Design a site like this with
Get started

Day 7 – Auschwitz – Birkenau

Our early morning wake-up call felt a little easier this morning with the benefits of the European time change, from summer time to winter time. Our clocks fell back an hour, providing a much-needed extra hour of rest on our long journey.

Our morning began with much trepidation, nervousness, and anticipation, which resulted in many quiet, reflective conversations and moments on our bus ride to Auschwitz. Navigating through the Polish countryside we were overcome with thoughts and feelings about the millions of people who had travelled similar paths to this destination, though, unlike us, they had little knowledge of what was to come. They traveled here with all their most prized possessions including Jewish prayer shawls, pots, pans, hairbrushes, and other personal items thinking they were just being relocated once again, as they had been previously, to the Jewish ghettos we toured earlier this week. However, as we all know that was the fate of over a million people who entered Auschwitz.

As we entered the parking lot, the gravity of the experience before us was palpable. Through this Ag Leadership journey, we are fortunate to develop and nurture many skills, with one of the most important being empathy. In our case today, that was empathy for those that lost their lives here, for those that turned this site into a memorial and educational tool for the world to understand and learn from this tragedy, and for each other, as we knew this would be an experience that would impact all of us differently. Before disembarking the bus, we paused for a moment to collect ourselves and to focus on this quote from Elie Weisel “And now, here is a prayer, or rather a piece of advice; let there be camaraderie among you. We are all brothers and share the same fate. The same smoke hovers over all our heads. Help each other. That is the only way to survive.”

At the beginning of our tour, we were greeted by our tour guide, Lukasc, who began to address the history and formation of Auschwitz. As we moved through the security checkpoint and into the open outdoor area, Lukasc informed us that this was a similar route that prisoners took when being processed into Auschwitz, a sobering thought to say the least.

Lukasc, our tour guide for Auschwitz-Birkenau

To put things into better perspective, he began to provide the history of the camp. After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the Schutzstaffel (SS) converted Auschwitz I, an army barracks, into a prisoner of war camp. The initial transport of 728 political prisoners to Auschwitz consisted nearly solely of Polish detainees, for whom the camp was initially established. The bulk of inmates were Polish for the first two years of its operation. While this concentration camp is mainly remembered for its role in the Holocaust, the first mass deportation of Jewish people, did not occur until 1942.

Moving through the initial presentation, we couldn’t help but be struck by the iconic entrance sign, Arbeit Macht Frei basictranslation Work Sets You Free. This sign is what prisoners would exit under both in the morning and evening on their journey to various work sites. While we know that saying to be a fallacy, for those prisoners, they truly believed that if they kept working, they would eventually find freedom. That hope was something they all clung too in the most unbearable of conditions . This hope was evident in the notes found hidden in shoes, crevices of the buildings and many other places. This hope was evident by mothers comforting their children when they told them things would be okay, as they marched away from their fathers at the selection process. This hope was evident in the stories of survivors that tell their stories of perseverance amid this tragedy to encourage everyone to never forget or let history repeat itself.

We learned that Auschwitz I, was just a small portion of the larger Auschwitz complex. This site was home to a processing center, living quarters for the Nazi soldiers and work camp prisoners, the home of Camp Commandant Rudolf Hess, hospitals, prison ward and the original gas chamber. Through our tour we saw the living quarters of prisoners, astonishing displays of artifacts left behind by prisoners including massive piles of shoes, eyeglasses, kitchen items and other prized possessions. Significant artifacts included a special display of children’s shoes and clothing and just seeing how small they were just reinforced that these atrocities happened to the most innocent of victims. A special exhibit designated to the prayer shawls was extremely profound because these were the most sacred of possessions of the victims that were so casually discarded. These items were all that were left of the memories of the last people to be murdered here, as the Nazi’s ran out of time to dispense or destroy them when they fled the Red Army in 1945. However, there was no display more poignant and staggering than the display of human hair that was recovered when the camp was liberated. After their execution, the hair of primarily woman and children was collected from the bodies and sold for fabric creation. Thousands of bundles were discovered that had yet to be shipped to factories and those bundles were labeled KLA, which stood for Konzentrationslager Auschwitz. To see such a display is an image none of us will ever forget.

As we moved through the camp, we saw photos of prisoners, both male and female, who worked in the camp for a day to maybe a year. Lukasc informed us that women, who were imprisoned as workers, only survived an average of 3-4 months, while men survived on average 8 months to a year. The pictures of these prisoners donned the signature striped prison garments, shaved heads, and hollow, terrified eyes.

We saw the outside of Block 10, which served as an experimental medical facility that performed horrendous experiments on the prisoners, without regard for any pain or suffering infliction. We visited Block 11, the punishment building, where prisoners could be further punished for even the slightest infraction. After exiting Block 11, we all took a moment of silence to observe the “death wall”, a courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11, which served as an execution site for many political prisoners and camp resisters. It is estimated that over 10,000 shooting executions took place at that site.

