I was running errands in Florida when my boyfriend Bradley messaged me an interesting question: What’s your biggest fear? It took me a few hours to reply, not because I was pondering this. I was busy. After returning from my two-year adventure in Europe, I had a lot of settling in to do. My mom and I shared some fries and grilled nuggets to keep us going through the afternoon errands to banks and Home Depot. After living abroad and traveling for so long, everything in Florida felt extra American. The cars, the roads, the air conditioning, the coffee, the weather. I was still deciding my levels of excitement vs. sadness to be back. My eyes had seen so many new things, heard so many languages, and tasted so many new flavors. I felt expanded, boundless and interesting. I also felt safe, loved and healthy. Finally, I replied to Bradley’s question:
“My biggest fear is that we, humans,
will end up destroying this Earth and each other.
That would be such a shame. Our world is a gem.”
This fear is something recent – a few months old. What made me so aware of humans’ capacity to destroy the world and each other was Auschwitz. On April 12th, 2017, I visited Auschwitz Concentration Camp. This was the deadliest of the 9,000 camps –NINE THOUSAND CAMPS – throughout Europe. There, for the first time, I saw proof: we are our own biggest threat.
I was first taught about the Holocaust in 8th or 9th grade, soon after moving from Venezuela to the United States. While studying The Diary of Anne Frank, I could not help but stare at the redhead boy sitting next to me. He was the first Jewish person I had ever met (at least that I was aware of). He fascinated me. I grew up in a very Catholic environment back in South America. My school principal was a nun; all my friends had a first communion party and a Christmas tree in December. Looking over at this Jewish boy, I could not find any outrageous differences. I could not imagine why anyone would want to kill him. I found him annoying, sure. But that had nothing to do with his background. He liked to bother classmates sometimes. But even in my annoyance at his behavior, I had no desire to cause him harm. I tried to fit this Holocaust story told by our teacher into our adolescent world. It made no sense.
Humankind’s past is tainted with blood since the time of sacrifices by the fire. But something about the Holocaust caught my academic interest, and I spent all of high school researching it. I read books from the library, browsed through World War II encyclopedias, watched renowned Holocaust movies, and even met three survivors who spoke publicly about their stories.
The day my friend Sarah and I went to Auschwitz, we woke up at 7 a.m. We sipped our coffee slowly while Sarah wrote in her journal and I did a gratitude meditation. We were out the door by 8 a.m., and at 8:15 the tour company shuttle picked us up in front of our hostel in Krakøw, Poland. In Auschwitz, prisoners were forced to wake up at 4 a.m. so they could spend a couple of hours doing roll call, followed by a few more hours of waiting for food and the bathroom. Work started at 9:30 a.m. It was around 9:30 a.m. on that cold April 2017 morning that I finished eating an apple in the parking lot of what is now a museum and memorial.
1.1 million people died in Auschwitz. One million one hundred thousand people died in one of the nine thousand camps in Europe. The number suddenly felt more tangible when I stepped into the barracks of Auschwitz I – the first of three sites that comprise the Auschwitz Concentration Camp complex. “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” read the infamous sign at the entrance, meaning “Work Sets You Free.” The cold wind blew, and I hoped the victims’ souls did end up experiencing the freedom falsely promised upon entering.
Auschwitz (which operated from 1940-1945) was a work camp the first two years and turned into an extermination camp the last three. Auschwitz I is where the tour started, after I had finished that apple. Poland has delicious red apples. Apples that were not served in the 800-calorie daily diet of prisoners. It was an indirect form of extermination. A calculated diet so prisoners could work for about three months… and then die of starvation. But work was not the only thing prisoners were used for. In Auschwitz I, women suffered through sterilization experiments. Not to mention experiments to change eye color and more. Twins and babies were put in Dr. Josef Mengele’s (1911-1979) hands, the “Angel of Death” as he is sometimes referred. I wonder if death did come to those who suffered his experiments as a form of freedom and blessing.
