was my second time encountering the combs, pots and pans, luggage, eyeglasses, hair, shoes and other symbols of life made it no less significant. A substantial shiver pulsed through me at the sight of the hair, encased behind glass in a compartment extending the entire length of the room. Much of it remains in the style fashioned by the victim on the day of gassing. Several exaggerated seconds passed before I could step into the oblong corridor containing the shoes; so many are there that they fill both sides of the corridor, inevitably and fully enveloping all who enter.

We spent four hours in Auschwitz I, finishing in the gas chamber after first visiting the barrack used by the subhuman Doctor Josef Mengele for his [author incapable of finding appropriate adjective] experiments. Many of those who spent time here drew their last breaths in the adjacent courtyard where thousands of executions were performed. The property is hallowed ground; these places were constructed solely to exterminate whole sections of humanity. Imprisonment in a camp, however, did not explicitly guarantee one's death. Entering the gas chamber did. Thus, to exit the gas chamber is probably the most subtly significant feat a person could ever accomplish. The mere act of leaving this place was a simple impossibility for more than one million people.

Birkenau is also sickeningly enormous, extending far beyond the most visible portions of the camp-the shoddy wooden dormitories that housed hundreds-and penetrating deep into the idyllic surroundings. These open, seemingly untouched meadows were designated for camp expansion, but by the brutal end were instead used as improvised, open-air crematoria and mass graves. In those chaotic last days, with the SS destroying evidence of its atrocities while simultaneously hastening the perpetuation of them, many were thrown into the fires alive.

A total of seven hours were consumed touring the remnants of the cruelest genocide in human history, which made for a fulfilling experience but also a desensitizing one. There came a moment when none of us could process any more of the grotesque information. But, on some level of consciousness, the data were stored. I can never stress enough how imperative it is that every single person, regardless of demographic, visit a site of Nazi genocide in his/her lifetime, preferably during the younger years.

I have no regard and no sympathy for those who say, "I want to go, but I can't. It would be just too difficult." My answer to this is blunt: "too bad." Life is not only about what one may want to do, but also about what one must do. It is every human being's solemn moral obligation to bear witness to the Holocaust because Hitler manifested a human tragedy, not just a Jewish one. The world ignored the Holocaust when it happened, but now we must force ourselves to remember it always. This is especially important for younger generations, for we are the guardians of the past and creators of the future.

But the Holocaust cannot be contemplated in a vacuum. To remember is not enough; remembrance must spur action. We must pledge ourselves to 11 million stolen souls and the fulfillment of the phrase, "never again." In spite of technological, societal and supposed moral advancement since the second World War, genocide and ethnic hatred continue to plague the planet. But suffering is only status quo when the world's benevolent watchdogs sleep.

Really, we do retain the means to stop such atrocities and transform the world into a better, more perfect place. The lessons of the Holocaust cannot exist in theory when there is much to apply them to in reality.

Enduring Auschwitz leaves one not merely saddened or angered or distraught. More than anything, I boarded the train back to Krakow feeling intensely privileged and fortunate. Simply due to the fickle nature of time I was able to egress from the gas chamber unscathed, leave the camp entirely at a time of my choosing, use a clean wash cloth to wash and dry my hands, eat when and what I pleased, laugh with friends and write these very words. I could easily have lived then, but I didn't. I live now, and that night, dining in a classy restaurant with close friends, we toasted to this incredible stroke of luck.

William Glucroft is a sophomore print journalism major and a contributer to The Beacon.