Auschwitz was the largest of the Nazi German concentration camps and extermination centers. It consisted of three parts: Auschwitz I (the main camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the extermination camp), and Auschwitz III-Monowitz (a labor camp). Auschwitz I opened in May 1940. It was originally intended to house political prisoners. Through the operation of this camps, prisoners were used for forced labor. The camp operated for nearly a year before Heinrich Himmler ordered the expansion of Auschwitz and the construction of a nearby camp in Birkenau. In September of 1942, the first gassing of prisoners took place at Auschwitz. A makeshift cellar in Block 11 was converted into a gas chamber and Zyklon B was tested on Soviet POWs. The success of this experiment would lead to the refinement of the extermination process and extensive use of Zyklon B in Auschwitz II-Birkenau. It is estimated that approximately 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz.
All over the world, Auschwitz has become the symbol of the Holocaust. Throughout all of my years studying the Holocaust, I have always been interested in visiting this place. I have felt compelled to come to Auschwitz in order to see firsthand the evidence of the Holocaust and to pay my respects to the victims. On Monday, I finally had the chance. It had been arranged for our group to do a study-tour of Auschwitz I led by Pawel Sawicki, a Press Officer of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
Years of reading, seeing photographs, hearing survivor testimony, watching documentaries, and even completing two years of graduate level course work about the Holocaust did not quite prepare me being in Auschwitz I for the first time. I was caught off guard by our arrival. I had not expected for us to get there so quickly. The fact that, in Oświęcim, we were only a few miles from the camp did not compute in my mind. I was turned around in my seat talking to Josh about the reflections session we were supposed to lead later that evening, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a guard tower. As I turned, I saw a line of the notorious red brick barracks of Auschwitz. It was so startling, literally a gut check. We disembarked from the bus and started walking to the entrance where we would meet Pawel.
The hustle and bustle of getting to the entrance and through security was momentarily distracting. There were so many people trying to move through a small area. As I made my way through the crowds and rejoined our group, the nerves returned. I could see the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign from where we were standing waiting for everyone to assemble. I felt overwhelmed and even a little nauseated. For better or worse, this was quickly replaced with irritation at other visitors. As we stood before the gate with Pawel giving us a brief overview of the history of Auschwitz, I was distracted by people posing for selfies in front of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign. And it wasn’t just one or two people – there were dozens of visitors who took selfies and other posed, smiling photos here. It was hard to reconcile their frivolity with my own feelings of solemnity.
Our tour primarily focused on the permanent exhibition. The exhibitions of the museum are housed in the various blocks (buildings) of Auschwitz and focus on an array of topics such as the life of prisoners, conditions in the camp, medical experiments, evidence of the crimes, and extermination. Of all of the blocks we toured, Block 4 -Extermination stood out the most. Here, photographs, documents, models of the extermination facilities, and other artifacts are on display to explain the killing process. The most striking was the room containing human hair. I wasn’t quite prepared for this display. Although I knew it was coming up, I did not expect it at this particular point. The sheer amount of it was staggering. The display case contains hair from an estimated 140,000 individuals.
We also had the opportunity to visit one of the national exhibitions. Several countries have developed permanent installations highlighting the connection between the history of the specific nations occupation and the history of Auschwitz. We were able to visit Shoah – Block 27 which was prepared by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Immediately upon entering, visitors are enveloped by an incredible rendition of “Ani Ma’amin” (“I Believe”). This is a musical rendition of Moses ben Maimon’s thirteen-point version of the Jewish principles of faith. It is an incredibly powerful piece, especially here in Block 27 at Auschwitz. This exhibition also contained a unique item, called “The Book of Names.” This book contains the names of all of the victims of the Holocaust that have been collected by Yad Vashem.
The final place we visited during our tour of Auschwitz I was Crematoria I and the first gas chamber. This facility was in use between August 1940 and July 1943 when the crematoria at Birkenau were completed. This area was later used as an air raid shelter, but has been restored to its original state. Although this space was a difficult way to end our tour, it made an important transition point for our tour of Auschwitz II – Birkenau the following morning.