When In Wien: Remembrance

by Alyssa Yakey
Digital Editor

Memorial plaque at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Memorial plaque at Auschwitz-Birkenau

“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity. Where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.”  Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1940-1945

“Distance yourself.”
“Disconnect from the situation.”
"Don’t get too attached.”  

These are just some of the “words of advice” I received this past weekend before our RC study abroad group took a trip to Krakow, Poland, visiting the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

The Holocaust was always a difficult part in history for me to understand, but because I learned about Auschwitz and Birkenau throughout school, I thought I would be prepared for what we were about to experience.

I wasn’t.

Students walk the grounds of Auschwitz

Students walk the grounds of Auschwitz

No Way To Prepare

I honestly don’t believe anything could have prepared me for walking the footsteps once tread by 1.5 million women, children and men who were murdered at the camps.

Nothing could have prepared me for seeing hundreds of shoes once filled with life left behind in a meaningless pile.

Nothing could have prepared me for attempting to mentally comprehend how the Nazi murderers justified their actions.

Nothing could have prepared me for learning about the stories of the camps firsthand.

As our group was filing out of the bus, it all began to set in. You could sense the importance that encompasses both Auschwitz and Birkenau.

In Silence

In silence, groups of us approached the barbed wire fence and my gaze was immediately set upon the wooden barracks that were used to house over 300 prisoners at a time.

Our tour guide went into depth on the conditions of life at these camps, and I soon began to understand the dark words of advice I received before we left.

The most profound and somber moment I have yet to experience was standing at the top of the steps that led to the gas chambers and crematorium. In that exact spot, women, children and men were led to believe they were finally given a chance to shower, when in reality they were being put to death.

I imagined the inhumane treatment they went through on an everyday basis and felt sick. I was filled with a torrent of emotions. I was sad, angry, disgusted, all mixed in with a strange sense of curiosity. Questions without answers consumed my head and I could do nothing besides pay my respect.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a definite explanation as to why the Holocaust happened will ever be available. I’ll never comprehend the hatred that grew to the point of people committing mass murder and how a human soul could carry out unimaginable mental and physical torture upon another person.

Even though it was hard to experience, I believe that if you have the opportunity to visit these camps, you should go. Auschwitz and Birkenau taught me things about myself I never thought it would.

"A Warning to Humanity"

It’s also amazing to hear the stories that survivors have shared about how they kept their faith, and hope and how they supported one another. 

In regards to all the pain and suffering endured, the least we could do is remember the despair those chosen by the Nazis encountered and, like the quote engraved on the memorial plaque says, “Let this be a warning to humanity.”