Saturday, April 18, 2015

Day 12 - Auschwitz - Birkenau

Today we spent a very cold and windy day in what was Konzentration Lager [KL] Auschwitz.  Auschwitz was not one camp but was a complex of three prmary sites:  Auscwhitz I was the administrative center and concentration camp for primarily Polish priosners, Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II] was the death camp, and Buna [Auschwitz III] was for manufacturing and testing facilities, which also had dozens of labor subcamps.

We met our guide, Wojciech, who would take us through Auschwitz I which now serves as the museum.  Wojciech had been our guide before and we had been very impressed with both his knowledge and his style of interacting with the students, both in asking and in answering questions, so we were very pleased.  We started under the iconic sigh:  Arbeit Macht Frei.  There, he gave us the history of the camp.  Built in the town of Oswiecim, Auschwitz is the Germanization of the name of the town.  It was established by the Nazis in 1940 and was in use until the Allied liberation in 1945.

As we stood outside the gate we could see several of the 28 brick buildings which made up the camp.  The living conditions in the camp were severe ---hard work, starvation, disease and brutal treatment--- so that the average time between one’s arrival in Auschwitz I and his death was about 2 months.

In Block 4 we were shown a large model of a gas chamber which we would see later in the day, in Birkenau, which showed the three phases of its operation.  First, there was the disrobing room where people undressed.  The second phase was where two Zyklon B pellets were dropped through the vents in the roof, which with water, created a deadly hydrogen cyanide.  The total time necessary to kill all 1500 people in the gas chamber was twenty minutes.  The third phase required Jewish prisoners in a special unit called the Sonderkommando, to remove the bodies and burn them in the underground crematorium.  The average length of time one served in the Sonderkommando before being killed himself, was 3 months.

In  Block 5 were exhibited the ‘evidence of crimes’:  belongings brought by victims to Auschwitz, confiscated by the SS and found after liberation.  Separate rooms containing shoes, artificial limbs and crutches, eyeglasses, prayer shawls, shaving kits, household cooking items, baby clothes, and other items which had been packed in the labeled suitcases they packed.  These provided physical evidence of the existence of so many victims as well as some insight into what they might have thought was their destination.  A large room with a wall-to-wall display case of more than 4,000 pounds of human hair was especially moving.  The hair was sold to textile manufacturers for production of army uniforms or gloves and socks for railroad workers.

In Block 7 we could see the living quarters of the prisoners in Auschwitz.  Lining the walls of the halls were photographs of the prisoners, with their name, prisoner number, nationality, date deported to Auschwitz and date of death.   Here we could see what we had been told at the beginning, that the average life expectancy of a prisoner was 2-3 months because of the harsh conditions. 

In Block 11, which served as the prison for the camp we saw three types of punishment cells:  dark cell, starvation cell and the standing cell in which three or four people could be forced to stand for days at a time.  Punishment might be 3-5 days in one of these cells for a minor infraction of a camp rule or 2 weeks for sabotage.  Time in a punishment cell could be a death sentence.   After viewing the execution wall between Blocks 10 and 11, where tens of thousands of prisoners were lined up naked and shot, we stopped to see in Block 27, an exhibit created by Yad Vashem which opened last year.  Wojciech told us that many nations such as Netherlands, and Hungary had created special exhibits in various block barracks.  This one, created by Yad Vashem, was highlighted with an exhibit called the Book of Names.  In a long room, a book as big as the room, fills two sides of thousands of pages, listing the names and some information such as place of birth and birthdate, place and date of death, if these were known, of more than four million documented Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Our last stop in Auschwitz I was the crematorium of the camp.  There we saw the home of the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss and the gallows where he was hanged for his war crimes in 1947.  The gallows was used once --- for his execution.  We then walked through the crematorium which was used to cremate the bodies of people who had perished in the camp.

