Day 9 – April 14, 2010 – Auschwitz/ Birkenau

Our day began with a rainy drive to Auschwitz at 6:30 a.m. Our Polish guide, Eva, framed the current sorrow of Poland by speaking of the state funeral for the Polish President and his wife that will be held here in Krakow on Sunday. Eva’s historical framework then led to Shalmi’s introduction of Auschwitz as another planet, a term coined by a survivor describing the camp while testifying at the Eichmann trial. Auschwitz, a camp surrounded by civilization: homes, businesses, factories, churches, all signs of human life, not alien life. How then was it possible for a man like Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, a bureaucrat and true believer in Nazi ideology, to work his 9 – 5 day, then go to his villa, spend the evening with his wife and five children, and listen to Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner? Here, where Hoess and the Nazis killed 1.5 million Jews and other victims.


Inside Auschwitz I, originally a camp for Polish political dissidents, now a museum, a trained guide led us through the prison blocks, each of which now houses the common, everyday belongings of human beings who suffered here. What is left behind from the piles of suitcases are personal items: toothbrushes, eyeglasses, hairbrushes, clothing and shoes. From our studies, we know that before being deported, these helpless people were given little time to pack for whatever journey lay ahead. These items, including the sandals with the red, white and blue braided straps, show that the people coming here had no idea what fate awaited them.

Our guide led us through the prison block with two standing cells, in which four prisoners would have to stand in a three by three foot square throughout the night, and then go to work each day. Also in this block was the starvation cell of Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish priest who volunteered for this punishment in place of a man with a family. Through his actions, he saved the man’s life. Kolbe survived the two weeks of starvation, but then was given a lethal injection and killed.

We then proceeded to the crematorium, beside the gallows where Rudolf Hoess was executed in 1947. While gazing at the gallows, we could see the villa of Hoess to our right, a picturesque scene like something out of a movie, and to our right, we could see the building housing a hospital and canteen for the SS officers. Once again bringing to mind the perplexing question of the identity of these men who worked here and committed these acts, and how was this humanly possible.

After a short break, we travelled about a mile to a place that defines modern murder in its most brutal form of the 20th century. As we crossed the bridge, we could see the labyrinth of rail tracks. Shalmi described this place as a death factory, where the only raw materials were human beings. As we looked from the infamous tower, Shalmi pointed out the Terezin family camp, where in September of 1943, a transport of 6-7,000 Jews came. These Jews were sent immediately to this family camp without going through selection. Three months later, 10,000 more Jews from Terezin came and again they were also sent to the family camp. This was an anomaly, however it gave us an understanding what influence people could have had, because the Danes had asked the Nazis where their 400 Jews would be taken and what they would be doing. The Nazis, being asked the question that no one had asked before, held off on the destruction of the Jews from Terezin, which begs to ask the question what would have happened if every nation had asked about their Jewish citizens. The day following the Red Cross visit to Terezin, all of the Jews living in the Terezin family camp were sent to the gas chambers. We listen and think about our friend Pavel Stransky, and the survivors we met in Olomouc, who are now our friends, were once here and managed to survive.
At the end of our tour at the sauna, ironically the starting point for prisoners here who were selected to work, Shalmi left us with the profound and disturbing thought: If this is true and if humanity is capable of doing this, why would any person want to start a family and have a child born into this world? How could anyone want to? . . . Why do we come here? Why do we study this history? What does it mean to say we will never forget?
Erin says:
. . .As I walked through the barracks of Auschwitz, I was overcome with emotions of sadness, anger and confusion. I was sad because of the many different items I saw in the blocks. They belonged to a person or a family and it was probably likely that these items belonged to someone who did not survive. This made me think about how so few people did anything to stop the Holocaust. How was this possible? This continued to anger me throughout the day. . .
Becca says:

. . .When I first walked into the block that contained human hair, I walked out. I could not help but cry as I pictured this being me or my family forced to have our heads shaved. When I saw the baby clothes and tiny shoes I shed more tears and thought, how could someone be so cruel toward innocent babies…

Tim says:

…At Birkenau Mr. Barmore stopped at a barrack and started talking about how too much power can lead to horrible things. He connected this to how the guards at Birkenau were given so much power that they would humiliate and degrade the prisoners regularly which caused some of them to commit suicide. He also said they would become so bored that they would create these games to humiliate and degrade the Jews as a source of entertainment. I thought back to elementary school when kids who were popular got bored, they would make fun of the kids who were not popular simply because they could…