Sarah and I chose to go to Auschwitz as part of our spring break vacation in Eastern Europe. It seemed that if we were going to visit Poland, we had to include a visit to Auschwitz. We knew it would be a hard day, and we did not schedule anything else for the afternoon after the tour. It was our choice to go and see for ourselves what seemed like an old story told in school classrooms in the United States.
Believe it or not, there were some Jews that chose to go to Auschwitz during WWII. Oh yes, they even bought their own train ticket there. The reason Jews chose to go to Auschwitz was thanks to the propaganda. One of the extermination camps had a playground where Nazis took photographs of the children playing. Postcards were made, and prisoners were forced to write falsified messages to loved ones about their “happy” lives in Auschwitz. Due to this, some Jews went there because it seemed like a better option than whatever ghetto they were living in.
Auschwitz was something that evolved from year to year. Train rides themselves became deadly. For prisoners coming from France, it was a one-week journey. But that was nothing compared to the two-week journey from Greece. With no food, no water, no heat, no bathrooms and no sitting space, it is shocking some people even made it to camp. Though it wrecks my heart to write these words, I wondered while I looked at the now empty train wagon… if those who died in transit were the lucky ones.
I stared at the pile of glasses, pile of shoes, suitcases, kitchen utensils… I stared at everything as if they were items that came from my own house. I have glasses… I have black shoes like those… I have two brown suitcases… I am not speaking about a small display of victims’ belongings at a Holocaust museum. I am speaking about an entire room, the size of a studio apartment, filled from floor to ceiling with people’s shoes. There was also a room about the same size full of hair. Long, braided hair that contained poison from the gas chambers. People that were sent straight to the gas chamber upon arrival died with their long hair. Somebody, and I cannot imagine it was a person, had to cut it off from the corpses so it could then be used for textiles. Textile industries bought this fabric made from prisoners’ hair filled with poison. To the very last fiber of their being, people were robbed.
In Auschwitz I you will find the only remaining gas chamber. All the others were bombed by the Nazis before the camp was liberated by the Soviet Red Army. Sarah asked our tour guide if this was an attempt to get rid of evidence. The tour guide hesitated, replying it was not so much that they were “scared” and bombed the evidence. It was more about the fact that they had more dead bodies to dispose of than they could keep up with. The piles were growing and growing, and they had to speedily burn them all. As you can see in some movies, before going into the gas chamber they gave them soap and a towel. Another trick. Another mockery.
Photographs of victims line the walls in Auschwitz I Museum/Memorial. Children (which were considered “fit to work” from age three, by the way), men and women stared into the camera with fear-filled eyes, sometimes anger. A teary teenage girl with chopped up hair caught my eye. They had probably just chopped it off when they took that photo. At first, the registration process was very “proper.” It was methodical and organized. The first two or three years in Auschwitz, they took pictures of every incoming prisoner. As the numbers grew and all prisoners looked alike, they could no longer recognize them. This is how the tattooed number system started. This way, in the gas chambers, they could yell out the number of each corpse to register them. As time passed, and the urge to “get rid” of prisoners increased, they began to send them in without keeping record of who they were. After all, the intent was to kill every single one. At that point, the registration process became irrelevant.
Between the brick buildings, which were used as the Polish Army barracks prior to the Holocaust, I walked on rocky soil and zipped up my jacket – though it was useless. This place was cold. We walked the barracks, hearing the facts, with little time to cry over the story because we had to move quickly so the next tour could enter the room. Little space to feel, little time to mourn. The information got heavier, and stories of escapes from Auschwitz gave a small breath of consolation. Then came the execution wall, which was stained a dark color. Not black, not red, not brown. It was just dark. All the human blood mixed into a historical memory. We saw the bathrooms where prisoners were asked to strip their clothes before heading to the execution wall. But it devastated me to learn that more than once they were shot while undressing. And so, the bathrooms were also stained dark.
There was one story that moved me. The story of the priest who switched places with a man that had been sentenced to the starvation room. There had been an escape in Auschwitz, and the Nazis chose ten random men to suffer the consequences. A man, crying over his son, expressed his anguish loudly. That was when Polish priest, Maximilian Kolbe, volunteered himself on the man’s behalf. Mr. Kolbe miraculously survived the starvation room. Unfortunately, however, the Nazis then sent him to the execution wall where he died a martyr… and a hero. The man he saved lived to old age. Upon hearing that, I took a breath of hope and gave a silent thanks to Maximilian Kolbe.
