Kenny Farris ’12 – It’s been five and a half weeks since I arrived in England, and in just a short time I’ve seen and experienced so much different to Wabash and the United States. I’ve slept in the airport waiting on a Ryan Air flights, walked among the throngs of people traveling the London Underground, and listened to Scots speak very highly of the English. I’ve processed as much as I can, but there are just some memories and experiences that stick out more than others.
Visiting Auschwitz on my recent trip to Poland stands out.
Auschwitz is paired with many other local camps, the largest of which is Birkenau, connected by railroads to each other and almost all of Europe. Its location among the thick pines of remote southern Poland away from most Allied bombers made Auschwitz, Birkenau, and the other surrounding camps ideal for gathering Polish political prisoners, Soviet prisoners, and ultimately millions of Jews, Gypsies, and others into a concentrated area.
Birkenau’s 45-minute tour gave tangible vision and specific details to what I viewed as the Holocaust. I could see proof of the Nazi’s own acknowledgment of their own heinousness in the scores of brick chimneys that serve as the only standing landmarks for barracks buildings burnt to the ground before the camp’s liberation. Historians had constructed model replicas of the barracks buildings and took my tour group through them. I saw the one stone row extending down the middle of the 30 yard barracks with about 50 holes that served as a bathroom for 20,000 prisoners for two ten-minute periods a day. In another stood triple bunks in rows that were the housing for up to 1,000 prisoners. I had prepared for this vision, and I was able to control my emotions fairly well.
I’ve been told that it is the unknown that can truly move you. It seeps inside of you, and the natural reactions that are suppressed begin to appear.
Auschwitz’s tour again gave both tangible vision and specific details to the Holocaust. However, since I hadn’t imagined or prepared for the stories told on the tour, the shock of the atrocities overwhelmed me. I learned the Holocaust was not only mass genocide but mass thievery as well. Millions of shoes and suitcases, thousands of gold teeth, pieces of jewelry, and even human hair were taken from deported inmates and stored in camp warehouses (which the inmates called “Canada”) to be sent to Germany.
These were individuals, Poles, Czechs, Jews, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, whom I could see through their names on their suitcases a glimpse into a life abruptly altered and ended by the Nazis. There were so many individuals here, people who wore multi-colored shoes and carried suitcases with their name, birthday, and address marked on its side. 1.3 million of those individuals became numbers of dead counted throughout the camps, and many more lives were affected.
The last stop on the Auschwitz tour took us through one of the real gas chambers and crematorium rooms where many of these individuals died. After hearing their stories, I couldn’t help but well up inside, thinking of the sad fate the victims faced and how fortunate I was to be able to visit this site, learn their stories, and live with a better appreciation of what I have.