The Arbeit Macht Frei Gate at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland

Reflecting on Humanity at Auschwitz

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“Auschwitz.” That single word is loaded with such evocative images and horrific associations that it’s hard not to arrive with a mental picture of the place. Before leaving for Eastern Europe, the question we were most asked was, “Are you going to Auschwitz?” Our plan was to drive out from Krakow and take the Auschwitz concentration camp tour. What we found completely surprised us.

A sign warning prisoners to stop before the electrified fence inside the Auschwitz concentration camp

We had visited several German concentrations camps before and thought we knew what to expect. From 1994-1995, I crossed the European continent several times visiting Nazi and Holocaust sites while working on my high school honors thesis. Each and every Holocaust site is carved into my brain: Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Westerbork. I also visited other important World War II sites throughout Europe.

Each of those experiences was difficult, emotional and mind-numbing. We expected Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most infamous of the German concentration and death camps, to be even more emotionally powerful. But, surprisingly, that didn’t happen.

The double fence at the Auschwitz concentration and death camp
The double fence

The German concentration and death camps and the collective experience known as the Holocaust would become infamous for the magnitude of the horror and the scale of the slaughter – the experiments with lethal pathogens and amputations and toxins; the collections of tattooed human skin; the torture administered by every conceivable instrument of pain; and finally the staggering numbers of dead.

The scale and magnitude is nearly unfathomable: 42,500 facilities used to incarcerate, deport or exterminate over 11 million people, including over six million people of Jewish heritage. It is evil in its purest form.

Profiles of of the victims of the Holocaust
Profiles of the Holocaust victims

The place collectively known as Auschwitz is composed of the main camps – Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the “death camp”) and the Auschwitz III-Monowitz (the “work camp”) – plus a network of over 45 small sub-camps that supplied slave labor to industrial companies. The collective Auschwitz system was the largest concentration camp in the German system, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau was the largest extermination camp.

Taking the Auschwitz concentration camp tour puts the scale into sharp focus.

The arrival platforms at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp

Those who have seen Schindler’s List or other Holocaust films have a mental image of Auschwitz. Trains arrive through the brick guard building and pull up along a long concrete platform. Inside the wooden railcars, people are packed in so densely that some are trampled. The cars are stifling hot, the floors are covered in excrement, and many people die on the journey.

The boxcar on the Auschwitz concentration camp tour
The Carriages of Death

The doors to the railcars open. The dogs are barking. The guards are screaming in German. Many inside the railcars lack the physical strength to get out. Yet all of them carry belongings to begin their new lives in this place – this place of darkness. Because they have been lied to and given false hope.

Women and children after sorting - selected to receive the gas chamber
Women and children after sorting – being led to the gas chamber

On the platform, more German efficiency. Sorting. People are sorted from their belongings. Suitcases that were painstakingly packed and the few cherished belongings that were selected are left on the platform. The men are then sorted from women and children. Everyone was sorted into two groups. The first group is sent to the showers…actually the gas chamber.

Once dead, their bodies are sorted – gold teeth are extracted and sometimes experiments are conducted. Their belongings are sorted – shoes, clothes, silver, brushes, books – with like items being stored together in vast rooms. Sorting.

Shoes, mostly children's shoes, on the Auschwitz concentration camp tour
Shoes, mostly children’s shoes, in the store rooms
Prosthetic limbs and other medical supplies taken from their deceased owners
Prosthetic limbs and other medical supplies

The second group is sorted for a different purpose. They are sorted for work. “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Those words taunt the living. “Work Will Make You Free.” But the only freedom would be death – either actual death or a kind of living death for the rest of their lives. This is a death camp.

The Arbeit Macht Frei gate on the Auschwitz concentration camp tour

People who have seen movies about the Holocaust have a mental image of the sorting – and even of the horrors of the concentration and death camps. However, there is no movie that can prepare you for being confronted with the realities of Auschwitz. No amount of seeing Schindler’s List will prepare you to see the sorting platforms. No film will prepare you to see the masses of human hair, cut from the heads of the dead…and then woven into cloth.

And yet, the experience was a disappointment for us. The Auschwitz concentration camp tour was a model in efficiency. It is almost an assembly line process of cranking visitors through as quickly as possible. There is no opportunity to pause and reflect on the vastness of the Auschwitz camp or the horrors that happen here. There is no opportunity to meditate or pray. There is no opportunity to honor the victims.

The small memorial at the end of the sorting platform leading to the gas chambers at Auschwitz
The small memorial at the end of the sorting platform leading to the gas chambers

At other concentration camps and museums of the Nazi era, there is a strange stillness and an eerie quiet. Visitors observing a library-like atmosphere of hushed tones or intense silence, in reverence for the unspeakable events of the past. The Auschwitz tour was the opposite – a hive of activity and masses of visitors being ushered back and forth in groups of 60, 80, or 100.

