Auschwitz Concentration Camps.. I really truly don’t think my words can really explain it. I’m not sure my thoughts will be even portrayed properly. But I will try…
When work was planning a trip here, I was nervous. I was happy to have this opportunity, but how would my kids handle it?? I researched beforehand, and the Auschwitz website says the site is not recommended for anyone under the age of 14 – my kids are 5 & 6. They are active little boys, who find sitting still and being quiet as a very difficult thing…. After a lot of back and forth discussion, we decided we were sure the kids would be fine, and we would take the chance of going. If the kids get overwhelmed, my husband or I could step outside and wait. We had a HUGE talk with the kids before we got there about the solitude of the place – this was a place to be quiet and whisper, no running or jumping, and listening at all times. They seemed to get it – as much as 5 and 6 year olds can…
As we were driving there, I wasn’t sure how I would feel on it. I was thinking I would be okay on the drive, and only feel more emotions once we got off our bus and saw the area. To get there, you drive through many small towns. One of the closer towns to the Camp, you see people outside their homes mowing the lawn; cutting the hedges; sweeping their stones – how are these people living their normal lives so close to where so much horror took place?? Of course I started thinking – people need to live. People need homes. I am sure they are reminded about where they live every day, they wouldn’t need some outsider like me judging… It was at this point – sitting in a bus, where my chest started feeling constricted. The emotion I thought I would feel on site was starting earlier than I thought.. I was going to see where millions of people were murdered – scary thought!!!
When you pull up, you see tons of buses from other tour groups. We parked, and were given twenty minutes to wander around outside before heading to start our tour. There was a small bookshop to buy books about the Auschwitz history. There was even a restaurant; gotta admit, I wasn’t expecting that. A vending machine possibly for a coffee on a cold winter day, but not a sit down restaurant with cake and ice cream..
Once our tour guide came to get us all, through security we went. You have to pass through a metal detector, and all electronics have to be shown. My purse was too big – the security guard told me I was going to have to bring it to the luggage area – wonderful. Our tour guide asked me if I wanted to bring it back on the bus instead – to which I said yes – the security guard decided to just let through instead. Once through, you get a set of headphones and a radio so you can listen to your guide speak so she can speak quietly and not have to raise her voice. My husband and I took one each, but when offered a set for the kids, I said no. Where we are was enough for them, I didn’t need them hearing everything our guide was saying and what exactly she would talk about… They protested of course, but Mommy stood her ground..
Next was to head outside. Literally the first thing you see, are the barbed wire fences. Long, very tall, barbed wire fences. All you can think of, is “wow, nobody could try to escape here without being badly hurt…”. The guide brings you through the gates everyone who was brought to Auschwitz, had to go through. Standing in front of it, was a scary feeling. Actually going through them was a scary feeling. Just being there was now a scary feeling.
As you walk down the rows, there are signs along the way – of what happened in that exact spot. Reading these signs – wow.. It’s incredibly shocking how someone could do such evil things to human beings… Standing and looking at a spot where someone was held captive, and pretty much tortured until being put into a gas chamber, was chilling.
Our guide brought us into a few different buildings where exhibitions were being held. One building showed bunkers and where and how people lived. One building showed where the medical experiments were taking place, and photos of how skinny people were. Another building showed the amount of shoes and glasses that were there. One showed how people were stuck in basements and only had a coin sized hole pretty much to see any sunlight. It was unimaginable what these poor men/women/children were put through. Going through these buildings was something else…
My oldest son kept asking to put on my headphones – to which of course I kept saying no. Finally after not stopping, I decided, even though I wasn’t quite sure, if he really wanted to hear, I would let him. Gave him my headphone as we were walking from one building to the other. In this building, the first thing you see as you walk in, are men who were killed photos. The hallway was lined with photos and names. Throughout the building, we saw letters and names of prisoners, and more photos. As we were walking out, my son looked at me and said “Mom, all these people are dead now” – and that moment hit me hard. My six year old understanding and explain to me what our guide was telling us, was a weird feeling. Last November we (my husband, myself, and our three kids) had a 33km Liberation March – we walked through areas of The Netherlands where Canada helped liberate during WWII. My same son asked me then why we were walking. So I’d explained to him that there was a bad man named Hitler who hurt a lot of people. So when I told him that this is where that bad man hurt the people, he understood. Not that I wanted him already at six years old to understand such a thing, but he did.. I know that this will be one thing he will not forget – despite his young age!
The last place here we were brought to, was an actual gas chamber and crematorium (same building). There are signs in the buildings saying no open flame allowed – to make sure no one uses a lighter if there are any gas particles left in the air – even after all this time…
This was the scariest place in all of Auschwitz. This exact spot was where most people were killed at Asuchwitz. I needed to make sure this is the one area the kids do not act up! There is a sign outside saying just that – silence is a must for respect.
Standing in this building – you are almost stuck to your spot. You don’t want to be there, but at the same time, your head just doesn’t allow you to leave. You just keep standing there and looking around. The reality that such horrific things happened in this building still hits me hard, and it has been a week since being there. It is not a feeling I don’t think that will every go away!
After seeing the gas chamber, it was time to leave Auschwitz, and head to Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is still part of the concentration camp where we just were, just three kilometers away. Birkenau is where people were transported by trains and were selected whether to head directly to the gas chambers or not.
This spot where my husband is taking this picture – where my five year old is standing! – is the exact spot where people got off the trains and were told “gas chamber” or “no gas chamber” – called The Selection. Kids my son’s age standing here being chosen whether he would survive or not – unimaginable!!
We walked towards the back of Birkenau and saw the monument which was made to commemorate and remember everyone who was killed.
As our last thing to see in Birkenau, we were brought to the bathrooms and rooms to sleep in. Again, how people could be brought to such cruelty is shocking. Prisoners could go to the bathroom one time in the morning, and once at night – having to ask for permission to go more than once. Sometimes people would get permission, but would get shot “just because”. It’s very scary how they were treated.
After this, our tour was ended. The entire time we were at Auschwitz and Birkenau, the clouds were out – almost on the verge on rain, but none came down. The weather went with the solemnness of our day. It fit – almost seems like sun wouldn’t have felt right.
There were about 5/6 kids in total in our group, and every single one of them was amazing all day! Listening and attentive and learning. The entire bus ride back to Krakow was very quiet – even all the kids! People reflecting on everything we had seen and heard for the last three hours. I do not think this was a day anyone will soon forget. We can only hope humanity has learnt something from this terrible time in our history, and changes the way we react and proceed with events now!