We arrived at Auschwitz at 8 in the morning, just as it was opening for the day. Though I was exhausted from the long bus ride, I was also excited and nothing short of apprehensive. I had expectations regarding what Auschwitz would be like: huge beyond belief, frightening, difficult to comprehend. Some of those were right and some were not.
I was surprised by the size of Auschwitz. It was both bigger and smaller than I expected. More than that, it seemed almost normal. The individual barracks looked bigger from the outside than I imagined they would be, but once inside and faced with the number of people that lived in each one, they were smaller than I could comprehend. Each room of the barracks, though large enough for maybe a few dozen people to sleep comfortably, slept more than a hundred. I cannot even imagine the lack of space or privacy they afforded the Jews that were imprisoned there. Combined with the difficulties associated with malnourishment and the accompanying diarrhea, the privacy would not have been the biggest issue people faced there.
Within the barracks, as we walked through, we saw visual displays of the items people had left behind – hundreds of thousands of shoes, combs, glasses, suitcases. The Jews transported to Auschwitz thought they were moving to a better place, and then they were thrust into reality. It must have been devastating. At some point, someone on the trip wondered aloud whether or not they would have survived. We were there on a cold, dreary day, but the weather will only get worse through the winter. And we were wearing two, three, four layers, including hats scarves and gloves, compared to the thin, damp, and dirty cotton jumpsuits people were forced to wear for months without a washing. I responded with something about the incredible ability of humans to survive the unsurvivable, but I don’t know if I would have survived a week, let alone months or even years in those conditions.
As difficult as Auschwitz I was to comprehend, Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was even harder. By the time we transitioned to the second camp (by bus, not walking the three miles like prisoners would have had to), the fog had thickened and the cold was more penetrating. As we walked into Birkenau, with the train tracks fading into the haze before us, I was struck by how huge this place was. It made Auschwitz I look tiny, and the wooden barracks made the weatherproof brick buildings of Auschwitz look downright cozy.
The red-brick chimneys, all that was left of most of the wooden barracks the Nazis had burned at the end of the war, continued forever. They literally faded into nothing as the fog concealed them from view. Birkenau seemed to go on forever, and it is only half the size the Nazis intended it to be. Walking through the barracks was devastating and distressing and depressing and for the second time in a week I was brought to tears. Standing on the middle of the train platform, at the spot Nazi officials famously stood, directing Jews, gypsies, and other prisoners to the left if they appeared strong and to the right to be gassed if they did not, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of it all. But also, the closeness of it.
Once again, I have no idea what actually happened to my family. But I know that the Nazi records of my great-grandmother are either burned and lost in history, or they never existed. Those people that got sent to the right – the Nazis never bothered making records of their arrival in Auschwitz. It just wasn’t worth the effort to record the arrival of those that were being sent straight to their death. As I stood in the middle of the train platform, after the tour had walked off, I looked at the single train car sitting on the tracks. I looked at the empty platform running in both directions, hazy trees visible at one end and the faint outline of the entrance to Birkenau at the other. I’d like to say I imagined the pictures come to life, but really they came to life around me without any conscious thought, as if the ghosts rose out of the fog to treat me to a more realistic picture of what happened. I could almost see my great-grandmother calmly stepping out of a train, relieved by the breath of fresh air and overwhelmed by the huge expanse of the camp surrounding her. Maybe she arrived on a fresh spring day, when the sun shined on the buildings and she had a sense of hope as she was directed to what she was told would be a refreshing shower. Maybe she stepped out on the same dreary sort of day I was there, and knew immediately she was walking to her own death. Maybe she was one of the hundreds of people on each transport that were dragged, already dead, out of the train cars and she didn’t see the hell of Auschwitz at all.
Regardless, a click of a camera pulled me back to real life, and I followed the group to the remains of the crematoria.