Monday, March 12, 2012

Chelsea: Auschwitz and Oswiecim - The Past and The Present

Sign commemorating the gas chambers and crematorium at Auschwitz I

The group and our new Polish friends at PWSZ

So today was the big day of this trip: our first visit to Auschwitz I. The site has literally been staring us in the face since our arrival on Saturday as it is located directly across the street from the Centre. But today we actually stepped foot in the former death camp and spent three and a half hours there on an informative tour. We arrived there at 9am and the "Muzeum Auschwitz" as the memorial site is referred to here, was still quiet with few visitors. Seeing this place - this location with a history of mass murder and human cruelty - in such a peaceful and calm state was very disconcerting at first, but then it helped me to understand another thing that Fr. Manfred had told us last night in preparation for today's visit. He said that though it may seem odd, Auschwitz is now in part a positive place. Though it was created and operated as a horrible death camp, it is now a place that represents healing for many. Visitors go there for a positive reason; to remember what has happened, to memorialize those who have died by the hands of the Nazis, and to make sure that this will not happen again in the future. Though I realized what Fr. Manfred had meant by experiencing this serene morning, the peaceful atmosphere was a stark contrast to the reminders of the Holocaust that we saw in the exhibitions at the museum.

Because of the peaceful start to the morning, the seriousness of the visit did not really hit me until I entered a few certain exhibits. These exhibits seem to stand out as powerful to many visitors of Auschwitz : the rooms filled with artifacts left over from the victims of the camp. In particular, the exhibits with the hair and shoes of victims were very moving. The hair remnants from the shaved victims was a very shocking an emotional sight to see. The hair is different from the other artifacts. It cannot be touched, cleaned, or preserved because according to Jewish tradition it should have been buried along with the bodies. An agreement has been made to continue showing the hair as a testament to the crimes of the Nazis until it disintegrates, when it will then be properly buried. The room full of shoes was equally shocking but on another level. Whereas the hair was disturbing just based on the fact that it was a living remnant of the victims, the shoes were a shocking sight due to their amount. On both sides of a long hallway there were rooms filled with mountains of shoes - and we were told that these were not even ALL of the shoes left behind. These two rooms were a very shocking reminder of what really happened at Auschwitz. Another powerful testament to the crimes of the Nazis at Auschwitz were the gas chamber and crematorium (sign pictured above). We were not told by the guide that we were walking into this building, but it was easy to figure out once we were inside. It was a disturbing experience to actually be inside the building in which so many people were murdered. There were many people walking through at the same time as our group and the crowded feel helped us to understand in the slightest bit what it must have been like to be inside that fateful building. It was very uncomfortable being there, both physically and mentally.

Later in the day we ended with a more positive and less heavy experience of meeting with some local Polish college students at PWSZ (don't ask me to write out the whole name of the school, it is too difficult for me to even attempt to say!), a college down the street from the Centre. For a few hours we sat in a seminar with about a dozen English speaking Polish students and their professor (all of us pictured above). It was very interesting to get the Polish perspective on the issues that we are currently studying. After the lecture their group of students and ours went to a local restaurant to talk and get to know each other. They were all very nice and it was a great experience to meet with local Poles our age and get a glimpse of their culture. So though the day began as a tough one with very heavy subject matter, it ended on a happy note as we came away from our day with some new Polish friends from the Oswiecim area!


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