97: Never Forget

97: Never Forget

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Never Forget

The only truly dead are those who have been forgotten.

~Jewish proverb

We make the sixty-kilometer trip from Krakow to the town of Oœwiêcim, more commonly known as Auschwitz, its German name. This is the most humbling and sobering day of my life.

As I enter Auschwitz through the main gate, I look overhead and see the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” or in English, “Work Shall Set You Free.” I imagine the millions of innocent people who marched to their deaths underneath this twisted phrase. Here, the orchestra made up of prisoners would play as thousands of other prisoners would march out to start their day of forced labor. Many times this labor had no purpose at all, only to slowly and painfully kill the prisoners.

Once past the gate, Auschwitz opens up into rows and rows of barracks and Nazi offices. Today it is a museum with each building housing a separate exhibition. One of the most moving is the “Physical Evidence of the Crimes” exhibition. In it are the belongings that were taken away from the prisoners as they entered the camp. Included in this display is a long room filled to the ceiling on both sides with shoes of the victims. As I walk along in silence, alone with my thoughts, I make out a child’s rubber boot. I stop and put my hand on the glass. I have no idea what is to come. Once I leave that room, I turn a corner and there is a whole separate display of children’s shoes, the grizzly evidence taking up about a quarter of the room. I walk on to see the suitcases, crutches and prosthetics of the victims, each collection more disturbing than the last.

As I leave the physical evidence display I cannot remove the image of the child’s boot from my mind. Why the children? Why couldn’t they be spared? I look up and I see a tall chimney. My heart sinks into my empty stomach because I know what is before me. I walk into the gas chamber and immediately have a rush of fear. I don’t want to be in this room but I know I have to continue on, in remembrance. There is only one small light in the middle of the room. The windows circling the entire room around the top have metal grating on them that serves two purposes: to keep the victims from escaping their death and to allow the sinister, cowardly men to watch. Today these windows give me a perspective — a perspective on evil. The chamber feels like death. The next room isn’t any better, since it holds the crematory. The trolleys poised at the open doors of the four cremators. It is now that I feel I must get out, and I will run if I have to.

The next location I come to in this eerily silent place is the Death Wall. Here, in a small courtyard, is where the guards would line up whomever they felt deserved to be shot and killed. Many times the prisoners were made to wear blindfolds, unable to see the trigger being pulled, unable to brace themselves for their untimely death. I can feel the sadness, the ruin, and the lost opportunities. Today at the base of the wall there are memorials — flowers and candles — for the victims. But behind the colorful display there is still the black concrete wall. The contrast is extraordinary. I cry silently, out of view from my fellow travel companions. I will never forget those who came before me into this space. I will never forget those who did not have the chance to leave this place.

We take a short taxi ride to the other camp in the complex, called Auschwitz II, or Auschwitz-Birkenau, named for the town in which it is located. This isn’t a museum. It is left as if the camp was liberated yesterday. The barracks come into focus, as far as the eye can see, some 300 of them. The barracks that were constantly being filled with new prisoners. The barracks that hold at least 400 people. Long lines of latrines and washrooms are also still intact. The gate, the Death Gate, which the trains went through in order to reach the sorting platform, is still here. Even the train tracks that cut the camp in half are still here for all to see.

Today, I can walk freely around the camp and feel the sorrow. I almost wish I were in an organized group so as to distract me from the sadness. When I walk into the wooden barracks I know that I am not alone. There is no light. The only light sources are the five small windows on each long wooden wall. In some parts of the barracks it is pitch black. Yet I feel their eyes on me; I feel their eyes on my soul. I immediately sense the multiple presences within the wooden structure. It was almost as if there is a crowd of people around me, although I’m really only accompanied by three other human beings. The crowd I feel cannot be seen.

As I continue to walk, I come upon the destroyed ruins of the gas chambers and crematoriums. Auschwitz-Birkenau was established in order to deal with the overcrowding in Auschwitz I. It also played an integral part in The Final Solution, the mass extermination of the Jewish people. Two shattered fragments remain of what used to be four chambers. Whether it is only in my imagination or reality, a smell becomes apparent, the smell of death and burnt debris. It is as if the Nazis have just departed.

As I walk back to the Death Gate, along the train tracks that carried millions of innocent people to their death, the cold no longer seems to matter. The almost two-hour bumpy, cold drive from Krakow becomes trivial. I can’t imagine complaining about anything ever again. These people didn’t have the time to complain about the cold. Staying alive was their goal and they had to put all their energy into that. The courage that was shown by the prisoners in these camps is astonishing. I can’t imagine having to be that strong. To say goodbye to your family, knowing full well that in fifteen minutes they would be murdered and then burned, is mind blowing.

I try to think of things to do to make everything better but there is nothing. It is too late, the atrocities have already been committed and the genocide has already taken place. I have done my part, though. I have seen it and learned from it. I have changed inside, even if just a little, for the better.

~Savannah Cole

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