Tip-toeing through history’s hellfire at Auschwitz

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By Shaina Malelu, guest writer

Growing up, I watched World War II documentaries – more specifically of Hitler’s Nazis – with my dad, a history buff who indulged my zeal for world history.

As such, a visit to Auschwitz with my dad was always on my bucket list.

I didn’t know what to expect.

My emotions bounced between eagerness to see this historical site and guilt from my eagerness to see a place that became the epitome of human evil and cruelty.

The documentaries I watched and learned so much from about Hitler’s plan for a superior ‘Aryan’ race did not prepare me for the reality that was Auschwitz.

The bus ride to Auschwitz was somber and cold. Unlike the other tours we had been on in the past week, this one was not filled with the rumble of chatty tourists talking about the scenery that passed us by or their personal accounts of the night before.

Instead, a Nazi documentary played on the small screen at the front of the bus as a prelude to what the remainder of the day would hold.

In an hour we were at Auschwitz I. The barracks originally belonged to the Polish army but was taken over by the Nazis and became the first labour concentration camp in Oświęcim, Poland.

It housed Polish and Soviet political rebels, Jews and outcasts. There were packs of large tourist groups waiting to get in. After security check,our Polish tour guide put her microphone on and led us to the looming main gate dressed with the famous saying, “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work sets you free”.

That was the rouse under which they entered. But there was no freedom. There was no life. It was mockery to the highest degree where human dignity ceased to exist and an army uniform decided whether you lived or died.

“Block 24” – I stared at it. Is this real? All around were rows of brick buildings separated into numbered blocks which, I assumed were housing cells. Deserted, old,giant watch towers and guard posts surrounded the buildings, while double paneled electric barbed wire ran along the outside perimeter as far as my eyes could see.

Old school lamp posts scattered the grounds. Here, time stood still. Auschwitz, now restored as a museum gave us a glimpse into the ideologies the SS implemented at the camps and how Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” was enforced on its people.

There are displays of items such as original log books of incoming prisoners to the camp,candid pictures taken by Nazi guards and statistical figures on the millions of Jews who were murdered there.

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We walked through displays of prisoner artifacts, showcased rooms with rows of straw mattresses lining the floor and the bathrooms that prisoners had to use to strip down before they were taken to the execution wall.

The block that stored prisoners’ belongings, recovered by the Red Army at Liberation, was the one that stood out the most. There were mounds of spectacles, suitcases, crutches, cutlery, dishes and shoes left behind by those killed there.

These were stored to be re-used or sold. Who were the faces behind those spectacles? Names scribbled on suitcases never to see their owners again.

Thousands of kilograms of hair and braids shaved off women who were brought in and murdered were enclosed in a glass case.

The Nazis sold hair to German factories to be used as raw material for
anything possible.

It made me sick to think of the extent of violation and degradation that took place. Human beings were just parts to fuel Nazi Germany’s path to being the most powerful nation in the world. What a warped sense of nationalism!

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Lastly, we were taken to the first gas chamber at the camp. It is recorded that
there could have been as many as 2,500 deaths daily. As I entered into the cold, empty space, I felt uneasy and heavy-hearted.

I wondered what the room would reveal if it could tell the story of what went on in there. The scratches on the walls of people struggling to survive are still prominent. The smell of death still lingers.

The first part of the day was over. Another short ride later, we were at Auschwitz II-Birkenau – the largest death camp built purposefully to kill the maximum number of Jews with the least effort possible.

A place that was feared by all. As I walked under the gate, the vastness of the camp hit me, especially its acres upon acres of flat land full of symmetrical rows of brick barracks and barbed wire fences.

We had been walking for an hour now. My feet were tired and I was freezing cold. How could I feel cold when I had more layers of clothing on and warm boots on my feet than any of the laborers that would have been working there with barely a set of pajama’s on them.

As I stepped back from the group and stood still, an eerie silence filled the air with the faint howl of the wind in the background. The bus ride back to town was worse. The exhaustion of the day showed on the faces of the people on the bus.

I tried to make sense of the thoughts running through my head, but the overload of emotions that consumed me left me feeling numb. The images of oppression, brutality, suffering and violence that surrounded the brave people imprisoned at Auschwitz will never leave me.

What must it have been like to be in a place where human dignity ceased
to exist? Where human life was nothing but a means to an end? A place where death was certain and murder was perfected to an art?

At the end of the day, what are history’s lessons? Have we learnt anything
from the carnage and plunder of the Nazis? Probably not!! Somalia, the Middle
East, Vietnam, the African continent and now to top it all, in the 21st century, a travel ban which the President of the U.S. is trying to enforce, targeting a particular demographic, takes one back to the 1930’s?

Before I embarked on my mini Europe trip, people asked me why I would
want to go see Auschwitz. “That isn’t a vacation”, they said. Yes, it’s no resort in Mexico, but regardless of that fact, I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to go to Auschwitz, take the time to witness first-hand a place and time in history.

The reality of what took place at the camp still lingers in every inch of the site. With the “leaders” of nations that we have in place right now, it is a scary thought.

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