As mentioned in my previous post, I spent the better part of March traveling through Eastern Europe. I'll be posting photos separately from the rest of my travels later. But the whole thing kind of revolved around the one thing on my bucket list that I simply couldn't put off anymore. If you follow my personal Instagram account this one you may have seen the photo I posted from my visit to Auschwitz, this one, in which I explain that it was on my list to pay my respects there.
I hesitated (and thus procrastinated) writing this post for so long for a few reasons: One, I didn't want it to be taken the wrong way. I know that a lot of people visit Auschwitz every day and that doesn't mean that it was their life mission to go there, as it was mine. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to get across how important this was for me, so why even bother trying? Two, I didn't want to be disrespectful. I asked our tour guide as well as a friend of mine whose family perished at Auschwitz, if it would be insensitive to take photos of myself there. Both said it was fine as song as I wasn't smiling or being obnoxious. But I knew deep down that I might get some backlash anyway, and I did.
I hesitated to post that photo on my Instagram all night. I almost didn't do it. But I did, and although the majority of the feedback was positive, there were also a few critics. Someone actually asked me to take it down because I looked "too fashionable". But I knew that I had my reasons for doing it and that my decision would not waver regardless of anyone's opinion. I had picked out that outfit (all black and covered up, with sunnies hiding half of my face ) specifically for this very occasion. I wanted to pay my respects like I would at any other funeral or burial. I didn't even want to look at the camera or show my eyes. And three, this was such a deep, emotional, inexplicable experience for me. So personal, in fact, that I almost felt like I should keep it to myself. Almost.
In the end, it was the words of a fellow photographer from our tour group that gave me the extra little push to do it:
"Now we have seen and we have felt. We are witnesses now. It is our job to go back out there and testify what we saw here today."
So here we are. Below you will find a few curated images from that day. It was March 6, 2017. The cold was unbearable and cut through my warm, fuzzy turtleneck, my thick pea coat and tall rain boots. I felt like such a dumbass for complaining about the cold. The place was crowded with tourists, yet quiet and extremely eerie. We took a six hour tour of Auschwitz I (Main Camp) and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) with a small private group. Our guide was knowledgeable and kind, although seemingly immune to the various emotions and reactions. I can't imagine any other way to do his job.
The only way I can try to describe it is by saying that it is the only place I've ever been where I felt genuinely guilty for being alive. I felt everything. Fear, guilt, sorrow, anger, grief, relief. I was overwhelmed. There was a point where I really thought I'd lose my breakfast. You think you know about life, you think you know about suffering... until you realize you know nothing.
Shoes. When the Soviet Union liberated Auschwitz in 1945, they found 43,000 pairs of shoes in the camp.
Collection of hair brushes. Another room in block 4 holds a display of tons and tons of human hair, which was shaved off of over 140,000 prisoners to be sold for manufacturing products, including floor rugs. A lot of it already had been sold by the the time the Soviet Union intervened. Photographs were not allowed in that room. The impact of seeing such a thing is indescribable.
The original gas chamber, which was eventually turned into military office space and later re-constructed by the Soviet Union:
A group of students from Israel posing for a group photo in front of the main gate:
Auschwitz II - Birkenau, an extension of Auschwitz. This camp stands about a mile away from the main camp. Unlike the main camp, Birkenau was built with the intended purpose of exterminating prisoners in large numbers. We were transported via bus for this 2nd part of the tour.
Prisoner toilets. Prisoners often hid inside the toilets to avoid a day's labor AKA beatings AKA potential death. Hiding in these could almost guarantee someone one more day of survival. Cleaning toilets was one of the most wanted jobs for prisoners as it was considered a "light labor" job and guards avoided going in there due to the foul smell and poor conditions. Many of the survivors were those who had lighter jobs.
One of the most striking moments for me was when I arrived to this spot. It is where the trains stopped to deliver new prisoners. Directly to your left, is where the selection process would take place. Prisoners were then chosen for either labor or death. This was the spot where many prisoners saw their loved ones for the last time.
Many Holocaust survivors/authors describe seeing their family members for the last time in this very spot during the selection process. I couldn't help but think of the names of each and every one of the survivors I'd met or read about who described that very moment. It was a gut-wrenching feeling to stand there.
I'm not sure I'll ever know exactly why I've always been so drawn to this place and period in history. Perhaps because growing up as a lonely girl without very many friends who would get so wrapped up in her books, I often found solace in the lives of the characters in said books, especially those who survived or endured this place. Perhaps because my first Holocaust book single-handedly took my innocence and gave me my first real heartbreak. Perhaps because the women in these books were fearless and brave and fighters and warriors. Perhaps because they were everything I was not. Who knows. All I know is that these women that I read about and learned so much from became my friends. Alicia, Anne, Esther, Isabella... they all formed a part of my world for so long. And that day at Auschwitz, they came with me. In my mind and in my heart. I made that journey to Poland because my whole life I'd had a longing to do so. I had to see it. And feel it. There is no explanation why. But I do know that I finally felt like I was strong enough and fearless enough to do the things I never thought I could. So I did.