After a brief bag lunch on the bus as it was bitterly cold, we drove the short distance to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Shami spent two hours showing us the death camp.  He talked about how the camp had changed in the spring of 1944 when the Nazis expected one million Hungarian Jews to be transported here.  It was then that they added the rail spur coming into the camp, preparing for the influx of prisoners.  Next Shalmi spoke of the importance of “The Ramp” where the selection process was made determining whether one was to live or die.  He told us several emotional stories shared with him as he chronicled their testimony, in which they described their experiences on The Ramp.  He told us many survivors often speak of their life “before the ramp” and their “life after the ramp.”

Our last stop was the Auschwitz Jewish Center which has a museum, synagogue and education center and presents Jewish life in the town of Oswiecim before and after the Holocaust.  Before heading back to the hotel, we also enjoyed some hot chocolate and coffee to warm up from the day in their adjoining Café Bergson, which is located in the home of the last surviving Jew in the town, a Mr. Kluger, who died a few years ago. 

Watch today's videos on our YouTube Channel at 

 Student Reflections

Karishma says...
As I brush my fingers against the stained pages     

4 million names flickering through the ages


And there I read "Khan"
My name
But how
I am not Jewish
I was never told to be Jewish
But there lay 16 Khans
Is there even a bond
I stand there in shame 
In the book of names

Taylor says...
When inside Birkenau, Mr. Barmore told a story about a guard seeing a little boy standing alone calling out for his mother that was no where in sight. The guard walked down and saw a young woman and grabbed her and screamed at her but she denied the fact he was her son but when they approach him, he ran to her arms screaming "Mommy." The woman said "Please I'm only 19 years old, I want to live." This story made me think about all the other families that had to make the same decisions.

Henry says...
As I walked through Birkenau and heard stories of the tragedies that occurred it became clear ones perspective of events can be easily abandoned to aid one's life. Birkenau embodies events of misery and in order to retain life and survive individuals took vastly different courses of action. Some were forced to abandon their innocence to retain life and some were forced to blur the line of innocence to cherish life.

Kayla says...
It is hard to imagine that the tragedies of the Holocaust happened right where I stood in Auschwitz and Birkenau, but as Mr. Barmore told us the stories of the people he had met, and we looked at the places where they occurred it felt completely real. Every place that we saw today made me have different emotions and places like the room of human hair made me realize how real this truly was and how many victims there were.

Kyle says...
Being at Auschwitz was so powerful, for one of the first times in my life I was completely speechless. Seeing the horrible living conditions these human beings just like us had to live through was a moving experience and just showed that some things just cannot be taught through a textbook. The most painful thing in my opinion that I saw today was seeing the mug shots of these innocent prisoners faces which were all bruised up and expressionless from the cruel torture the camp caused to these prisoners.

Kelly says...
Today was certainly one of the most influential days of the trip. I was immediately struck by the barbed wire that surrounded the camp, it was hard to imagine what the Jews were confined to even thro

Julia says...
Going through Auschwitz was a surreal experience. I thought that I would go there and cry. But everything seemed so unreal to me. During some parts of it I felt as if I was in a dream. I have been reading stories about Auschwitz since I was little and to actually be there was amazing. The story when Mr. Barmore said the girl told her mom to die hit me hard. The girl forever has to live with the guilt of her mom only wanting to save her. Throughout the day that was the only story I could actually picture happening. All through this trip I have been able to picture situations, but today I could not even imagine what was happening there during World War II.  It was hard to see a place where such cruel things happened to such innocent people.

Caitlin says...
Being at Auschwitz and Birkenau was so powerful. I cannot fully articulate what I saw today, but I think the thing that struck me the most was when Mr. Barmore said "the main part of the story is when there's no story." The survivors we hear from today are the minority and I think today that really began to sink in.

Camille says...
As soon as I stepped into Auschwitz, the atmosphere changed. It was suddenly colder, darker, and gloomier when I entered. It was difficult to not picture the tragedy that had happened there. It felt like I was living both in the present and the past. It felt so real like if I were living it. Before visiting Auschwitz, all this history just felt like words on a page but seeing it and being there made the whole thing solid and undeniable. This day will stay with me forever.