The groups are so large that the guides speak into microphones and you listen to the tour on audio headphones. The groups are so large that you really can’t see anything in the museum rooms. And the constant rush to move on to the next room, the next horror, the next atrocity.

Lots of people on a typical Auschwitz concentration camp tour
A typical tour

Perhaps we had unrealistic expectations of the Auschwitz concentration camp tour. Perhaps we should have known that it would be an assembly line. Perhaps we should have been prepared to see visitors draped in Israeli flags having a picnic lunch on the walls of the destroyed gas chamber. Perhaps we should have expected the masses of visitors. But we didn’t.

We expected the Auschwitz concentration camp tour to be like other concentration camps. We expected a highly emotional experience. It wasn’t. Auschwitz is different.

Ruins of the crematorium destroyed by the fleeing Germans at Auschwitz
Ruins of the crematorium destroyed by the fleeing Germans

The events collectively called the Holocaust were not an evil committed on Jews and gypsies and homosexuals and political dissidents. The Holocaust was an evil committed on all of humanity. While we are glad we visited and took the Auschwitz concentration camp tour, it wasn’t the opportunity to connect with our shared humanity that we were expecting.

The haunting urn containing the remains of the victims of the Holocaust on the Auschwitz concentration camp tour
The haunting urn containing the remains of the victims of the Holocaust

29 thoughts on “Reflecting on Humanity at Auschwitz”

  1. As depressing as it sounds, I’ve always wanted to visit Auschwitz, too. That’s too bad that it was such a crowded and rushed experience. I would still like to visit, but the other camps sound like a better experience. It would be hard to go and not have time to pay your respects and reflect.

    1. I think you have to go, but you moderate your expectations. At other camps, you’re free to move about, explore and reflect. Not at Auschwitz. I think everyone needs to go, but we just wish it was organized differently.

  2. I walked the grounds on my own 5 years ago, and it was disturbing, as you mentioned.

    How the crowds have grown since then, if most of the camp is as crowded as it appears in that photograph. Maybe visitor numbers need to be restricted to let the facts sink in without distractions. It would be a shame if anyone’s experience was diminished because of this.

    I visited and wrote about Majdanek, and if you find yourself in Lublin it’s rather different but still unsettling: quieter, yet surrounded by houses and within sight of the city.

    1. Limiting the visitor numbers is an interesting idea. I think it would probably improve the visitor experience, but at the same time, it would be a shame to turn away people who want to visit a place as important as Auschwitz. Thanks for the Majdanek suggestion — we will keep that in mind.

  3. Auschwitz has obviously changed. I was there in 1993 and went on my own, without a tour. There were very few other tourists and it was the sort of experience you were expecting. I spent most of a day just wandering from building to building and could spend as much time as I wanted in all of them. It was harrowing – between each building I would sit on a bench outside just composing myself and attempting to get my mind around what I was seeing. More than 20 years later, the impact is still there.

  4. Tawny of Captain and Clark

    This was an extremely well written piece. I have yet to visit any concentration camps but was very interested in hearing how Auschwitz was different from the others that you’ve encountered. I agree that time to reflect, pay respects, and pray would be needed when visiting. I would hate for it to become less impactful because of the overflow of tourists.

    1. Thanks Tawny. I hope you have a chance to visit a Holocaust site in the future. I recommend Dachau (with its proximity to Munich and openness to get away on your own) or Buchenwald (for its historical importance).

  5. Auschwitz was a really hard place for me. I splurged and did the guided tour, and I was glad I did because I wanted to hear the stories. But, you are right. The crowds were a bit much, and I hated the disrespectful way people acted like taking smiling photos at the killing wall. A lot of ignorance at a tragic place.

    1. Thanks Diana. We also did the guided tour. There seems to be a lot of information/mis-information on whether the tour is required. Everything we read (and were told) was that it was mandatory to go with a group, but we did see some people out on their own.

      1. I visited Auschwitz two years ago and went on my own. I did not consider joining a group to be a good choice – especially for the reasons you already mentioned. However, the site wasn´t so crowded – it was the middle of winter and it was really freezing so I think it affected the number of tourists, too. I don´t think I would have had the same experience with the group, so I´m glad I skipped this.

        1. Lance Longwell

          Just be clear, we did the trip individually (i.e., not a tour package). However, at Auschwitz, they run mandatory group tours. You just can’t go walking around on your own, which was a pity.

  6. Raymond @ Man On The Lam

    I’ve been to Dachau where the groups were both sombre and respectful. So sad Auschwitz is becoming such a zoo.

