Sunday, March 19, 2017

Auschwitz II- Birkenau

Rail Car at Auschwitz II- Birkenau
Auschwitz II- Birkenau was planned for 100,000 people. The word planned still rings in my ears. The fact that someone planned to kill innocent people because of what they believe in, where they are from, who they love and many other reasons makes cringe. The size of the camp is astonishing. When we visited Auschwitz I, I did not expect the camp to look the way it did, it was very orderly. Birkenau was what I expected the death camps to look like. The camp was so large, you could not see where it ended. Our first stop was at the main watch tower by the entrance. From the top, we could see almost the entire camp. As we walked along the dirt roads, I tried to imagine the victims walking slowly along the path, with dead eyes that have seen the horror of human capabilities. As we walked through the different buildings, we came across the barracks that were originally made for horses. There were 450 people living in each building. The rings nailed to the wood were still there to tie the horses too. The fact that human beings lived in these conditions like animals still shocks me. The living conditions were horrible, the beds in the women’s and children’s barracks forced 5-6 people to sleep in each bed, which was the size for 1-2 people. The building was cold while we were in there and I could only imagine what it was like for the victims who did not have the scarves, hats and heavy jackets that we did.

Aside from the barracks, we saw the crematoriums as well. Most of them were destroyed during the war, with only rubble left behind. Imagining the victims cleaning out the ashes of their fellow human beings after their bodies were burned horrifies me. I picture my dad cleaning out the fire place of the ashes from newspapers and kindling. Instead, these victims were cleaning out human ashes. Near one of the crematoriums was a small wooded area. Our tour guide, Bart, told us that some of the first victims being led to the crematorium were told to wait there in the woods and that they were just going to be taking showers. The fact that these people were sitting there waiting peacefully for hours without panic because they did not know their fate saddens me because they did not know how brutal the Nazis were until it was too late. This was a moment of peace for them, peace of the unknown.

Seeing the rail cars that transported the victims to the camp struck a sense of sadness in me. I tried to imagine the conditions of the trip for the victims. The fear of the unknown haunting them in a dark, smelly rail car packed with hundreds of people awaiting their fate. The moment the rail car stopped and the doors were unlocked, the victims must have stepped out with gratefulness for the light and fresh air. However, little did they know that their conditions and fate were only going to get worse. Most of us put a stone on the rail cars as a sign of a peace offering.

Reflecting on my experience at Birkenau allows me to connect my experiences with what we have learned inside and outside of the classroom. One learning from class that really connects to my tour of Birkenau is “The Jews & Their Lies” written by Martin Luther. The derogatory stereotypes Luther makes of Jews is expressed in the treatment and stories we heard of the Jews experience at Birkenau. As Father Manfred said in his second lecture, “around 90% of the victims in Auschwitz I and Birkenau were Jews,” this percentage demonstrates that the hatred was mainly towards the Jews. Early writings such as Martin Luther’s work sends the message that the Jews are demonic and hold the Christ-killer charge. Luther writes: “Accordingly, it must and dare not be considered a trifling matter but a most serious one to seek counsel against this and to save our souls from the Jews, that is, from the devil and from eternal death,” calling out the Jews as beings from the devil (Luther, The Jews & Their Lies, p. 21). Luther’s ideas can still be found in present day in the minds of others and were relevant during the Shoah. Reading Luther’s work and then travelling to Poland to tour Birkenau allows me to pull the two together and understand where the hate for the Jews began and the brutality that was inflicted upon them by the Nazis.


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