Libby says:
. . .I imagined each lock of hair, belonging to a different victim. I imagined beautiful women as their hair was being shaved, and they could do nothing. I imagined Jewish Rabbis with shaved faces, looking to the ground seeing their self-defining beards. We continued seeing the objects taken from victims such as glasses, prosthetic limbs, shoes, clothes, kitchenware, babies’ clothes and brushes. . .
Kayla says:
….I tried to imagine myself in their shoes as I walked through Auschwitz. What surprised me the most was the roads. They were rocky – like concrete – but the stones weren’t finely ground; like half concrete and half jagged rocks. My shoes were thin so I could feel every rock as I stepped on them. Then in my mind I switched my five layers of clothing to thin, striped cloth pajamas, stripped of personal belongings. . .
Nathali says:
…Everywhere I went in Auschwitz I kept asking myself, “How on earth could people survive this place?” One aspect of the horror of Auschwitz wasn’t the buildings, it was the social conditions — having 1,000 people share one bathroom and one shower. Today it struck me that no one or very few children under 15 lived. All these innocent children went straight to the gas chambers, it broke my heart…
Matt Berner says:
…With the earliest wake up call of the trip, and walking in the cold and rain, I was not in the greatest mood. Yet I couldn’t help but think that the weather was perfect for our visit to Auschwitz. Walking past the barbed wire, electrified fences and through the gate, I felt immediately thrown into the experience, and viewing the mounds of hair, glasses and brushes that are being preserved was a scary realization of the number of people that had also come through this gate…
James says:
…Today we did the ‘stations’ of Auschwitz. As we walked along the train tracks, I could feel what the prisoners must have felt. I felt afraid, scared and confused. When we got to the selection area, all that went through my mind was, “Would I have lived? Or would I have been set to my death?” I was scared of what my fate might have been. I experienced all these emotions though there was no threat to my safety. I have great respect for all those who experienced Auschwitz and survived…
Victoria says:

…What really struck me was the sick way in which the inmates were used, manipulated and tortured. The inmates contributed to the construction of the camp by digging the drainage ditches. They paid for a train ticket which brought them to the place where they were murdered. In addition, I could not believe that insurance companies insured the facilities at Auschwitz against damage. This brings up the questions we discussed: “Who was responsible? Were the monstrous Nazis responsible? Or were people like us, just doing their job, such as driving the train or opening the gate, responsible?”…

Matt Bachmann says:

…I won’t be able to comprehend what I saw for a while. I’m not sure why, but I couldn’t stand to be in the blocks. I couldn’t look at the things left behind; everything that belonged to those that perished. It gave me an idea just about how many people died there in that brutal camp. This has indeed been one of the saddest days of my life…
Nick says:
…Walking into Auschwitz was like a nightmare; we’ve all heard stories but none of us are truly able to comprehend the essence of such a treacherous place. Entering Block 4 gave me a better understanding, on a very small scale, of what the victims in the Holocaust experienced. Seeing the piles of hair behind the glass made my heart drop. I noticed the feeling was unanimous; there was silence in the room and not a smile in sight. We went on to visit Birkenau where the rain and dark, cloudy sky set the perfect mood for the dreary afternoon…

40 comments

  1. These images will stay with you like you would not believe. to this day a year later, i will lie in bed at night remembering the things i have seen, trying to put myself in those millions of shoes piled so high. it still does not make sense, and i do not think it ever will. i don't think there is anything in the world that could ever justify or heal the scar Auschwitz has imprinted upon the fragile skin of mankind. it must have been something else to be there during such a dreary day. good luck sleeping everyone, it was difficult for me for sure.

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  2. In my mind, I cannot comprehend just how cruel SS officers running the Auschwitz Camp must be to invent games resulting in the death of other human beings. I completely agree with what Tim said about kids in elementary school, accept this is at such a higher level of cruelty.

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  3. I would love to visit Auschwitz like you guys are doing. Just to be standing where thousands of prisoners suffered and just to imagine what they went through would be life changing. I would think like James too, just wondering what would happen to myself if I were sent to this camp during the Holocaust. It makes me feel greatful that this dark hour in humanity is over.

