Trip to Poland

 In Holocaust Studies and Education


16 April, 2016: Upon arriving to Krakow, my anxiety continued to grow as I knew this would be the most emotionally tolling part of this trip. The sole thought of going to Auschwitz and Birkenau scared me– I didn’t know what to expect. I woke up that morning with a knot in my stomach and struggled to get out of bed. As I began to get dressed, my stress levels transformed into curiosity. I reflected as to what initially motivated me and what the goal of this trip was: I came to learn, to connect the dots of my research, discover new facts, to further explore, and deepen my perspective and worldview. In our hotel lobby, we met Thomas, our tour guide, who would be taking us through the grounds of Auschwitz and Birkenau. In the hour commute to the town of Oswiecim, Thomas explained his philosophy of the “8 steps of genocide.” He stated that it all begins with a dire national situation combined with hate speech rhetoric and propaganda. As the public becomes brainwashed and fearful, they don’t think twice about what they are hearing, resulting in a lack of resistance and indifference. He discussed the process of systematic degradation of rights that a persecuted group is subjected to and how basic freedoms are stripped over time.

At the halfway mark between Krakow and Auschwitz was a concentration camp memorial site. I do not recall the name of the camp, but it was purely a work camp where thousands of Gypsies, Jews, and homosexuals were subjected to abusive forced labour. Many Jews were saved by Oskar Schindler and his factory, located directly across the street. After a tour through Schindler’s factory and commemorating the victims of this camp, we continued on the route to Auschwitz.


We started at tour at Auschwitz I, the concentration camp. I immediately spotted the infamous sign that reads “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” or “work sets you free.” These words were intended to trick the prisoners into performing their labour tasks with maximum effort, hoping freedom would be granted if done so. I had seen this banner-type-gate in various photographs, but these words greeting me and thousands and other tourists was one of the most intimidating sensations I’ve ever felt. Chills shivers up my spine as I knew this was not even close to what ruins I would be seeing within the next hour, let alone at Birkenau. Thomas walked with us through the long rows of brick prison barracks and inside some of them were exhibits. One in particular had lifesize pages just listing names of people murdered in Auschwitz; these pages took up almost almost the whole length of one barrack. Another exhibit displayed items stolen from those who arrived at the camp– ranging from original suitcases to shoes, and the most difficult to see: the mountains of hair shaved off of prisoners before setting them to work or exterminating them. In that same room was the pile of Zyklon B cans used in the gas chambers (gas chambers were in use at Birkenau, but the cans were displayed at the Auschwitz I museum). These piles of just material things or remains were not just what they may appear to be: when putting it into context, one can witness the destruction of an entire population just by seeing the mass quantity of just material objects acquired. Most of these “things” were leftovers, as the Nazis stole the prisoners belongings and used them for personal gain. My family and I also placed stones on small memorials in front of 2 specific walls: one that was the site of many suicidal deaths in the camp and the other being the place where prisoners were shamed publicly then shot mercilessly. After paying our respects, we crossed over to the death factory that was Auschwitz II, or Auschwitz Birkenau.

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