What it’s like to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau

In 2016, 215,000 Americans visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp operated by Nazi Germany in World War 2. One of those people was me. The number of visitors is important to illustrate because it was a little less than 0.07% of the American population that year. Hence, stories like this are immeasurably unique and particularly rare.

Today, I decided that my story must be shared. Though there was never a conscious decision made to not share my story, I now realize, much like the infamous Trolly Problem, the consequence of not making any choice leads to an inadvertent choice.

Let’s begin.

I remember growing up being particularly fascinated by World War 2 history. But who isn’t really? The idea that one man, through careful and meticulous planning, could convince an entire country of people that Jews were the problem and they needed to be exterminated, is, well, shocking. I was enamored with any class that pertained to the subject.

I also grew up with a healthy knowledge of my Polish heritage. I remember being in class and thinking, “what if someone in our family was sent to Auschwitz.” I just assumed that I would never know, and while records are more easily accessible today, I still may never know.

From a young age, I knew that we were Polish but not Jewish. I grew up eating Golumpki and Pierogi and listening to Polka on Sundays after mass. My grandfather talked so fondly of his childhood memories and taught me the few Polish words that he could remember from his mother. I always had an excellent ear for the Eastern European accent and picked up the words quickly. Given this, you could say that I was completely aware of my family’s roots.

What it's like to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau

A year prior.

In 2015, at 26-years-old, I got deeply involved in a search to find my ancestors in Poland. It would soon haunt my dreams on the nights that I did get any sleep. My journey felt like I was living out the novel Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer with a rollercoaster of emotional ups and downs. A year later in April 2016, I was booking a plane ticket with my mother to Poland.

I’ve written extensively about my trip to Poland to find my ancestors, which you can read here. I even made a video during the journey. To this day it was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I’ve had so many people reach out to me in pursuit of their family. I found a fifth cousin because of my research, helped fill gaps in other people’s work, and made lifelong friends along the way. But, this story is not about that…

Cracow, Poland

It was April 14th, 2016 when we set off to begin our journey in Cracow. My mother and I were accompanied by our guide, Tomasz Cebulski. When I booked this heritage trip to Poland, I knew I didn’t want to see Auschwitz how everyone else saw it: standing next to 30 strangers hearing the shutters of their cameras click. If you Google ‘tomasz cebulski polin travel’, the first result that appears is ‘Tomasz Cebulski Changes Lives’. It’s true. I don’t think he’ll ever know how much his tour meant to us.

When Tomasz described Oswiecim-Auschwitz as “the town of my childhood,” I knew that he would be the one to take us to Auschwitz. Having a PhD in the field and having worked directly with Holocaust survivors, I was extremely hopeful.

Our first stop was the Cracow Ghetto. We sat in an old van big enough for a family of eight, and Tomasz began to tell us the story of the Empty Chairs Memorial and the beginning of the Nazi occupation in Poland. The clouds had just begun to move in, setting the tone for the rest of the day.

I remember a bus full of small children arriving and one by one each child walked into the square of the Empty Chairs Memorial. They were accompanied by what appeared to be a bodyguard. From my memory, Tomasz informed us it was a Jewish school trip and it was normal to have the children accompanied by ‘bodyguards’. I remember him making a comment that it was a shame they accompany them like that, trying to protect them from the world. It was my understanding that he felt it only further alienated them, which seemed like a good arguement.

Of course, they didn’t seem to like our sketchy van, but I couldn’t blame them. To them, we appeared to be staring at the children from a distance in an old dim-lit van (as might as well had a sign that said ‘free candy’). One of them walked over and Tomasz rolled down his window and began speaking to him in Polish.

I am not sure what words were exchanged, but after a lot of side-eye thrown our way, Tomasz rolled up the window and said it was time to go.

After taking us through the Cracow Ghetto, Schindler’s Factory, and a brief visit to Plaszow where Amon Göth’s apartment (infamous from the movie Schindler’s List) was being renovated, we headed off to Oświęcim.

Oświęcim, Poland

It was lightly raining when we finally arrived to Oświęcim, which was a nice relief considering that it poured the entire way there. The drive wasn’t long; only about an hour from Cracow. I remember thinking about how I was going to experience Auschwitz in the pouring rain as so many victims probably did, but with much more to keep me warm. My boots made a clacking sound across the wet gravel-filled brick paths that will haunt me forever. To this day I can still see the ground and hear the sound if I close my eyes.

We began our tour by passing the infamous sign that reads “work will set you free.” That was one of the first things that Tomasz commented on through our headphones. I remember passing multiple tours of probably 20 or more people who either looked at us with jealousy, or never even noticed our trio through their iPhones.

One of the only photos of me at Auschwitz is a photo my mother snapped as Tomasz and I were walking through the gate. I made a personal decision not to take any photos myself. It didn’t feel right to photograph a place where so many suffered. I would stay that the majority of people chose to document their visit to Auschwitz. I think it’s a personal choice for everyone, though it seemed most people just took photos out of habit. For me, I never even grappled with it. It never felt right.

Tomasz walked in front of us the entire time. His voice, which recited facts and recounted his own experiences with survivors, echoed through our 90’s earphones. I adjusted my volume higher to drown out the crowds.

Auschwitz 1

We made our way through the ‘living quarters‘, if you could call them that. They were referred to as ‘blocks’. Approaching block 11 was the hardest. It was the location of the ‘Death Wall’, a place where the majority of executions were carried out. There were flowers and other gifts for the victims lying against the wall and on the gravel. At this point, tears filled my eyes. But this was just the beginning and I knew we had much further to go.