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  4. I simply do not understand how anyone could take regular people and eliminate and torture them like their lives meant nothing. Those Jews had absolutely no idea what was going to happen to them when they boarded those deportation trains. It is unconceivable that anything like this genocide could ever happen…

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  5. I can't imagine how many different emotions you must be going through. To think about what the people went through during the Holocaust is horrible, let alone to see where it happened. I'm thinking sort of like Erin; how could the people in the rest of the world allow this to go on for so long? I don't understand how such a brutial genocide could have happened so recently, or how there are still genocides going on today

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  6. I've only read about the Auschwitz in the memoir, \”Night\” written by Elie Wiesel, but to actually travel to the death camp is a completely different experience. I am astonished how selfless that Polish priest was in giving up his own life for another voluntarily, because like Elie in the memoir, soon it was ever man for himself. But, even more astonishing is the mass genocide occurring in our society today, which proves some people have forgotten, and aren’t learning from mistakes made in the past. The last thoughts left by the guide and the pictures taken are very powerful.

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  7. I cannot believe how bad the Jews were treated in the concentration camps. And after reading Night, by Elie Wiesel and then seeing actual photos of what he wrote about just makes my stomach turn. This is a very serious topic and should not be taken lightly I know how extremely I feel about this. I never want to see that happen again.

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  8. After recently reading Night by Elie Wiesel, the word 'Holocaust' means so much more, and symbolizes a mixture of sadness and anger. It was the worst type of genocide, and it was simply heartless.

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  9. When I was on the trip last year, the most painful things to see were the blocks in Auschwitz. As many of the students said above, I couldn't stand to look at what had been left behind. All the shoes, all the glasses, all the suitcases, all the hair… They are images that will live with me forever. I still can picture a little pair of shoes that belonged to a little girl. I couldn’t help but wonder what her fate had been, but I knew what it was. It was the exact same fate that almost everyone else who walked underneath the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign had been… \”The only way out of here is through the chimney.\”It must have been a very different experience to walk through Auschwitz on such a dreary day. But to me, it seems more appropriate. The gloomy weather is befitting of the atrocities that occurred at this location.

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  10. I can only imagine how moving this experience at Auschwitz must have been for all of you. We have just finished reading Night and even though it's about the 8th time I've read this book, I always get upset about the descriptions of this place. It is, indeed, as all of you have so eloquently expressed, impossible to understand man's inhumanity to man. Our only hope lies in the fact that we must never allow such atrocities to happen again without full protest and action.Keep up the incredible work you are doing! I want a full report from everyone when you finally return. Mrs. DePoto

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  11. It is so shocking to know that all of the human supplies are still there. These Jews had no idea that when they entered these camps, very few were going to come out alive. It is so scary to know human beings are actually capable of bringing such torture among people. The Jews were all so innocent, and this is what they got.

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  12. Having to look at belongings that once belonged to happy, joyous people that have either perished or survived would be very hard for me to do. The rooms full of hair would have been the most emotional place for me. The Nazis cut everyone’s hair and kept it to stuff pillows and mattresses; and over time the weight of the hair passed tons. Waking through Auschwitz on a gloomy, dreary day must have been easier to understand the atrocities that took place there.

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  13. I just find it unbelievable that someone like Rudolf Hoess could unjustly take so many innocent lives, then just go home right after and follow his normal routine. How could you live with yourself? It must have been hard to see all the victims' personal belongings.

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  14. Seeing all of the objects that used to belong to the Jewish people in the death camps must have been hard to see. We can learn all want in school, but it must be nothing compared to actually being there. Its the most realistic way to understand what truely went on there.

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  15. Libby, the locks of hair must of been tough to see and settle with. after the Cancer ceremony here where girls cut their hair i can see how attached they are to it and at least that ceremony was respectful. When they cut off all that hair it must of been devastating and a terrible begining to a tragic set of events that followed. Hopefully your extra days will let you see even more than you would of! Tell James and Mrs. Bauman hi for me!

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  16. I can't even imagine what this must have been like for all of you. Walking on the very soil that the prisoners were on, and being between the very walls that they were housed in had to be an extremely eye-opening experience. It was so interesting to read about how each of you took different things from the experience. It seems like to each one of you, there was something specific that stuck out and touched you in a way that helped you better understand what these people went through. I'm sure when you come home and see those items around your house or community, you'll be reminded of everything that you had seen at Auschwitz, and it will be a subtle reminder of how fortunate we are, and how important learning from history's mistakes truly is.

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  17. I can't even stepping foot into the gates of Auschwitz that must have taken alot out of you guys. Like the girls said, it would be so hard to have someone cut all your hair off it is so shameful. It seems like it must of been a very eerie day.