Rose says... In both Auschwitz and Birkenau it took information and my imagination to even begin to understand the past of these places. Seeing the room full of women's hair, the last physical part of them that still remains was surreal. Mr. Barmore told about a man who stopped traffic to let the train to Auschwitz through and felt that he had no part in the killing, but he did, they all did. We believe that we are past this part of our history and this cruelty but in what ways have we changed? How are we so different that this could never happen again?

Julie says...
As a student who has studied the Holocaust I can say that this trip has truly amazed me. Walking through Auschwitz I understood more clearly what all of the testimonies, diaries and textbooks are stating when they describe the scenery as well as emotions they saw and felt. It's hard to imagine what these people had to go through while inmates in the camps. When I approached the entrance gate I saw what thousand and thousand of innocent people saw and that was a certain beginning of terror.

Caroline says…
Today is a day that I will never forget. Walking through “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate in front of Auschwitz, I suddenly felt as if I was looking at a photograph in class. I wondered what thoughts were running through their minds when they arrived. Did they know what was about to happen? As we proceeded through the camp, things became more unreal. The women’s hair, the children’s shoes, and the thousands of suitcases, left me speechless. I will take the experiences of today with me forever.

Cydney says...

Walking through Auschwitz-Birkenau today was both fascinating and heartbreaking. It was amazing to actually see the camps I've studied about in school and read about in books because it's one thing to hear about it but when you see it in person it makes it more serial. Two things that really made me emotional was the display of the hair from the women that were in the camp and the children's shoes. I think that those two things hit me hard because the women had their heads shaved upon arrival and to me that's such a traumatic event. These women had no one idea what their fate was or what they were going to be doing in this camp and right away they were stripped of their clothing and they had their heads shaved. The large pile of children's shoes broke my heart because they were so tiny and the fact that those children's lives ended so soon and tragically was really hard for me to handle. 

Seungyoon says...

When Mr. Barmore was telling the story about the son who survived after his mom pushed him on the ground, I felt a rush of emotions and imagined the guilt the son has to face for the rest of his life after saying to his mom and sister "I hope you die!". Ironically, his mom and sister were really going to die and she pushed him away for him to survive. After Mr. Barmore finished explaining the story, I teared up because this mom is exactly the same kind of parent my mom is. My mom would do anything and everything for my brother and I to have the best life possible. Therefore, my mom would do the exact same thing in order for me to survive. Furthermore, I truly feel I grasped the idea of decisions people had to make during the Holocaust in order for their children or loved ones to survive. I will never forget Mr. Barmore's stories about these people and remember them to honor their choices.

Charlotte says…

Walking through and seeing the exhibitions in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the word I thought of most was "vast." it was an indescribable feeling to stand on The Ramp. No matter where you looked, all you could see was the camp and it was heartbreaking to realize that this is what the prisoners saw and what they probably felt was just the feeling of no escape and no freedom.

Darya says…

Today was so emotional especially seeing the names of the 4 million people that were killed due to the Holocaust. It struck me so hard when I found the names of my ancestors because many of them were killed during it and seeing their names was all too real. Another factor that I could not get over is that we were walking where the victims walked nearly 70 years ago but we were the lucky ones because we were able to walk out when millions did not. Seeing the ruins of the barracks and the gas chambers made me sick to my stomach because the Nazis had the audacity to try to destroy the camps when they realized they were going to lose the war. The fact that they wanted to destroy any evidence of their horrific crimes is disgusting because it amplifies the idea of them being cowards and not wanting to face the reality of their actions. Today was both emotionally and physically challenging and one that I will never forget because I was able to connect emotionally by going and learning further about Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Autumn says…
Today I walked the streets and railroads of where millions of Jews, gypsies, and others were killed, abused and taken advantage of. It really got to me when I saw a video of a 4 year old girl dancing and smiling in a flower garden and she was so innocent and her fate was led into a different direction... I learned and took in so much today and I am blessed to have been given this opportunity to be on this trip. 

 Deanna says.... 

After visiting all the camps today, it really made a huge effect on me. The items of those who lost their lives were stored to be looked at and photographed. Several feet of hair of the women whose lives were taken were put on display too. The most interesting part of today was the story we were told where the mother pushes away the son continuously while he chases after her, but only later does he realize she was pushing him away to save his life.

Alejandra says... 

Today's visit was to Auschwitz was emotionally. Mr. Barmore told us stories of personal testimonies of those who went through the transportation. Hearing the stories made me feel fully connected. Having younger siblings I'm very protective of them and to hear how many children were killed was painful to hear. Today was an emotional visit.



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  2. A very well written and informed blog post. This post didn't just personally touch the hearts of the students on the Holocaust trip but also the students back home in Oakland, California. From the life expectancy of a prisoner in the camp, to the book that contains names to remember the innocent, to the possessions the SS took, it's powerful. It's also inspirational that high school students have the ability to go to Auschwitz on foot for a whole day and take away from that experience. It's also impressive that high schoolers can handle and learn from a place that's sorrowful and distasteful. The treatment of these innocent people is appalling. We need more people in this world who will realize any type of treatment similar to the Jew, Poles, and other targeted groups of the Holocaust, is unacceptable and we need more people to educated in this area of study because its only fair these innocent people are remembered innocently. So proud of everyone who went on the trip.

  3. I am commenting on this day because it is, of the days so far, my favorite. Auschwitz is probably the most iconic of the concentration camps and thus acts as a good summary of them all. I would love to have been there to see it. So far, the trip sounds like it has been very fun and educational. It must be very interesting to see the things we have been learning about in real life. However, while it may be cool to see, I can also imagine how depressing the atmosphere is at Auschwitz. In addition, I can also imagine how disturbing certain parts of the tour must have been, in particular the gas chamber and the 'evidence of crimes’ in blocks 4 and 5. Overall, I find it tragic how such a horrific establishment was built upon what can be assumed to be a peaceful and prosperous town. The pictures all look fantastic and I enjoyed reading each of your reflections.
    Please continue to enjoy the trip and looking forward to your return!
    -Sean Hennigan

  4. On the eve of your homecoming I just wanted to thank you so much for sharing this incredible journey with all of us. I can't tell you how much I appreciated following this amazing blog/videos every day. Although I can't even begin to imagine everything you have learned and experienced these last two weeks, I have such an appreciation and respect for this program. I too have learned so much through your moving reflections, Mr. Barmore, and of course this well documented blog. To Mrs. T, Mr. C, and Ms. S - Bless you for making this trip a reality for this very fortunate group of young adults - your dedication is an inspiration to all of us. Wishing you all a safe and relaxing trip home - looking so forward to seeing your happy (and exhausted) faces on Monday evening.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this blog post. It is very touching and full of information. The pictures posted are amazing. Seeing the giant book of all the Jews murdered in the camp really puts in perspective how many Jews died in this dark period. Reading the stories of victims from the blog and from other students really captured my attention. In class, sometimes its hard to understand the position that victims were put in. The story about the little girl and her mother was heartbreaking for me, but I think it is extremely important that people to try to empathize with the victims in this terrible time. This post was very touching, and I cannot wait for you all to come back and share even more knowledge with the class.

  6. This blog posting was especially touching, but also a painful reminder to how horrific the actions against the Jews could be. Before this post, I was never aware that the life expectancy in Auschwitz was only 2 months. To me this was eye opening and allowed me to further understand how amazing and great it is to have survivors of Auschwitz alive today. In addition to this, the punishment cells were horrifying as well because of the innocent beings that were tortured in there. The most heartbreaking part of the post to me was the book containing the names of the millions of victims. I think when a lot of people remember the holocaust they know that there were millions of victims, but don't understand how large that number is. The book is a sad display of how many victims there were and gives a painful insight of how many innocent lives were lost. When remembering the holocaust, it is important to remember the horrificness of the crimes against the Jews and how many were lost. This blog posting did a nice job of helping readers keep that in mind.

