Auschwitz–Birkenau: The need to remember and to be told

Posted: September 14, 2012 by jennroig in Articles, Chronicles, English, Photography, Travels
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Do you know that feeling of a punch in the face when you suddenly realized how much bigger reality is?

I got that in Auschwitz.

cc jennroig

I thought I knew about nazi concentration and extermination camps and all what was going on there. There are so many books, and films and testimonies that you end up feeling you kind of know. Well, you don’t. None of us know. Those who are sons and daughters or friends or husbands and wives of the survivors, they know better. And the actual survivors, they will know even more. And still, they don´t know the feeling of being locked inside a gas chamber when the gas is released. And lucky them for not knowing, because that´s what makes them survivors.

I went to Auschwitz on November 2009. I had recently left Cuba to go to Europe for the master. It started in Denmark, but we had a week off to attend a climate change conference and instead of that, some students, eleven of us, decided to go for a road trip in Eastern Europe. That road trip included a couple of days in Krakow, and once there, some of us wanted to visit the camp-museum.

I knew it would be no fun. However, the feeling starts hitting just at arrival, when the car was parked and we felt the cold wind, and saw the deep mist that prevented to see anything beyond just a few meters. Later, when the lady who guide our group started explaining contents that I already knew, like numbers and stats, it is new all over because you are seeing and feeling with all senses how must have been for those who were trapped there.

The first sad irony is the entrance gates, which have iron letters with the message “Arbeit macht frei”, The Work will set you Free. Yes, free from your flesh, your breath, your humanity and finally your life.

The lady guiding walks us among fences, which used to be electrified back then. I’d always wonder why they didn’t rebel against guards. There are some pictures showing large lines of Jewish walking, being watched by a couple or three armed men. Jewish had the numbers on their favor, it’s true they were risking death for some, but the reward would have been so worthy… But once you walk those same muddy roads, feeling the humidity of the air, the cold breeze, you know they were hopeless. You are seeing the railroads coming from and going nowhere. You are in the middle of nowhere and without a certain destination, who can be defiant? Where to run? Why anyway?

And then we entered the room where all that hair, and glasses, and wheelchairs and prosthesis are kept behind the crystals. You count and feel the horror. The lady tells there is two tons of female hair. How many women you need to scalp to get two tons of hair? And the lady tells there was so much more when the camp was taken by the Soviet soldiers.

And then the tour takes you to Mengele’s lab, you see the pictures of so many kids in the walls, and you learn most of the survivors were twins because the doctor was obsessed with human replicas.

And the stories of the priest that was buried alive because he defended a polish prisoner, and what they eat, and the diseases, the cold, the work, how pregnant women endured, how they were tortured and humiliated. And the story of what nice life had the German commander who ran the camp and his family, and the description of how accurate and efficient Nazi were in the mission of extermination of the Jewish people.

I saw these two trees. I think I got obsessed for a moment with them, trying to guess whether or not they were old enough as to be there when all that horror happened.

If they were, they were actually the last image of this world that so many humans saw before dying in the gas chamber, before being cremated.

The last part of the tour takes you to the end of Birkenau to a monument. There are stone plates inscribed with the same message in different languages, the languages ​​spoken by the Jews who died in Auschwitz.

Ladino language: spoken by the Sephardi Jewish from Spain

English

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