No matter what it refers to, a million is difficult to comprehend. A million miles. A million dollars. A million people. A million lives.
The Nazis built their most infamous death camp on Polish land, expelling the local population from Oświęcim in order to use army barracks for their prisoners. Over the following years, about 1.1 million individuals lost their lives inside Auschwitz and Birkenau – though starvation, disease, overwork, violence, in the gas chambers. Two hundred thousand more somehow managed to survive the horrors. It’s not the sort of place one visits to feel better about the world, but we considered seeing it an absolutely necessity.
We made the decision to visit Auschwitz as part of a tour, not so much for the difficulty getting there but to guarantee guides and a short wait getting in. The ride passed quickly thanks to the documentary we watched on the way.
About 90 minutes later, we arrived at Auschwitz I and donned our headsets. They weren’t recordings, but receivers so that we could hear our guide without the need for shouting. The day was beautiful, warm and sunny.
Walking through the main gate, under the metal letters spelling out “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free), we both felt uneasy. The big gates and fences still feel menacing today.
Behind the double-layered barbed-wire fences, rows of brick buildings lined narrow avenues. The barracks don’t appear sinister in and of themselves – they were meant to house troops in reasonable comfort, not prisoners. It felt almost like a college campus, except for the hushed tour groups. And the execution wall.
Guard towers and barbed wire were never far from sight. Photography is not allowed inside the museums, with good reason. Pictures would not capture the scale of the victims’ piled luggage and shoes, or eyeglasses and hair. Or the sickening feeling of seeing them in person.
Just outside Auschwitz I’s main block, a small mound partially obscured the first gas chamber. Somehow we had imagined something more complex, a series of pipes to deliver poison or something. The reality was far more crude. This was just a storage room, repurposed for murder. In the early days they connected a hose to a big engine, suffocating people with the exhaust. Later, Zyklon B canisters (only about the size of a camping stove) were dropped down a hole in the roof.
The Nazis were keen to keep their crimes a secret, which meant bodies had to be incinerated to hide the scale of the operation.
What thoughts ran through prisoners’ minds in their final moments? What would be ours facing the same fate? Stepping back into the summer air did little to shake the chill we felt. This small murder room was just the first step. What what would come next would be incomparable.
As the number of prisoners grew and the purpose of the camp shifted from imprisoning political enemies to mass extermination, a much larger facility was constructed a few kilometers away. This one was designed from the start for death.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau’s main gate must be one of the Holocaust’s most iconic images. By the time it was built, Hitler had decided what to do with Europe’s Jews and others the Nazis deemed undesirable, and his answer was annihilation. The grounds were remote by design to keep the evil that would occur there out of sight and mind of everyday people.
Approaching it from the parking lot, we felt our eyes burn and stomachs twist. Our gaze followed the fence and guard towers extending to the right, on… and on… vanishing only in distance. The scale of this place was inconceivable.
Hundreds of bunkhouses filled the premises. Built from prefabricated horse barns, each flimsy structure housed hundreds of people at a time. They offered little protection from the heat and cold and none at all from squalor, serving only to make life more unbearable.
Most were disassembled in the immediate aftermath of the war. Oświęcim civilians, evicted to make room for the camp, took material to build themselves shelter. Others were destroyed by invading forces. Only the chimneys and furnaces remain.
The train tracks originally stopped short of the Death Gate. They were later extended into the camp to speed up the process of sorting people for the gas chambers.
A single red boxcar sits at the camp’s center. Up to a hundred individuals (and their limited possessions) were crammed into the tiny cabins.
We imagined the hundreds of thousands who struggled to survive for any chance at another day, and the hundreds of thousands more who were marched by the fences and given no chance at all. It was hard to reconcile their experience with the lovely summer afternoon we were living. Prisoners would have had days like this as well.
The retreating Nazis dismantled and blew up the gas chambers to hide their crimes from the advancing Red Army. Thousands of inmates were force-marched to other camps, many dying along the way.
Four black stone markers serve as simple memorials behind the crematoria. The ashes of the victims were buried or strewn across fields and swamps to obscure the number killed.
Inside one of the remaining barracks, only the walls and heater are left standing. Gone are the tiers of bunk beds that would have housed up to seven hundred. Even empty, the dim structure seemed suffocating.
The experience of visiting Auschwitz was emotionally draining. Judging from the pallid looks on the faces around us, we were not the only ones who felt that way. But despite the Nazis’ best efforts, people survived. Stories survived, memories survived.
Now, this corner of the Earth serves as a memorial. Millions come each year, from around the world, to learn about one of humanity’s worst crimes and to bear witness against hate.
Our last look at Auschwitz was from the upper floor of the gate. Tours listened intently, the day was bright. Hopefully people remember their visits, remember these moments of sorrow and connection and understanding. As long as these memories survive, the world can work toward never again.