We walked through the brick buildings, some of which had been turned into mini-museums containing different exhibits and information. In one, there was a paper I saw that I would never forget. It was an extermination plan to rid the world of all ‘Poles’. I remember seeing the countries listed and the exact number of Poles that made up the population. Countries like Italy and Croatia were included. That was the first time that I realized the extent of Hitler’s vision. As Himmler put it, “All Poles will disappear from the world.” It was the first time I also realized that yes Hitler hated Jews, but he hated Poles, too.

The day was honestly a blur. It was one building after another. But I can remember certain sounds and sights, like my boots clacking against the brick, the beat of the rain on my umbrella, and a soft voice in my ears recounting the lives of millions who lived and died here. Tomasz always spoke softly and slowly, as if it was his first time there.

One museum we went into housed a glass enclosure full of children’s shoes. Literally, children’s shoes everywhere. It was overwhelming. I remember that my mother started to cry. I didn’t want to look at her because I knew what we were experiencing was so personal, and frankly, I didn’t have the energy to console. I looked down at my boots. They were so similar. Brown boots with  a slight heel and old-word paisley pattern, meant to look vintage. I immediately felt guilty for wearing them.

Those boots never made it with me back home. I left them in The Czech Republic. Too old and damaged, I decided to part ways with them. I will never forget those boots though. They’re still the strongest memory I have at Auschwitz.

One of the last museums we went in to was called something like, ‘The Museum of Life’. I don’t remember the exact name, but I think it was in a building that specially housed temporary exhibits. Honestly, I could be wrong, but that’s how I remember it.

I walked in slowly as I did in every building we entered and Tomasz was ahead of us, like always. The four walls which made up two smaller sides and two long middle sections created a rectangle. The walls were turned into one large movie screen. There were no borders. Just a large video being projected onto the four walls simultaneously.

The video showed Jews laughing and playing music. Jewish children sang and danced, and there were accordions like the ones I listened to on my grandfather’s Sunday Polka disc. They were happy. It was a celebration of Jewish life. Before my eyes were people that once existed and maybe were gone now. People that were like everyone else.

I started to cry. It was the first time that I was overwhelmed with emotions. My nose was running like a child and I used my coat to clean it up. The room was dark, which worked in my favor. I didn’t like people to see me cry. By the time we made it toward the exit, my crying had subsided a little. There was just enough light to where you could tell I had been crying, but I wasn’t in the middle of my breakdown.

When it was all said and done, it was life that made me cry. Not death, not torture, not pain. But the life of people that once were. I will never forget that video.

Before we left for Auschwitz II-Birkenau, we had lunch at the cafeteria, which is exactly as it sounds: weird. My mother and I ate in silence. Tomasz ate alone.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Estimates say that about 1.1 million people died here. If Auschwitz 1 was forced labour and torture, Birkenau was death.

The first thing we did was climb a tower; something the Nazi’s would have used to have visibility of the entire camp. You will never ever know how massive Birkenau is until you see it from above. My eyes scanned for what felt like miles and miles. All I could see fading into the distance were brick buildings after brick buildings. It was the first time I understood how it was possible that millions of people died here.

We climbed down from the tower and began our long journey down the railroad tracks. We walked for what seemed like forever, stopping at places of significance. One stop we made was where the passengers arriving would be let off and stripped away from their family. Tomasz said, “when I come here with survivors, this is the place they always break down because it’s the last memory they have of their family.” He paused. “They never break before this,” he said. “They only break here.”

At that moment I was grateful for this experience with Tomasz. On no other tour would I have this knowledge that I am now privileged to write about and obligated to share. His account of working with survivors and their stories were invaluable.

We finally made it to the end where the international memorial laid. Each tablet was in a different language, but read the same thing:

For ever let this place be a cry of despair and warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe.” Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940 – 1945

It was a blunt summarization of what happened, you could say.

We made our way back to the van, my boots now soaked from accidentally stepping in puddles, too immersed to look down at where I was walking. As we were walking I asked Tomasz, “So why not tear this place down? Why keep it alive? Why live with its memory?” He seemed to be intrigued by my question and I took him for the philosophical type, so I felt as comfortable as one could feel asking that question.

He said, “You know what, there were actually arguments on whether or not it should be torn down or kept for historical teachings.” Obviously, the latter won, but I was fascinated with why. He said he could see both sides and acknowledged that clearly, I could too. I just remember thinking that if I had been through all this and survived, I wouldn’t want the memory of this place haunting me from across the street.

It that moment I realized how truly strong the survivors of Birkenau were. In the midst of all their anger and suffering, they let this place live so the rest of the world it could know what hate is capable of.

Now.

About a year ago, I learned that someone with my family’s surname and from the same town my family was from in Poland died at Auschwitz. His name was Jozef Tenczar from Dobrzechow. I remember being a kid and wondering if any of my family might have died in the Holocaust. I will never know if this person is actually linked to me, but there is a very good chance they are.

When I tell people that I’ve been to Auschwitz, I see their eyes light up, but in a cautious way so they don’t come off as overly excited about hearing stories pertaining to a concentration camp in the Holocaust. If you’ve visited Auschwitz, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And as reluctant as I am to recount my experience because it’s so hard to put into words, I feel obligated to tell my story.

My hope is that maybe this story touched you or gave you insight into what the experience is actually like, and if I have really inspired you, gave you the courage to visit and learn more about the most devastating loss of human life in history.

I am forever grateful of my experience and I hope to continue to share it with the world.

2 comments

  1. Wow, thank you so much for sharing this experience Emily. It sounds like the way you went about it, without being in a such a large group, was the way to go. Seeing Auschwitz is something I would really like to have the chance to do – how powerful and emotional to see a dark part of history like that. I’m glad you wrote this post!

    Kathryn • simplykk.com

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