Reporter's Notebook Travel

Seventy Years After Its Liberation, Auschwitz Is Still Chilling To This Young Visitor

Inside the gas chamber at Auschwitz. (Myah Guild/YJI)
OSWIECIM, Poland – No words can truly describe what visiting Auschwitz is like.
Even now, months after I spent time, there, I still struggle to comprehend what I saw and heard. I suppose it’s because I never really will.
The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – arguably the most notorious death camp of WWII – is this week. January 27 marks the date that Allied soldiers from Russia arrived to free the men, women and children who were still prisoners at Auschwitz.
Though the cruel and evil days of Auschwitz are long gone, the place still has incredible power. I felt the chill inside the gas chambers where millions died. I saw the personal effects – suitcases, shoes and even hair – of the prisoners who had arrived with false hope.
Birkenau was a nearby second camp that the Nazis tried to destroy as the Allies advanced. But the destruction wasn’t complete and evidence of what went on there remains. It’s sometimes known as “Auschwitz 2,” and my tour included it, too.

A sadistic ‘Welcome’

We started by entering Auschwitz under a replica of that famous, mocking sign reading “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Work will set you free.” When you see it, the audacity adds another layer of sadism to what you’re about to see.

The entrance to Auschwitz, with a railroad line running into the camp. (Myah Guild/YJI)

The guide told us the inmates were often made to perform in the orchestra, which would be playing at the entrance to the camp, in order to dupe prisoners both upon arrival at the camp, or as they made their way, unsuspectingly, to the gas chambers.

The prisoners would be rounded up and those who were deemed useless or against Nazi values – such as Jews, black people and Roma, or Gypsy people, as well as the young, the pregnant, the disabled and the mentally ill – were sorted into the groups bound for the gas chambers.
Academics, professionals and those from the political left were also sent to die for fear of their knowledge, power and opposition.
The rest would go into the camp, which was split into men’s and women’s sections, for work. The average life expectancy was six months.

Personal items make the horror real

Seeing the incontrovertible evidence of what the Nazis did at Auschwitz is horrifying.
Piles of gas canisters were left behind, along with artificial limbs and other aids for the disabled that were confiscated upon arrival. Pots and pans that people brought with them to the camp, convinced they were being transported to a new life. Many believed they had bought land and, so, brought everything they owned. Seeing those possessions made the whole experience more real.
I saw the actual belongings of these people and it was gut-wrenching. Their names were still readable on the suitcases, a clear sign they thought they’d be coming back to claim them, unaware they probably never would.
Photographs show people, including mothers with young children, calmly walking towards the gas chambers, believing they were about to have a shower following their long journey. Most of them had spent weeks being transported to the camp, some enduring journeys from as far away as Italy or Greece. Crammed into cattle cars with no sanitation, freezing in the winter and suffering in sweltering summer heat, many would be found dead on arrival.
Undoubtedly the most haunting part of the indoor exhibition is seeing the piles of shoes that were recovered after the camp’s liberation. The sheer amount is staggering and when
you see a child’s shoe amongst them, it makes you realize there was no end to the depravity that went on there.
The next room, which contained a cabinet of human hair, brought many visitors to tears. This cabinet was as big as the ones holding the shoes and suitcases. Nazis shaved prisoners upon arrival and often used their hair to make wigs and carpets.
We were asked not to photograph the hair, but just like the shoes, it made me face the reality of what happened during the Holocaust. When I saw it there with my own eyes, I finally was able to picture not only the sheer number of people who were killed, but the level of indignity, suffering and pain they endured. As we looked at it, we saw a little blonde plait, still tied with a pink band.
In the dormitories, we saw the faces of countless men and women staring back, all shaven, their genders indistinguishable with the striped uniform on. Their ages varied, as did their occupations, but all had an arrival date and a death date, often only months apart. The rooms were bare – just straw on concrete floors. The rooms where guards slept and the execution courtyard were nearby.

Torture and executions

In the courtyard, they tortured and executed prisoners, often for petty incidents. Those who were against the establishment, like critics or academics, such as professors and doctors, were often shot upon arrival.
There were hooked poles used to torture inmates by tying their hands behind their backs and hanging them from their arms.  Often, they wouldn’t be able to work for days afterwards and would then be tortured again. Some were hanged for disobedience from the scaffolds near the gas chamber.
One of the only redeeming features was a replica of the scaffold in the garden, which was used in 1947 to hang Rudolf Höss, a former commandant of the camp. The villa he lived in during his time at the camp was visible just beyond the camp boundaries and the fences, which at the time were electrified. Guides said many prisoners would, in their despair, deliberately run at the fence to commit suicide.

Gas chambers: dark, cold and eerie

From there, we went to the gas chambers. They gave us the choice whether to see them or not, and the option of staying outside was all too appealing. By that point, I was fully
aware that when I went in, I would be standing where these people once stood. I knew that when I went in, I would be standing in the exact place where more than a million men, women and children met their excruciating deaths.
Words can’t describe that feeling.
Inside, it’s dark and cold. You get a sense of what it would have been like to have been herded, like cattle, into the room with tons of other people. You think about them all – in the dark, no clothes, without their possessions and surrounded by strangers. And, then, you think about what happened next, and, again, words will never to able to adequately describe what you feel.
A sense of claustrophobia and fear sets in then, a feeling that all the visitors seemed to share, regardless of our differences. Even though I knew I was in a museum, the way the camp is preserved just as it was – especially in the chambers – made me feel as if I was in the camp, as it was so many years ago. Occasionally, I felt a coldness that can never be properly expressed. Even now, it returns whenever I remember it.

The ovens of Auschwitz, the ruins of Birkenau

The ovens next to the chambers are also left as they were; the trays where other inmates would be made to place bodies before cremating them remain. The wagons people arrived in, the huts they slept in and the other chambers are still there at Camp 2 – Auschwitz II. The famous railroad leading up to it is a jolting sight, just like the sign.
The ruins of Birkenau jar with the intact nature of Auschwitz, since the Nazis tried to bomb the chambers and clear out the facilities at the second camp to cover up their crimes.
Evidence remains, though, as you can see the living quarters and toilets. They’re just holes in a cold, concrete bench, where the indignity was heightened and two-fold, as some of the inmates had to clean the facilities with their bare hands. Often they would contract diseases and die, though the guide said that many favored the job because it meant officers wouldn’t want to go near them.
Inmates would sleep in basic huts – wooden ones for men and ones built of stone for women. Low temperatures, disease and rodents meant many would die quickly. I visited on a mild July day and the huts were instantly cooler than outside. Some had drawings and markings, made by prisoners, still on the wall.
Our guide said the inmates would have been given a watery soup for breakfast, often made from rotting vegetables prepared on the same wagon that transported bodies from the camp. Dinner would be a thin slice of bread, if anything.

A somber end

The tour ended with the memorial at the end of the railroad into the camp. It’s grey and stark, making you think, like the camp does, of the millions of people who suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
Translated into the different languages of the prisoners who suffered there, it is a constant reminder – as are the tributes that continue to be left there – that this genocide did
occur and that we must not only never forget it, but never allow it to happen again.
Myah Guild is a Senior Reporter for Youth Journalism International.
See more photos in this slideshow:

Your tax-deductible contribution can help support Myah Guild
and other students at this nonprofit at