We slept at Auschwitz…in the parking lot. My sleep was interrupted with dreams of horror. As trains come through town, the metal wheels scream along the tracks conjuring a soundtrack of some cinematic depiction of the horrors faced by hundreds of Jews packed into each cattle car entering the dreaded gates of Birkenau. Once in the night I awoke, lips parched, head pounding and pee pushing against my bladder, but I forced myself back to sleep thinking that I was in a cell unable to get up; unable to do anything but suffer. I would have to wait because in this dream I had been Jewish and captured. I dreamt I was sleeping in filth – the smell of urine and feces – the sick breath of many bedmates, clothing and bedding thick with months of body oils and dirt clinging to each fiber making it stiff and waxy but warmer. I awoke again realizing I was not a captive, but a tourist sleeping in a camper – thirsty, dehydrated and desperately needing to pee. I silently cried realizing that through dreamscape, I had somehow forced myself to a level of experience to witness the life of those who suffered here. Even so, I knew that my brain’s feeble attempt to enter into the experience was minute compared to the weight of Holocaust reality. But in the parking lot at Auschwitz, one can feel on the edge of the other world as ghosts beckon those who visit to live the horrors by reminding us of the sounds.
In the quite of the bathroom, awake but shaken, I heard trains screaming through town, metal wheels grinding on the tracks and knew that 70 years ago, that was the same sound heard by hundreds of thousands of Jews directed from train cars into the crematoriums and swiftly murdered in during German rule.
I never in my life imagined that I would visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. I can’t even remember how it was that we came to decision to come here. It was so surreal for me to stand in these places that I had only seen depicted in movies where atrocities so unspeakable occurred.
Tours through both sites are led by educators rather than individual self-tours which creates a bit of the sense of being herded and packed in like the prisoners might have felt – of course, without the hope that they would finally be able to resettle, then shortly, the fear, dread, terror, hunger.
Birkenau is HUGE. We saw the famous entry gate where trains would arrive and cattle car after cattle car filled with thousands of Jews who had been rounded up from all over Europe were directed by a flippant gesture from a doctor to either walk right or left. If directed to the left, Jews walked directly to the gas chamber, right was to the work camps.
To walk down the same path, to hear the shuffle of the feet of those who walked with you, to see the sun blinding you as you walked into its rays to the west towards the gas chamber – unknowing – perhaps hopeful that this indeed would be the camp that led to your new life…to be told to undress to shower then walk naked into a room with 2000 other people…already hungry and beaten from the long train ride…unable to comprehend that this could really be the end. People cannot comprehend this reality…they couldn’t then and we still – even though the savagery and stories are documented and told – we can still not comprehend the horror…too inhuman to imagine.
Above are the ruins of one of the many crematoriums the Nazis destroyed right before the war ended. This was done to cover up what they had done.