By Jessie Levine, Simmons University
There is no easy or simple way to describe the feelings experienced as one walks through the
Birkenau Death Camp in Oświęcim, Poland. For the duration of my visit, I felt haunted by the
horrid acts committed there almost 75 years ago, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of
individuals murdered there by the Nazi regime. It is difficult to fully comprehend the horrors that
took place on the same grounds that I was standing on today, especially since much of
Birkenau is in ruin. Imagining the horror and the confusion experienced by each prisoner there
is emotionally draining and very difficult to conceptualize on a scale that large.
Birkenau is a very solemn place. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered there for
simply living their lives and practicing their beliefs. Personally, it was very difficult for me to think
about how people would want to sentence me to death to due my personal beliefs and
practices. There was a general mood of silence as we walked through the camp and visited
each of the key locations where important events occurred. I was impressed at the level of
respect and mourning exhibited by almost all of the visitors we saw today. There have likely
been many visitors who have disrespected the memory of those who perished at the camp,
however, today, many of the visitors seemed to be respectful and cognoscente of the atrocities
that occurred there.
Between Auschwitz and Birkenau, we visited and showed our respects to places where more
than one million people perished and countless others were exposed to trauma that will affect
them for the remainder of their lives. One of the most important aspects of both of these camps
was the element of humiliation. That element is consistent with almost all of the concentration
and death camps throughout the region. Many forms of humiliation used at these camps could
also be considered forms of torture or punishment.
After visiting both camps, the most disturbing example of humiliation to be when the prisoners
were forced to get their heads shaved and when they had their prisoner numbers tattooed on
their arms. Through those acts, the prisoners were completely stripped of their personhood and
almost every part of their identity. I imagine that to be one of the most humiliating phases of life
at these camps. When the prisoners were being shaved and given their tattoos, they hadn’t
even experienced some of the most horrid things at Auschwitz or Birkenau. After that, life would
only get worse.
Walking through these camps brought me a new understanding to the Holocaust that I never
thought I would be able to experience. The fear, suffering, and sadness experienced at these
sites is immeasurable and the sadness continues to extend onto the visitors and descendants of
the survivors. While visiting these sites if emotionally exhausting and distressing, I think it is a
vital experience for every Jewish individual to experience. Although one may not have any
relatives who experienced the Holocaust, like me, it is one of the most important events in
Jewish history, and world history as well.
This post is part of series of articles written by participants on our “We Will Write Our History” writing seminar in Auschwitz. Learn more at http://togetherrestoring.com/writehistory