Standing up against the cold, pale sky were the words ‘Arbeit macht frei,’ etched so succinctly, that when I closed my eyes I still saw the letters definitive shapes. The words were used as a false hope for those within its iron claws. ‘Work makes one free,’ is just one of the lies imposed upon the prisoners in Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The great iron sign was made by the very hands of those imprisoned within it. They were the lucky ones; the ones who had a skill that could be used by the Germans. It was for this reason that they were spared.
I had come to Auschwitz seeking an awakening of spirit. I had, as is spoken of in Dante’s Inferno, found myself in the dark woods of uncertainty; a deterred state of slumber. Having always enjoyed studying the historical events of World War II, I thought it would be more meaningful to see the places that had been at the heart of its history. My guide told me that we were on a pilgrimage, but I was on a pilgrimage of the heart, and the series of events that followed were in no way contrary to that purpose.
When I first arrived in Poland I was surprised to find that I felt very much at home as soon as I exited the plane. There was something about the bare trees and wet shrubbery that reminded me of my hometown in Washington State. The more time I spent in Poland, however, the more I realized that this place was not like my hometown at all, but very different. There was something cold about the place, as though the native Poles were bearing a dark and horrible secret. The frozen land paid homage to this secret; even the trees and the air laid witness to all they had suffered.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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When I stepped off the plane, frigid air cut through my clothing. A heavy frost bathed the entire land of Katowice, keeping it trapped under a cold armor of slate. We were escorted from the airport to a humble convent, greeted there by a warm nun of diminutive stature. Walking about the town the following day, I was struck at how still everything was, as though the entire town was deserted. The dilapidated buildings on either side of me spoke to my heart; this city had experienced a tremendous hurt that could never heal. My five-day trek through Poland, was a confrontation of what the hurt had been.
The following day, upon entering Auschwitz, a place that I had previously only read about, a strangeness and heaviness came over me. I can’t express what it was I felt as my eyes scanned the place that witnessed the death of over 1 million people. My group and I walked on in a somber silence; words were unnecessary. I pulled my coat tighter around me to keep the cold from taking hold of me and stopped dead in my tracks as I looked over head at the iron gate: ‘Arbeit Macht Frei.’ The man who made it came to mind, and the upside-down ‘B’ that he had made as a warning to those entering the gate. I could picture in my mind thousands of Jews, Aryans, POW’s, priests, and countless others being corralled through this gate, maybe in the hopes that they would be given a brief reprimand before being released. They were walking beside me in my mind, and I saw their hollow silhouettes marching to their death. The massive steel fences that were strung with barbed wire gave me a sense of ominous reality; this wasn’t just a place I had read about in history books, but an actuality, an evil stain on the world.
I walked from room to room, echoing the invisible footprints of those who once walked these horror-stricken halls. The emptiness was astounding. The empty spaces, I imagined, had been crammed with bodies. I wandered in a state of numbness as my eyes beheld the things which were left behind by the victims; brushes, shoes, brief cases, clothing, canes, glasses; an endless assortment of objects filling entire rooms. What surprised me the most, and indeed had left a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, were the great piles of hair that had been cut from victim’s heads immediately after they had been murdered. The Germans would use the hair to make sacks for transporting and selling goods, and on the opposite side of the room there were several of these sacks on display; the thought of it made me sick. The disgrace upon human nature was bad enough, but the thought of using the remainder of the victims for profit was sickening!
I stared for a long time at the endless pile of matted hair; some were in braids, the rest in tangled knots. I tried to picture the faces of the people whose matted hair I was looking at, and wondered who they had been. Every piece of hair blended-in with those surrounding it. They all seemed to be the same color and texture. I thought of all the people who had died here, reduced to just a number among thousands of other numbers and felt a sudden, tremendous appreciation for my life. I saw the value of things which, before coming here, I had taken for granted.
The next room I wandered into was arrayed with hundreds of photographs, mostly of young men from eighteen to twenty-four years of age. They were those who had been chosen to work within the camp, some of whom had only survived about a week, having died of starvation or sickness. What startled me the most about these men was the distinct look of horror that was accordant to all of them; the utter shock that they felt inside shown through the mirror of their glazed, defeated eyes.
We journeyed on to Auschwitz II, the second major part of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. It is here where the remainder of the gas chambers leave there disturbing mark.
Leading up to the gas chambers and on either side of the railway stand wooden barracks, jutting up from the frozen Earth and extending as far as the eye can see. There was finality about this place, its austerity and singular purpose as a base of extermination was obvious. It was hard to picture it as anything else. The very nature of this place was self-evident and told a story, and the main purpose of that story was to convey, to the one looking upon it, that something bad happened here.
The remaining structures were ominous silhouettes against the grey sky. The gas chambers were now just heaps of steel and cement, a portion of charred frames were all that remained of wooden barracks. The purposes of these things bear witness to the attempt to exterminate an entire race. When all is said and done, these remnants were at the heart of it; nothing more is necessary to convey their meaning. I was not seeing a part of history that had come and gone, with its abandoned buildings and forgotten names; these were the relics that spoke of things that are still alive today.
As I remember the tangled mess of hair that was before me I instinctively wrapped a strand of my own hair around my fingers. I felt its smooth tangibility and found myself thinking of how the victims of this place might have done a similar thing with their own hair, which now lay in mounds of tangled knots, the face of their owner a forgotten image that had once walked upon the Earth.