  7. It is definitely an important place to visit and to always remember what happened so something like this will never happen again but when on a tour with so many people you really lose the message.

    Maybe they should restrict the number of people who enter in a day and sell advance tickets.

    The overcrowded sites are really not something we enjoy.

  8. I wasn’t ready to visit when I was in Poland. The war museum I’ve been in elementary school (about Korean war and Japanese ruling periods) still haunts me after all these years. Such a sad history.

  9. Camels & Chocolate

    Powerful images! Thanks for sharing. I’ve yet to visit Poland, despite a fascination with WWII-era history.

  10. Interesting take on this tour. I understand why it wasn’t the emotional experience you were expecting/hoping for, being shuffled through so efficiently. It’s a shame, really, but it’s better if people know what to expect.

  11. I actually didn’t mind the tour at Auschwitz. I thought the exhibits and the tour guide did a good job of conveying the seriousness and horror of the atrocity. I especially thought the exhibits with the suitcases and shoes did a excellent job of making us visualise and understand just how many 6 million people actually is. It’s a number that’s hard to understand but when you see those piles of suitcases with addresses on it it makes you really understand that these people were humans.

    What I didn’t like about the tour were some of the people in our group. At birkenau at the toilets our guide was telling the story about how people would have to queue to use the toilets in the snow and sometimes they wouldn’t even get a chance to use them so would have to relieve themselves in the snow outside. After this story some people in our group decided to take joke photos of themselves going to the toilet on the toilets. I do not know how these people could have this reaction after that story. No empathy whatsoever!

    1. Thanks for your note Jess. We were rushed so quickly through the suitcase and shoe rooms that you could even begin to fathom it. In the suitcase room, we didn’t even make it half-way into the room before it was time to move on. That said, I do agree with you on the disrespectful attitudes of some visitors. For us, it was the visitors having a picnic on the edge of the gas chamber rubble.

  12. This is a powerful and beautifully written post. Thank you. I have not been to Auschwitz, but a few months ago I visited Terezin prison and ghetto, near Prague. It was my first concentration camp visit and, although it was not a “death camp” like Auschwitz-Birkenau, it still had a profound effect on me. Terezin functioned mainly as a transit camp for Jews who were “sorted” there and then shipped east, mostly to Auschwitz. Visiting it was a powerful experience for me, and the story of my visit is one of the first posts I wrote. I HAD to write it; I really had no choice.

    1. Thanks Donna. I just had to go and read about your experience at Terezin. Your experience was everything that ours at Auschwitz was not. As I wrote, we have been to other camps, other Holocaust sites of horror. Each of the other experiences impacted us greatly.

  13. What a thoughtful and well written piece. I imagine because Auschwitz is the largest and most infamous it draws the largest crowds. I imagine the large groups and microphones were a reaction to the influx of visitors as opposed to being set up that way by design. I suppose Auschwitz like anywhere else must have some seasonality to it, maybe you get a different experience when it’s the off season.

    1. I don’t know. I think there’s something to your idea that its size draws large crowds. But it seems like there is a way to manage them better. At Dachau, visitors freely walk the perimeter, take in the museum freely and sit with their thoughts. There’s even more room at Auschwitz. Why herd people into these mandatory tours that don’t really do the site justice?

  14. I went in 2013, Auschweitz is the saddest place i have ever been i was moved to tears on a few occasions. I went with a german friend who stated ” my country did this to bring glory but only bought shame” how true. i also went with a Pol who’s grandfather had beem in auschweitz emotional for both of them for very different reasons.

    1. That dual perspective is interesting. One of my very first camp visits was in 1995. I visited Bergen-Belsen with son and granddaughter of Nazi officer. Neither were alive for those terrible events, but their thoughts on the experience was transformative for me. I haven’t really thought about that day in years. I may need to write a post about that experience!

  15. We haven’t been to Auschwitz yet, but have been to others. These are places you definitely don’t want to feel herded and rushed. It’s a shame it sounds like such a zoo.

  16. Gilles Barbier

    Hi Lance,
    First I must admit, I had a totally different experience of Auschwitz. I was there in April 2009, and took a private guide, who had a wealth of knowledge on the Holocaust. It was a very challenging day, but a very profound one.
    What you describe is completely mind-boggling to me, he worse being: “Perhaps we should have been prepared to see visitors draped in Israeli flags having a picnic lunch on the walls of the destroyed gas chamber”
    It is a shame and it is profoundly disturbing that such an important place for our History is turned into such a mass-tourism place.
    Thank you for sharing

    1. Lance Longwell

      Thanks Gilles. I’m hopeful that there will be changes in the management of the site that will protect it for generations to come.

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