The last stop of Auschwitz I was the gas chamber: a place I longed to get out of as soon as I set foot inside. I almost forgot we were on a tour. My mind felt a little woozy, hoping deeply I would never have to set foot there again. The stained walls contained vast suffering.
I knew I wanted to write a piece about this place. A historical, informative article. But my brain could hardly function in the gas chamber. All I wanted was the exit. My apologies for the poor language I am about to use in this historically centered piece, but the gas chamber is the most fucked up place I have ever seen in this world. There simply isn’t another way to describe it.
From there, we had a short break as they drove us to Birkenau (Auschwitz II). This was the largest camp of all the camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. Opened in 1942, Birkenau was the site where most Auschwitz prisoners were killed. The barracks were built by prisoners themselves. At first, they used brick, so a few of them appear sturdy. However, as the Nazis began to feel pressed for time, and with the amount of time it took to build enough barracks, they began to use wood. The structures were shameful for Poland’s weather. Even in mid-April, Sarah (an upstate New Yorker who’s faced her share of winters) and I were freezing to the bone. But we could not complain; we had hats (mine was even thermal), thick jackets, gloves, and boots. It made no difference. The cold wind was penetrating, and I wanted to weep for the misery of their pajama-like uniforms for all seasons. We knew we had no right to complain.
At the end of the camp, there stood a monument with 23 plaques. Each plaque is written in a different language, representing all the languages spoken by victims of Auschwitz. There was also a pond where the Nazis threw away the ashes of corpses after going through the gas chamber. I stood there and looked at my surroundings. The nature surrounding this camp was beautiful. Open sky, hills and trees, birds singing, and… the barracks. I wondered if the beautiful nature around them was even a small source of comfort at all. Living in the barracks, I doubt anyone noticed. And my heart broke at how much they were deprived of.
The bathroom was something perhaps suitable for animals, but not humans. “Toilets,” or rather holes, were lined up next to each other with nothing but air between them. And that’s where they spent hours lining up for a string of decency to at least defecate under a roof.
What took away the last bit of strength I felt were the barracks for sick women. They were made to wait there while they made room for them in the gas chamber. Wooden shelves, that’s what they were, with rocky soil below. I got scared there. I got really scared picturing those women on the “shelves” so vividly. I almost puked with nerves and anguish for them. They built these barracks, and they lied in them, sick, vomiting, defecating, and perhaps praying.
It was a silent ride to the hostel that day. Sarah and I went back to Krakøw around 6 p.m. and walked the streets. The same streets in the Jewish ghetto, from which we had both viewed brutal images from Oscar-winning movie Schindler’s List. The streets had such dark history; it was hard to move past this somber day – even once we had left Auschwitz.
We had dinner at the Easter market in the quintessential Main Market Square – my favorite part of Krakøw. We ate traditional grilled sheep cheese with cranberry sauce on top, and artisan bread toast with different hearty toppings like onions and meat. We wanted to be chipper, but felt the city was too solemn for two young girls on a spring break vacation. Before travelling there I had read The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman, and all I really wanted was to show respect to Poland and its brave people. Poland suffered tremendously during WWII, but it also fought bravely. That is why I do not want to victimize them by sharing the details of their lives in Auschwitz. I want to empower them as brave and unwavering hearts that endured pain inflicted by their own family – the human family.
By midnight, I was sound asleep, in a comfortable bed, in a beautiful private room near the Main Market Square. Our hostel had a beautiful bathroom that I wished was in my apartment in Madrid. The white cover-up and inclined ceiling in the room was Instagram perfect. My pillow was soft. I read a book and I drifted away to sweet dreams around the same time prisoners in Auschwitz were sent off to their barracks after hours of roll call with empty, shrinking stomachs, but I hope not a shrinking soul.
For more information on Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum Memorial visits and donations, please visit the website: