Yesterday we went to Auschwitz. I had never been to any of the concentration camps before, and it was a wholly sobering and powerful experience. From the perspective of the IHL course, it really brought a more personal element to the discussions we’ve been having – in the study of such things it is often too easy to slide into hypothetical conversations without keeping at the forefront the notion that we’re talking about real people in extremely difficult circumstances. After our day walking through the actual spaces of Auschwitz I & Auschwitz II-Birkenau, I think all of us were that much more mindful of the realities of what we’ve been discussing.

It was somewhat surreal for me standing in the same space where such atrocities occurred, where people lived in such conditions. The main part of the tour, at Auschwitz I, was conducted by a guide who spoke through headsets tuned to a particular station. This really suited the mood of the experience, because rather than having large groups of people chatting with each other in groups led by loud, shouting tour guides who needed to be heard above the noise, all you heard in your ears was the relatively soft, calm voice of the guide, and even if you took your headphones off for a moment, none of the visitors were speaking with each other, which left the overall sound level amazingly quiet throughout the whole tour. This seems more appropriate, somehow.

There were two things there that gave me a great deal of pause. First was the rooms full of personal belongings that had been taken from those who were sent to the gas chambers. Piles and piles of pots & pans and other household items, empty suitcases, eyeglasses, shoes, prosthetic limbs, and even human hair. I vaguely remembered having learned or read that everyone’s head was shaved, but seeing it in a big mound like that… Then also there were photos lining several of the hallways. Photos of everyone taken at registration, many of them having transferred in from other camps. This was before they began giving everyone tattoos with their numbers on them, which they apparently started in part because taking photos of everyone was getting too expensive. The pictures, though. Everyone with their head shaved, wearing the same clothes – there was this eerie sense of uniformity, of people being stripped of their individuality. All of the photos had captions created after the fact, for display – with their name, country of origin, occupation, date of arrival, and date of death, if applicable. Which it was in nearly every photo we saw.

At the site of Auschwitz II-Birkenau I was struck several times by the sheer scale of the place – it was enormous. The buildings just kept on going, stretching building after building. And the train tracks, the place of arrival for everyone, right in the middle, near the main guard tower. The trains would stop just inside the entrance, but the tracks kept going, hundreds of feet out  I am grateful for the opportunity to have visited this place, despite of, or because of, how emotional the visit may have been.