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Our Visit to Auschwitz

January 28, 2015
As we walked through the gates of Auschwitz, someone remarked that 70 years ago, people walking in didn't walk out.  That set the tone for the whole day.

As we walked through the gates of Auschwitz, someone remarked that 70 years ago, people walking in didn’t walk out. That set the tone for the whole day.

This week marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Southern Poland. TAP visited Auschwitz with 28 students in June of 2014. About three years ago, I read an article online that talked about the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Southern Poland. Over the years I’d read countless works of fiction about the Holocaust – Maus by Art Speigleman, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, and tons of non-fiction accounts of the time period, including Anne Frank’s diary, Night by Elie Weisel, and many, many more. All of them hit me in different ways, but for some reason this small article hit me even harder than those truly human stories.

The tracks leading up to Auschwitz's main building.

The tracks leading up to Auschwitz’s main building.

The article simply told the history of the camp – when it opened, what it was used for, when it was liberated, how many people had died there, how many had been saved in the end… Then it went on to say that the camp, which had been a museum, an important museum to educate people on what happened there during WWII, since shortly after the end of the war. However, because the camp was, at that time, nearly 70 years old, it was slowly falling apart. Soon it would become unsafe to allow tourists to visit the site. The Polish government had decided that they couldn’t devote the resources necessary to keep it up. Soon it would close its gates forever.

The article went on to say that the camp was deteriorating quickly. There wasn’t much time left.  The wood buildings were rotting. The paths were eroding. The fences were falling down. The mortar in the brick buildings was crumbling. No one should mourn the loss of a place where such horrors occurred, but the camp, over the years, had become more than a reminder of the horror. It was also a symbol of hope, of humanity, of survival – it was a living reminder of what humanity is not only capable of, but in the end, what we’re capable of overcoming too.

Escape wasn't possible.  Fence after fence kept you in.

Escape wasn’t possible. Fence after fence kept you in.

Having visited another concentration camp (Dachau in southern Germany) a number of years ago, I understood the value of keeping such a place alive and open for future generations to visit. My visit to Dachau still haunts me nine years later. Walking the paths of that camp with three of my 8th grade students, we silently kept one another company as we read the plaques, wandered from building to building, and tried to wrap our brains around the atrocities that took place there. I couldn’t have done that alone, and I couldn’t have handled it in a larger group. A small group of kids, that I knew well, and me. That was it.

You really need to be alone in a place like that, but not totally alone.

We hardly talked that whole day. We all had this sick feeling in the pits of our stomachs as we strolled around. We saw the barracks, the gun towers, the barbed wire fences, the medical facilities where prisoners were tortured in the name of some sort of sick science, and we saw the gas chambers. Finally, we stood in the crematorium. We didn’t cry. None of us. It’s as if we were beyond tears. Tears would have brought relief, and those did come later that night, but in that moment, you’re so overwhelmed by the sadness, the insanity, the fear, the… all you can do is stand there and wonder why? Why?

Why?

There's some sort of twisted beauty to this picture.  Green fields, puffy white clouds, bright blue skies, and those awful fences.  There's some sort of metaphor here, but I can't find it.

There’s some sort of twisted beauty to this picture. Green fields, puffy white clouds, bright blue skies, and those awful fences. There’s some sort of metaphor here, but I can’t find it.

When I read that article that said Auschwitz, the biggest and baddest of the camps, would soon be gone forever, part of me thought – good riddance, but part of me was taken back to walking around the rocky paths of Dachau, knowing that the dust we were kicking up was human ash from the crematorium. Part of me remembered that sick feeling I had in the pit of my stomach for the better part of a day. Part of remembered not being able to answer the only questions the students asked me the entire day – that Why?

All of me remembered that of all the amazing adventures I’ve been lucky enough to have with TAP over the years that visiting Dachau, and taking those students there, was the single most important thing I’ve ever done. It killed me that it looked as if I’d never have a chance to take students to visit Auschwitz and let another group have that experience.

We usually have our trips planned years and years in advance, but that article made us change our schedule. We postponed our South Africa trip for a year, pushing France back as well, so that we could visit Poland in 2014 and make sure we got to Auschwitz before it was gone forever.

