Jonathan in Poland

Jonathan, a junior in the Creative Writing program in Dedman College’s English Department, is participating in the SMU Human Rights Education Program’s December trip to Poland. There, program director Rick Halperin will lead visits to World War II Nazi death camps.

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Auschwitz-Birkenau

First, I’m going to start this off by saying that seeing Auschwitz is something that I’ve always wanted to do. This camp is the symbol of the Holocaust to most people, and rightfully so. It was the central hub for hate and genocide as far as concentration camps are concerned.

Almost one and a half million people were killed here. That would be like if half the D/FW metroplex were sent here to die at one place. From the sadistic medical experiments to the gas chambers of Birkenau, it makes sense that this is the concentration camp that everyone thinks of.

Auschwitz is like a small city. Right inside the iron gates, adorned with the infamous “arbeit macht frei” (work makes (one) free), some of the greatest musicians in Europe were assembled to play regularly. The brick barracks line paved streets in neat rows, and there was even a petting zoo. No, really.

Auschwitz is really three camps, each different in function: Auschwitz I for tests and officers’ barracks, the extermination camp of Birkenau and the work camp Monowitz all make up what is collectively known as Auschwitz. In our visit only to the first two, we were there practically from dawn until twilight and barely even made it through. It would take an entire weekend just to see everything here.

The barracks have been transformed into museums, often having an entire brick building dedicated just to one nationality of the prisoner population. The wealth of information just seemed overwhelming at times. Couple that with tourists of every nationality chatting it up in the crematorium, screaming children, and the throngs of people moving in and out of every room, it could be hard to really get a sense for the power of this camp. I’m not trying to say that the meaning was lost or that it wasn’t a significant part of our trip by any account, only that it was a very different experience than I thought it would be. Birkenau, on the other hand, was like jumping into an ice bath.

Death camp
A few kilometers from Auschwitz I, Birkenau was where almost all of the mass killing was done. The only reason that so many barracks were even built was because there were too many prisoners and they just couldn’t all be killed fast enough. Train tracks were even built right through the main gate to the end of the camp toward the end of the war so that prisoners could literally be loaded right off the cars and into the gas chambers.

Largely preserved like Majdanek, Birkenau is a powerful sight. It’s freezing cold here, and the wind and snow are just relentless. Walking over to a small frozen puddle, I broke off a piece of ice just to see how thick it was. This is considered to be one of the more mild winters in Poland’s history, and the ice in this tiny puddle is over half an inch thick. 1941 to 1945 are remembered as some of the harshest winters in Europe’s history. It’s hard to imagine what this place would have been like in years that would have already caused famine and crop failure, let alone survive it in cotton pajamas doing back-breaking labor. Everything in this camp was meant to dehumanize or kill you, typically both. It’s pretty apparent even today.

Now just piles of rubble, the crematoriums at the back of the camp are situated on either side of the great memorial where we left a candle burning. All dynamited by the Nazis with the exceptions of one destroyed in a prisoner uprising, you’ll never see a more powerful pile of brick and steel. Or at least I won’t.

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