The iron gate to Auschwitz seemed harmless enough: “Arbeit Macht Frei” – in German: “Work Brings Freedom.” For the hundreds of thousands that read those words it was simply a deception. This was not a work camp. This was a factory of death.
When I entered Auschwitz I arrived with 13 other men. We were brought in by bus. We exited and were directed to the registration building where we were issued a set of headphones and a small electronic receiver. The Polish guide would narrate our journey through the barracks of the most notorious concentration camp in history. We would soon learn more about the reality of this fateful place.
Between the years of 1940 and 1943, over 1 million men, women, and children would enter those gates. Brought in on cramped train cars with no food or water, these civilians would be divided into two groups. Those who were fit to work would be issued striped, baggy prison attire and would endure months of forced labor until they were either starved, worked to death, or killed.
Those who were not fit to work were sent by the thousands into what they were told were shower rooms. However these “shower rooms” were actually gas chambers, where up to 3,000 were killed in a quarter of an hour. Their dead bodies were incinerated in ovens built for the task.
Our group entered some barracks. Here were displayed thousands of photos of those who had entered the camps. Now the numbers had faces with empty eyes and shaved heads. Those who were Jewish (over 90 percent of those who came to Auschwitz) had yellow stars patched to their ragged prison garb.
We entered another barracks and saw hundreds of pairs of eyeglasses in a pile. Another room revealed piles of suitcases – luggage of those who had taken their last trip – with their names handwritten on the sides. Yet another entire barracks room contained tens of thousands of pairs of shoes; again, piled almost to the ceiling. Most terribly came another room with a pile of human hair almost the length of the barracks. These were only a small representation of the horrors of Auschwitz.
Although I had read about Auschwitz and the atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War II, the reality of what happened there only 60 years earlier did not yet seem real to me. Perhaps there are simply no categories in one’s mind to fathom such wickedness.
I walked back through the iron gates and will not forget.