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Day 4: Concentrating





I never wanted to visit Auschwitz, I prefer traveling for fun. Sure, I’ll go to museums, but why visit something so heavy?


Over the years I’ve read book after book about the holocaust, visited holocaust museums and talked to survivors. I’ve visited Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam several times.


But I’d never been to Auschwitz.


When I taught 5th grade years ago, I had to teach my students about the holocaust. It’s no easy task to introduce children to the darkest times in our history. I had to explain to these children that there have been people who purposefully flexed their power and made life worse for others—just because they could.


Though I taught the expected lessons, my students had been so pampered by life’s riches that they refused to accept the atrocities without sugar coating them. My students truly believed that if they were alive during Hitler’s time, they would have befriended him and kept him from his killing sprees: thus forgoing to entire holocaust and saving the world.


Their diagnosis: Hitler needed a friend.


It’s demoralizing to have students who can’t see past their personal life’s filters--even after a lesson. How could I help my students understand that evil has a history in our world? I needed a friend.


I reached out to Sari, a friend who had recently visited several concentration camps in Europe. She accepted my invitation to help my students understand the scale of terror that was a part of the holocaust. She promised to be gentle with my ten and eleven-year-old students.


She came into my class, stood at the board, and drew a picture of the barracks, the kitchen and the work fields at one camp.


“That’s nice.” My students said. “Hitler let them keep their jobs (in the work fields) so they could buy the things they wanted.”


She told them they didn’t get paid.


“My mom never pays me for helping out at home, either.” One student said.

Her lesson continued. She taught about the shoes the soldiers collected from the prisoners who were sent to die.


“How’d they walk around without shoes?” students asked.


Sari wouldn’t give up on helping them understand. She said, “They were being tricked. If they went into that shower room, they would die.”


“But Hitler would probably save them. Why would he want them to shower if he wanted them dead? He couldn’t be mean to them if they were dead.”


After several hours of Sari patiently and kindly answering their questions, my students started to understand.


They asked: “Why was he allowed to kill so many people for no reason?”


“That couldn’t happen today. Could it?”


Auschwitz is only about ninety minutes from Krakow; I decided to visit on my first day off from my volunteering position. My friend Amy who visited years ago suggested I give myself a full day to recover after the visit. She also insisted I bring tissues along. She is still annoyed that they don't have tissues there for you.


I wanted to visit the camp before my work with refugees tired me.


Norway, another volunteer with my organization, agreed to come with me.


We didn’t want to pay a lot of money for an eight hour concentration camp bus tour that included: a ninety-minute bus ride to the museum, a group tour, lunch, time to discuss what you saw and then a bus ride back to Krakow.


Norway and I decided to ride a public bus there and do the self-tour option as displayed on the museum’s website.


We felt pretty good about our decision to save about seventy dollars. The guide at the welcome booth did not feel as good about our decision.


“Things have changed. No self-guided tours until 4 PM. You must pay for a group tour.”


Sigh.


The first thing you do on the tour is write down your first and last name and a phone number. This information is printed on your ticket.


Then you have to go through a security screening where the name you gave at the ticket counter is matched to your name on your identification.

It isn’t comparing the names that worried me, it was going through a metal detector. Clearly there is a reason to have a metal detector here.


To think that there are terrorists would like to destroy the ruins of this camp scares me. This is our history. If we ignore our history, will the evils of yesterday return to us?


The clerk at the ticket counter heard us speaking English and sent us with an English speaking guide: a great gift.


To start out, the guide, a red-haired Polish woman with hair piled on her head, stated data and facts about the camp. Twenty thousand prisoners lived there at a time. 80% of the prisoners were killed quickly: all of them spending less time at the camp then we would spend there today.


My stomach tensed. They were killed that fast?


With a cry in her voice, our guide explained the injustices of having a camp serve two purposes. It was a death camp AND a concentration camp.

As the tour continued, the artifacts spoke for themselves. Rows and rows of portraits of prisoners—their eyes filled with terror. A room filled with shoes taken from prisoners. A room filled with cooking utensils taken from prisoners. Their eyeglasses. Their clothing. A collection of suitcases with the names of prisoners printed on them.


Guards were permitted to take home and use any items taken from the prisoners.


What type of guard would want to use the things that were removed from a dead person?


This is when my stomach started churning. The churning stopped when I heard about the prisoner’s hair.


After death, the prisoner’s hair was removed, as was their gold fillings and their jewelry.


This was no surprise; I’d heard it before.


There was a room in a barracks on Block IV filled with the prisoner’s hair. Curls. Pig tales. Braids. Short hair. Long hair.


The magnitude of the hair stopped my breathing. Your hair is your personality. Your hair is a part of who you are. Your hair is -- yours.


The next bit was new information for me.


This hair was collected and sold for the purpose of stuffing things. The guide gave a list of things that the hair was put in to, but after I heard the first thing my mind stopped and I was unable to process the rest of the list.


The hair was used to stuff mattresses. Mattresses. Mattresses were stuffed with the hair of murdered people.


Hair. Mattresses.


Hair.


For the rest of the tour I couldn’t follow much.


What kind of person would request a mattress made out of dead people’s hair? Are any of these mattresses still around?


My mind stopped.


Maybe this wasn’t the right time for me to visit the museum. A dictator used his power and influence to murder many millions of people, most of them Jewish. This was an act of genocide.


Could it happen again?


I hope not. It better not. No way.


Or….


Is it happening right now?


On Saturday night I happened upon a demonstration at the main square in Krakow where Ukrainian people told personal stories about what was happening in the Ukraine to their families. One speaker insisted that the Russian soldiers are raping people of both genders, looting houses and businesses and killing people in all age groups – even blowing up children’s centers.

She looked so tired standing there. Some of the demonstrators hung their heads and openly wept over their families, their friends, their country.


She insisted that this was an act of genocide—the people of Ukraine are being erased and that the world must stand up and pay attention.


She thanked the world for helping her country fight this aggressor.


What percentage of people must die before a war is considered genocide? I don’t know how this definition works.


Norway and I went to dinner after we returned from Auschwitz.


My brain tried to process the information. I asked Norway if she thought there were more good people in the world or bad people. I asked her if one person could cause such destruction and horror if she thought one person could do the opposite on the same grand scale and bring peace and safety to the world. I asked her if she knew about the hair. The mattresses. That there was zero water for any purposes for the 100,000 prisoners at Birkenau—the camp next door.


I didn’t cry until I got back to my hotel room and the shock started to lift. I sat on my bed and burst into tears. Mattresses stuffed with hair. Those portraits. The cells used for torture. Walking through a gas chamber. So many guard stations. The gas chambers the Germans blew up just before liberation – to hide the evidence.


They knew what they were doing was grossly wrong. They burned and bombed the evidence, but things are harder to erase than people are. A lot of the evidence survived.


Part of me wanted to run away. Do something to help. Something more.


Something more.


I am one of many people who are here in Krakow to offer humanitarian aid to people fleeing the war in Ukraine. The entire European Union is helping the refugees: I am witnessing this help in Poland—a two hour ride from the war zone.

And there is a gift to being able to do something, however small, to help this situation.


But at the same time I am offering aid, I am losing faith in humanity.


How could we…..?


When will….?


In witnessing brutality, I question compassion.


Where is the middle ground on this one?





 

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