This past weekend, the Lipscomb, Oklahoma, and Rochester students all made their way to Poland, by train, for a weekend in Krakow, and the surrounding areas. The main purpose of the trip was to visit Schindler’s Museum as well as the infamous Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.
Before our trip, we all read the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. We also watched the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” as well as “Schindler’s List” to gain some perspective and refresh our knowledge of the terrible things that happened during World War II.
Our visit to Schindler’s Museum was a chance for us to learn in detail what life was like for people at that time, before, during and after the war. I was aware of went on when the Jews were taken to the work camps, or concentration camps, but it was surprising to me to learn about how the Jews were treated before going to work camps. It’s heartbreaking that fellow humans could be treated so poorly and regarded as so unimportant.
Oscar Schindler was a man who helped save over a thousand Jews from the work camps by hiring them as workers in his factory. Toward the end of the museum, visitors get to see portraits of the people whom Oscar Schindler helped save. There are daughters, sons, mothers and fathers who would not be alive today if Oscar Schindler had not sought out these people and insisted they come to work at his factory.
The day following our visit to Schindler’s museum, we made our way to a town outside of Krakow to visit Auschwitz, which is made up of many different campsites. In our time there, we visited Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, where many of Holocaust atrocities we hear about took place.
At Auschwitz I you can walk through the buildings that used to be sleeping quarters for the prisoners. Some rooms are set up to reflect what the spaces would have looked like at the time of the war, other rooms exhibit the luggage, shoes, pots and pans, hair, glasses and other possessions that were taken from the prisoners upon their arrival at the camps.
At Auschwitz I, we also walked through a gas chamber as well as the front gates, bearing the words “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which translates to “Work makes you free.” This is what the prisoners were told upon entering the camp, but most never were free after walking through those gates.
At Auschwitz II, one of the things that was shocking to me was the size of the camp. You can see where there used to be rows upon rows of buildings to house the prisoners. Also at Auschwitz II we visited the ruins of the gas chambers. Near the end of the war, the Nazis tried to cover up their actions by destroying the gas chambers. Our tour guide told us that scattered around the ruins you can still find bone fragments and ashes from the crematorium. Seeing the size of the gas chambers and then learning how many people they could murder at once was tragic.
Another shocking thing about visiting the camp was that toward the back of the property, you could see and read about how the camp was preparing to expand. They had already taken the lives of so many, and were preparing for more. This is truly devastating.
You can see the rail tracks as well as a railcar that was representative of how the prisoners would arrive at the camp. On plaques and signs you can see pictures of women and children lined up in preparation for the gas chambers. They barely had arrived at the camp before they were murdered, as they were considered dispensable and unfit for work, and therefore useless to the German operations.
Seeing where so many innocent people had their lives taken from them is surreal. You grow up learning about the terrible actions of the Nazis and the truly despicable things they did, but to actually see where it happened, I don’t know if I have the right words to depict those emotions, thoughts and feelings.
Viktor Frankl was at Auschwitz for a time during his imprisonment. He gave an account of how prisoners reacted to the events that happened to them. He says in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”
A favorite passage of mine from the book is when Frankl discusses a moment when he experienced beauty. He says in his book:
“One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside, we saw sinister clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate gray mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘how beautiful the world could be.’”
No words I can say will accurately sum up the things different people experienced or felt while visiting the camps, but I can say that it was a good experience. While somber, the visit gave us the opportunity to remember and consider those lives that were taken unjustly.