Bring on the Bling

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Auschwitz I

After not sleeping for a few days, I could feel myself getting a little drowsy. When I boarded the train, I knew that my stop in Oswiecim (Auschwitz I) was just after 4:30am…which made me wary with who I was sharing a “room” with. I was nervous that I would sleep through my alarm with my earplugs in, but since I didn’t really sleep, it wasn’t a problem. I was awake and ready to go at 4, so I just hung out in the walkway, watching the slow sunrise. After a pilgrimage to the WC, the conductor let me know that the train was almost 2 hours late and he’d come get me when we arrived. Seriously? What happened? I guess we were held up at a station for a while, but it didn’t matter. I fell back asleep for about 90 minutes and then just decided to wake up fully. At this point, most people on the train started to wake up, thinking that the train would be pulling into the Krakow station soon. Nope!

Around 6:45, the train pulled into the Oswiecim station and I realized that I was out in the sticks. The station was almost deserted with a few random train cars dotting the tracks. The station looked like a rundown airplane hangar, and all of the buildings were a shade of grey. It had rained a little the night before, so the roads and sidewalks were spotted with puddles. I knew that Auschwitz I didn’t open until 8, so I looked at the city map just outside of the station and found a path I could walk. Fortunately, there was an ATM just across the street, so I loaded up on Zloty. Again, felt super rich. The museum was about 1 km away from the train station, so I assumed it wouldn’t be too bad of a walk with my bags. As I walked down the streets, I couldn’t help but notice how absolutely beautiful and green the town was. I noticed it on the train as well: Poland is so green! I passed little bakeries along the way and forced myself forward. I still had some snacks from home that I was determined to get through first, no matter how hard. Plus, I wasn’t that hungry. The smells emanating from the bakeries were magical, seriously exercised some self-restraint at this point! Another thing I noticed were the slugs. Seriously gross. They were the thickness and length of the long Tootsie Rolls. Again, another reason why I don’t eat Tootsie Rolls. Didn’t get a picture of the slugs because ew. That’s gross.
Just off the train in Oswiecim 
Snapped a quick pic of this map before my walk

After about 30 minutes of wandering around the quaint little town, wondering why people would live so close to such a horrible piece of history, I happened upon this sign:

I felt chills down my back. I’m here. I couldn’t believe I was fulfilling a life-long dream of visiting this place. I knew coming here would change my life, but I didn’t really know how to prepare for the emotions that overtook me.

Most of the buildings that weren’t offices (really??) were each dedicated to some aspect of life in the camp: arriving, sorting, living, dying, items taken, escape attempts, etc. I will let these pictures speak for themselves:

I will say this: being one of the first people in the camp that day, I was able to take some time to quietly reflect on the miracle of being able to freely walk in and under the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign. “Work will make you free.” Lies. I steeled myself for what I was going to see/think/feel. I said a prayer as I entered the camp to be aware of what happened and to not be overcome by hatred/anger/revenge as distractions. I asked for strength to keep walking, keep reading, and for those who passed during their stay to have peace. I asked for my heart and mind to be opened to impressions that I might feel, so I might be able to take what happened here as a lesson to improve my life and the way that I treat others. Those who ignore history are destined to repeat it.

As I walked from block to block, reading the stories, seeing the mounds of shoes, eyeglasses, prosthetics, clothing, suitcases, prayer shawls, etc., I would stare at the ground from time to time, watching my feet hit the cobbled pavement, wishing I could have double vision and see what happened in real time: to see who was walking where I walked, to know of their story and what happened. Did they make it out alive or were they sent to Birkenau to be cremated? I’m trying to describe what I was feeling, but it’s hard. I knew it would be. I was okay (no active falling tears) up until I found the gas chamber. I was dreading this: I had visited the Museum of Tolerance in LA a few times and would always lose it when I reached the “gas chamber.” Again, nothing can prepare you for it, and there’s no way to avoid it. You are affected. Even now, I’m starting to cry as I remember walking up to the opening. I saw the smoke stack a few yards away and knew what was coming, trying to brace myself.

Gas Chamber entrance
Just inside of the building was a sign that said, “You are in a building where the SS murdered thousands of people. Please maintain silence here: remember their suffering and show respect for their memory.” There was a HUGE lock on the front door. I could feel the tears starting, but held it together. I wanted to remember this feeling forever and needed to maintain a level head. I walked in and held my breath…waiting.

All of the signs were in Polish, English, and Hebrew
Padlock on the front door
The building was grey cement, small, with 3 chambers. My eyes looked up and found the walls, covered in nail marks where those who were gassed desperately tried to claw their way out. I could hear them screaming, crying, praying, asking why this was happening. I remembered the mountains of shoes; adult sizes…and then sizes that would fit people a lot smaller: children. I lost it. I started crying and couldn’t stop.
Couldn't keep it in any longer...
I got down on my knees and said another prayer, so grateful that I wasn’t surrounded by tourist groups. After a moment, I stood up and walked over to the closest wall, and started tracing the fingernail marks with my hand, searching for understanding.

I continued to the 2nd chamber, and found it roped off with a small bouquet of flowers.

Still sobbing, silently.

The final chamber

Once outside, I realized that I had tensed up every muscle I could possible control while I was inside the building. I didn’t feel it until I was in the fresh air. Another blessing: I could walk in and out of the building as a free woman. Amazing. Once I regained control of my tears, I continued on to the other side of the camp: there were still a few more buildings that I needed to see, as well as the shooting galley. Here, the prisoners were taken to be shot if they weren’t deemed fit for work.

View from the wall

I stood against the wall and looked where they would have. It was a sobering sight, hindered by the fact that I could hear cars driving by. I looked up and saw that the walls were at least 10 feet high, leaving no hope of escape. What a psychological weapon: to have a prisoner who will be shot walk a long distance down the galley between 2 buildings, only to have them turn around and meet their fate. 

After about 2 hours of being here, I realized that I was shaking. Bad. I decided that it was time to go. I had seen the buildings, the items, the watch towers, the “roll call” area, the sign. I had felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for when and where I was born. I had felt the Spirit strongly as I prayed for those who died in the camp. When I left, I saw a sign that Auschwitz II-Birkenau was just a 5-minute drive on the other side of the rail yard.

I needed to see it.

I needed to walk on those train tracks.

So, I grabbed a taxi and headed to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, The Extermination Camp…


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience visiting Auschwitz. I was a bit emotional just reading about it. I can only imagine what you were actually feeling, and of course the experiences of those who died there.

  2. Loved this! Thank you for sharing this.