Moving further through the tour, we visited the other side of the camp, outside the electric barricades, to the barracks and facilities for the Nazi Army. In stark contrast from the prisoner’s facilities, the Nazi occupied portion included better barracks, medical facilities and most selfishly, a canteen. Above the entrance to that building, was a jovial iron adornment of a man with a mug sitting atop a barrel, similar as you would see in a typical German pub, but sorely out of place in this location.

In the distance, we could see a large, stately house peaking through the trees that was identified as the Camp Commandant Rudolf Hess living quarters, where his family resided, including his children. Coincidentally, the next site we were shown, was the gallows of where his execution took place, after his trial before the Polish Supreme National Tribunal, in 1947.

Our last tour location was one that really has little words to describe. We were lead through the last standing gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous gas that interferes with cellular respiration was first used as a pesticide in California in the 1880s.  Research at Degesch of Germany led to the development of Zyklon A, a pesticide that released hydrogen cyanide, upon exposure to water and heat. After purchasing Degesch, Degussa began packaging a variation of Zyklon A, which added an eye irritant and was packaged in sealed canisters, named Zyklon B. This company is still in business today and variations of hydrogen cyanide is still used in some industrial capacities. This gas chamber was a converted storage facility from the original Army facilities that was used in the mass murder of prisoners. This facility could hold up to 700 prisoners and had an attached crematorium that we witnessed as well.

While there are little words to adequately describe the impact of this experience, to say we are grateful for the opportunity to share this experience amongst each other is an understatement.

After leaving Auschwitz I, we traveled to Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau. While this was only five minutes away, it was a sharp contrast to Auschwitz I. This facility spans 400 acres and was the primary execution site of the camp, housing six gas chambers. It is estimated that over 1 million people perished in the facilities at this location. We entered the camp and stopped near the cattle car that is on display. The location of this rail car mirrors a picture displayed at Auschwitz I that shows the selection process. Prisoners were unloaded off the rail car, they were made to leave all their possessions in front of those cars and families were separated, they formed two lines: men on one side and women and children on the other. They were then paraded through the line to be examined by an SS officer and SS Doctor to be determined if they were to go straight to the gas chamber or to the work camp. It is estimated that nearly 900,000 people were put to death in the gas chamber within one hour of arriving on those rail cars. As an aside, Lukasc shared a story of a man who had visited Auschwitz and recognized his father in this photo. After further interviews and record verification, it was identified that his father was one of the Nazi officers participating in the selection process, a fact he had never known in his family history. In further discussion, it was shared that this rail car has been restored and was donated to the museum complex by Frank Lowy in honor of his father that was murdered at Birkenau for refusing to surrender his Jewish prayer bag. Upon the inclusion of this rail car, Frank Lowy visited Birkenau and left his own Jewish prayer bag inside the rail car as a tribute of his father’s death.

Most of Birkenau is in ruins, as the Nazi Army destroyed the gas chambers and other buildings to conceal their crimes. Additionally, many Polish citizens dismantled these buildings to re-use the building materials, as those items were in short supply after the war. To date, several buildings are in danger of collapsing due to the weight of the materials used, the swampy ground beneath them and the way they were constructed. Efforts are underway to preserve these buildings in their original condition by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation to prevent the deterioration of the historical importance of this site. To learn more about the foundation or to contribute visit

At our request, Lukasc led us to the children’s barracks where Lidia Maksymowicz was housed during, her time at Birkenau. This was such a memorable experience to be able to see the area she had described to us yesterday. To further impact our experience, Lukasc shared that his grandfather spent time in Auschwitz before being moved to another camp and eventually was liberated and set free. His commitment to honoring his grandfather’s legacy, has lead him to become a tour guide to educate others about the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Upon leaving Auschwitz-Birkenau, we rode in relative reflection and quiet conversation as many were not yet ready to share their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. We all believe, we will be synthesizing this experience in various forms for the rest of our lives.

At our final stop of the day, which included a classic Polish pierogi lunch, prior to arriving in the Czech Republic, our class engaged in a crucial conversation about an incident from earlier in the day. During our tour at Auschwitz I, our class stopped to take a group photo, as we do at many locations. It was at this time that many fellows felt conflicted about posing for a photo in such a somber location. While our tour guide had assured the Presiding Fellows that it was an appropriate location and a common practice, many fellows felt it was uncomfortable and expressed their concerns. As this program has taught us, crucial conversations are healthy and necessary and therefore, Presiding Fellows facilitated a group conversation at our lunch location to discuss the incident. It was determined that we would not share that photo publicly, and therefore the pictures included this blog, are simply snapshots of scenes we experienced and of exhibits and that are common viewing areas.

As we enter the Czech Republic and transition our focus to post-WWII and Communism, we continue to reflect on the impactful historical sites we were fortunate to visit and look forward to our mid-journey synthesis in the morning. We leave you with this quote from Elie Wiesel from his acceptance speech for his Nobel Peace Prize, “Thank you, people of Norway, for declaring on this singular occasion that our survival has meaning for mankind.”

2 thoughts on “Day 7 – Auschwitz – Birkenau

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: