Just as we spent one full day in Auschwitz, so too did we spend the entire next day in Birkenau, a camp that functioned differently but was equal in horror to Auschwitz. We visited Barrack 1, where people lived in filth, with sleeping quarters for many on the dirt ground. We visited other similar camp structures, where we are meant to imagine how people struggled to live in the most unimaginable living conditions. We were also able to see the crematoria, many of which were dynamited toward the end of the war in order to destroy evidence of mass murder by this method. When looking at the ruins of these structures and learning about how the crematoria and central sauna worked, it is very upsetting to realize the intricacy, detail, planning, and intelligence that went into their creation. These structures are prime examples of how human progress can be used for pure evil.
Another upsetting site for our group was the waiting area in the woods where arrivals from transports deemed unfit for work would await their deaths. This site was especially important for our teachers who teach the book Night, which talks about the fear of these people who were forced to wait, afraid and uncertain, during the last moments of their lives. It is also a reminder of the camp’s name, Birkenau, which means birch trees; the Nazis took something beautiful and pure in nature and made it a part of the camp. The contrast of these trees in the camp, along with knowing that the woods were a waiting area for those who would be gassed impacted our entire group.
Before leaving Birkenau we stopped at the spot in the road where transports disembarked and Dr. Mengele instantaneously determined the fate of so many. Instead of helping people, as a doctor should, he pointed people to their deaths.
As we turned and left the camp down the long road, we mourned those whose lives were stripped away and who were brutally murdered at this site.