So, last summer, twenty-eight students, four teachers, and a handful of parents and grandparents took a tour of Central Europe, starting in Poland.   The first half of our trip kind of traced the Jewish experience in the late 1930s and early 40s. We visited the ghetto in Warsaw, the Holocaust Museum, Oskar Schindler’s factory where we met a Holocaust survivor, and finally – Auschwitz.

Our guide led us through several different areas of the camp.

Our guide led us through several different areas of the camp.

Part of me hoped the experience I’d already had in Dachau would desensitize me to it a bit. I silently hoped that I wouldn’t feel the same way I did eight years earlier. Of course, I wanted my students to feel that feeling. I wanted them to have that sick feeling, that confusion, that uneasy fear. I wanted them to have the same unanswerable questions the first group had. Why?

They did.

So did I.

I hadn’t found an answer yet.

Looking back, I’m glad I did. I’m glad that I haven’t become jaded enough to not feel. I’m also grateful my student got that experience. I’m happy that they felt so lost, so alone, so helpless while standing there in our group of thirty. I’m thrilled that they felt that sick feeling, that they didn’t know what to do with their emotions, and that the tears just wouldn’t come. I’m glad that for the rest of their lives they’ll wonder Why?

Before entering the buildings, the guide explained to us the layout of the camp.

Before entering the buildings, the guide explained to us the layout of the camp.

I cannot even imagine what the people who walked through those gates as prisoners felt. I can’t fathom what really went on in their minds as they tried to survive the horrors of that place. Just walking through the gates as a tourist was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat if it meant being able to show our students what really happened there. I’d do it again, because I know in my heart that it will make them ask the most important question that can be asked about WWII, about Hitler, about the Holocaust, about Dachau, Auschwitz, all the other camps, and atrocities that continue to happen al over the world… Why?

And I’d do it again, because I want to stand there with them, unable to answer their question, knowing that that moment will change them forever. I know that, because it changed me.

You almost didn't know what to do with yourself.  Sometimes you needed to stop listening and stare off into space or take a picture just to get a break.

You almost didn’t know what to do with yourself. Sometimes you needed to stop listening and stare off into space or take a picture just to get a break.

Shortly after our trip was planned, it was announced that two businessmen, (because sometimes the world is sort of perfect, they are a German and an Israeli) had purchased Auschwitz and developed a plan to preserve it for future generations to visit.

Restoration had not begun when we were there, but we did get to see some of the plans. Someday soon, we’ll return to Auschwitz.

Why?

Because it’s important to.

That’s why.

 

Below is a video from our day visiting Auschwitz in June 2015.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. erin seymour permalink
    January 28, 2015 3:47 pm

    we were talking about that in social studies. it was sad but interesting. we just finished world war two and we are starting the cold war

    • January 31, 2015 8:31 pm

      Just imagine, soon you’ll be standing somewhere that some of your history classes talk about.

  2. erin seymour permalink
    February 1, 2015 4:32 pm

    we have not talked about a lot of the cold war yet but we have learned that the cold war was not really a war but a competition over power, money, and supplies. America and the soviet union were in war, or competition, over popularity. sounds like high school. they kept bribing country’s to be on their side with money and supplies and ammunition. one of the country’s were multiple country’s in Africa. the Africans were smart though and played America and the soviet union when they each asked for their support. the soviets bribed them first and the Africans said “wow yes we’ll support you if u give us this” and the Americans came last bribing them so Africa really got free stuff for saying they would be on a country’s side. I like history. but science is still my favorite subject

    • February 2, 2015 9:35 am

      The trip you’re going on with us is going to be a pretty cool blend of science and history.

      • erin seymour permalink
        February 7, 2015 3:59 pm

        I’m really excited. The animals are part of science and the buildings and sites and even the people will be part of history

  3. Gianna Kriechbaum permalink
    March 11, 2015 10:59 pm

    I was just talking to my mom about the trip the other day, too. Out of everything we did on the trip, this was by far, the most educational and inspirational. Whenever i think about the trip, i remember the food, the people, and Auschwitz. It was sad, and horrifying at points, but it was such a great experience and I’d definitely love to go back one day.

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