  7. I am extremely touched and horrified by today's blog posting. I had been previously aware of the conditions at Auschwitz, but I do not think I truly understood the horrors of the camp until I heard the life expectancy of a mere two months. Additionally, learning about the punishment cells really helped me understand why more prisoners did not fight back and how big of a deal it was when one did. However, ultimately it was the Book of Names that put the camp truly into perspective for me. By giving the mass number of victims a name, birthdate, and other various information, it changes those murdered from a number to an individual. This helped connect me in the present, to the devastation of this past event. Overall, today's blog posting helped me to unveil another layer of Auschwitz, and helped me in grasping the mass desolation of this horrible camp.

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  9. I knew about Auschwitz before reading this, but I had no idea of the extent it was. I knew it was a death camp, but I did not know it was split up into 3 sections and then different blocks. Reading this was so unreal and heartbreaking. The fact that other prisoners were forced to clean up the gas chambers and burn the bodies is absolutely terrible. I can't imagine how the kid's on the trip felt actually going through this place, let alone begin to imagine what it was like for those innocent people put through this type of torture.

  10. I remember that day was by far the most important day of the trip for me. For years I had been hearing about the camps, but no one camp really imagine what it would look like until you are standing in front of the camp with the buildings standing empty with the ghosts of victims in our minds. I wish I had been able to look through the book of names to try to look for familial names, but the fact all the names of the victims of Auschwitz are now all posted in one place is so important in never forgetting. Wojciech did such an amazing job at teaching us the facts about Auschwitz while letting the emotional importance speak for itself. That day was probably the single most influential day in my life. This trip is so important and I'm glad I was fortunate enough to go on it and experience this.

  11. This blog post really stood out to me and was very emotional to read. I knew about Auschwitz the most out of all of the different locations visited but I was not aware of the details that are listed in this blog. Specifically, what stood out to me were the "three phases of the operation" in regards to the gas chamber. The disrobing room I thought was really horrific because of how dehumanizing it must have been for the victims, knowing that they were doing this just as another step to their death. I also think the fact that the total time to kill 1,500 people in a gas chamber was twenty minutes is really scary to think about. Specifically how thousands of people were taken away so fast. Having read through this blog post, I know truly understand the details of how horrible this camp was.

  12. After following this blog for almost two weeks, the day the students would go to Auschwitz and Birkenau was by far what I was most anticipating hearing about. Seeing these students go through this trip and visiting the most notorious extermination camp has really began to connect the historical aspect that I know to personal experiences and emotions. Seeing this blog post and the videos from the day has really emphasized the reality of these places and the fact that they still exist to remember and learn from. Reading all of the reflections and hearing from students who have gone on this trip in the past has allowed me to see several different perspectives of such a difficult place visit and understand.

  13. This was an incredibly moving and heartbreaking entry because to me, Auschwitz seems to be the epitome of the horrors committed during the Holocaust. This is where the mass murder happens so often, so greatly, and so horrifically. It is astounding to me that millions of people were murdered here in such a short amount of time. I think that one of the most horrifying parts of this entry was the discussion of the Sonderkommando, the Jews who had to clean up and dispose of the bodies of their fellow Jews. They had to see the mass murder of their friends, of elders, women, children, and their brothers. Not only did they have to suffer through this, but each Jew of the Sonderkommando knew that they would be the next body to be hauled off by one of their own. They all knew that within approximately three months, this would be their own fate. That unbearable knowledge seems to be some of the worst for me: that one was going to suffer the worst imaginable death at any given moment and there was nothing they could do about it. Overall, I learned a lot from this blog post and I know have a better idea of how large Auschwitz-Birkenau is and of the horrors that were witnessed here. I hope one day I can travel there myself and be able to experience this.

  14. It's really interesting to be reading about your visit to Auschwitz, especially because i just wrote a research paper on the samd topic. It's so sad that people were able to take advantage of that many people and kill/torture them.

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