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  18. Standing in the place where all of these millions of people died would be so difficult, and then I think of the survivors (like your friend Pavel Stransky) and how much more difficult it is for them to come back to the place and relive all their horrible memories. It is hard for me to lose only one important person in my life, and then to imagine millions of people in my life gone is unreal. It would be so heartbreaking to go back to the place where the important people in your life were killed. Each of those shoes, toothbrushes and hairbrushes belonged to someone. Someone who had their own life and story that was quickly all taken away. It's a reminder to everyone how precious life is and that each day is a gift.

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  19. Even reading that made me upset, I cant begin to imagine what it was like walking around Aushwitz knowing that thousands were killed there. What Time said about the popular kids in grade school bullying other kids really hit me because being bullied in grade school seems like the worst thing to ever happen to someone, but can you imagine what bullied at Aushwitz would be like? This blog is amazing by the way, thank you for sharing!

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  20. I can't even begin to imagine what walking through a camp would be like. Watching videos and hearing stories about what happened and what went on inside them are hard enough for me to watch so the thought of walking through one is almost unbearable. The feelings of sadness and anger that each of you talked about are feelings I also have but I'm sure seeing everything with your own eyes made those feelings even more intense.

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  21. After studying and learning so much about this shrine of ultimate terror, it brings it even more to life to hear people's accounts of visiting. I could study about Auschwitz for the rest of my life and never get a grasp on why this happened. You can't help but to wonder why everyone went along with this master plan, was it out of fear or did people truly believe this \”final solution\” was the answer. This we will never know how Hitler's grand plan played out.

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  22. Hi Mrs. T i miss you! I hope everyone is enjoying this wonderful experience. I know you guys probably miss home, but just think of how much more you get to see..come home safe and enjoy the rest of your trip =)

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  23. Seeing the belongings of the Jewish victims must have been a sureal experience. It must make the Holocaust seem much more realistic than just learning about it from a history point of view. It sounds like you guys are having an amazing experience!this is a shout out to Erin Novak!…hahahaHave a safe trip home =)~Colleen

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  24. You guys are so lucky to have the chance to see what the Jews went through from a first-hand view. It's probably so impressive. I hope you all come home safe! –Ashley

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  25. After reading \”Anthem\” , \”Night\”, and having some basic knowledge on the Holocaust I am still shocked. You guys are fortunate enough to be able to go and gain more knowledge. Looking at the pictures I sit here and still wonder about the people that once walked through these camps.

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  26. It is a shame that more countries did not do anything to help the Jews. If only more countries did question and act on what the Germans did to the Jews a lot of lives could have been saved.-Ryan Bigger

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  27. I cannot imagine how you feel after witnessing where a lot of the atrocities of the holocaust occurred, Auschwitz. It is beyond my comprehension to understand how Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz could, after a day of murdering Jews, go home to his wife and five children and be okay with what he did. have so much hatred towards Nazis for what they did. I feel that if I witnessed Auschwitz first hand I would not be able to control my emotions. I am very happy that you were privileged enough to be able to travel to Auschwitz I am also sorry you had to witness what was there.-Asher Hoffman

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  28. The passages were very understandable , it is because of the way of discription. every historic place that was visited and discribed helped me to see it in my mind as if i was seeing it myself -joan

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  29. We read about all of this in class, but I can't imagine how it must feel to actually be there and see everything right in front of you. It must have been really rough, and it's upsetting to even read about what you guys have seen.-Carly

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  30. Reading about this in class is hard to do so i can't even imagine what it must have been like to actually be there. Seeing things like the woman's hair and the statues of the children must have been really tough to handle. come home safe guys.–shannon

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  31. Honestly, I can't imagine how horrible it must have been to be sent to this death camp. I'm waiting for the day it's actually sunny there and not gloomy. Even after reading all the responses, it indeed gives me chills. But if i remember, my mother once visited this camp, again another cloudy miserable day, and she said she could still smell death in the air…–Rebecca

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  32. just reading about auschwitz is crazy and i cant imagine what its like to see it in real life. but regardless its a great experiance that not many people get the chance to have. i cant imagine what it must of felt like getting all your hair cut off and you could do nothing to prevent it.. come home soon –shane doherty

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  33. it's weird to see you guys at one of the camps because its like we only learn about it in class but you have experienced the camp first hand and probably have a whole different view of the camp now-sam doran

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