Touring Auschwitz

The sun shines through a cloudless sky, beating down on the packed gravel pathway. Huge trees flaunt bright green leaves that are healthy from the early June weather. I could be anywhere, I think to myself. For a moment I forget, and I gaze at the red brick buildings lined up in orderly rows, one after the other.

Then I continue my journey along the even dirt path, and it isn't too long before I reach the gate. "Arbeit Macht Frei," it reads. Now I remember. The rusty iron gate is wide open for anyone to enter, but that's not how it always was. My eyes unconsciously dart to the right and left of the ominous metal proverb and follow the curved cement posts that link rope after rope of barbed wire together. The commanding fence stretches almost to the limits of my vision.

I cross the threshold of no man's land, the five-foot stretch of land between the two wired fences, between Polish soil and Nazi territory, between freedom and imprisonment, between life and death. "Arbeit Macht Frei," or "work makes you free," is suspended mockingly over my head for a moment before I pass through.

It could be any collection of army barracks, dormitories, or any sort of cheap housing, I think as the fence passes from my vision. I can imagine children laughing in the shade of the old trees, darting back and forth from doorway to doorway to visit their friends.

Another scene invades my mind. This time I try to imagine the emaciated prisoners struggling to grasp remnants of life, fighting just to make it through the next hour. The scene simply doesn't fit. How could anything so evil happen here in the warm summer breeze and sunshine?

I approach an open door. Block eleven, aptly nicknamed the "block of death." No cameras inside, please. I enclose my camera safely in its case, tucking it away in the purse at my hip. The first hallway is quiet, and only respectful murmurs move throughout the tourists filing past the rooms branching off from the hallway. I observe neatly made beds in room after room designed for the sonderkommando, those who knew what happened down the stairs in the basement.

I descend the stairs to the basement slowly. The tiny hairs on my arms and the back of my neck poke into the air. The air seems colder down here, the walls closer. I emerge in a cement corridor lit only by small flood lights strung up along the upper edges of the ceiling. This time the crowd is silent. The only thing that pierces the oppressive quiet is the scuffle of shoes and the occasional cough. I pass by more rooms and read the signs explaining what they were for.

Here was solitary confinement. And over here was "standing room only," where four human beings were bricked into a pitch black room with no food or water for days: standing room only. Oh, and here was where the first experiments with Zyklon-B took place. There were eventually moved to the much larger gas chambers over in the crematorium across the way.

The facts bounce off my heart like hail hitting a glass window. I want them to shatter my heart so I can process something, or feel anything. But I don't, I can't feel anything, I'm numb. I stand in the cold, concrete hallway where so many people died, and I can't feel a thing. I peer through the tiny windows in the closed doors to the torturing rooms. I try to imagine what it was like, but all I can see is an empty room.

I climb the misshapen steps; I can breathe easier again. The sunshine warms my face when I step outside again, and the light breeze tickles my face as it teases a few strands of my hair across my cheek. I will not forget what happened here, though I can't begin to imagine what it was like sixty years ago, before the grass was green and the gates were wide open.

I lift my face to the sun and allow myself a small smile. Here, in the middle of Auschwitz death camp, I finally understand: there's still hope. The remnants of death still linger at Auschwitz, but hope has taken over, hope that something like this will never happen again.

Author's Note: A little personal story for you all... I actually did tour Auschwitz last summer, and many of these thoughts plagued (and still plague) my mind. It's quite the surreal experience.

Anyway... let me know what you think. Leave a review!