Lessons Learned at Auschwitz

By Kiana Duncan

The writer is a senior journalism student who has had the benefit of the CCI Semester in Florence (fall 2016) and is now completing a semester on her own in Prague as part of the Kent State-Anglo American University partnership.

A few friends and I were looking for a budget weekend trip, so we booked two days in Krakow, Poland. After a childhood of reading books like Number the Stars and Night, and finding out student tours and transportation were relatively cheap, I finally had a chance to pay my respects and learn more about the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Unfortunately, it was one of those moments where I overestimated myself and missed the morning bus to the camp (not for lack of trying! Directions are not a strong skill for me).

Disappointed and sleepy, with no keys back to my hostel, I sat down at a McDonald’s, and made a few calls to different tour agencies. I didn’t even really care about the money at that point, but the thought of missing out on something I’d looked forward to for so long was incredibly disheartening. I considered walking around Krakow, but each time I thought about spending the day thinking about my missed experienced at Auschwitz, I knew that I had to make my best effort to get there.

“Do you offer any other tours today?”

“No, I’m sorry. But you could either tour the salt mine, take a few buses to Auschwitz, or call a taxi.”

I knew the bus system was more than a three- hour ride, including 30 minute walks along rural roads.

“You said a taxi?” The thought hadn’t even occurred to me.

“Well, yes, but the price would be a bit steep, probably around 250.”

“Wait, 250… zloty (polish currency)?” Meaning about 50 euros, which was just enough for me to justify spending on an hour and a half ride across Poland.

I ran to the nearest hotel and asked them to call me a taxi (highly recommend doing this in a pinch). After negotiating with a taxi driver whose English was as limited as my Polish, we agreed he would take me to Auschwitz for exactly 250 zloty. Though I will say, apparently taking a taxi there is pretty unusual. I was repeatedly asked “A taxi? To Auschwitz? You’re sure?”

What began as a sleepy morning soon had my heart pounding as the cab wound along country roads. As I read the Polish street signs, my mind was racing and I realized that I had two options: either find my tour group at this massive camp, or have the cab driver wait on me. I wasn’t going to chance the bus system and long walk at night, especially now that it was starting to get dark around 4 pm. I took a leap of faith and thanked my driver, but told him he could go back to Krakow.

What happened next was truly luck. After two failed attempts at communicating with employees, I found my bus for the tour agency in the parking lot, with a driver who spoke just enough to English to understand my urgency and situation. He lept off the bus quickly, began explaining my situation to the employees in Polish, and pushed me through security to the front of the line with just enough time to catch my tour group before they disappeared into the camp. I had tears of gratitude in my eyes as I turned back to the bus driver, thanked him immensely, and ignored my very American urge to hug this sweater-clad grandpa who had done so much to help a woman he didn’t even know.

Comically, after this emotionally charged and stressful morning, my tour guide greeted me with two flat words: “You’re late.” I breathed a very exhausted laugh at how obvious this information was to everyone involved in my journey there, and the tour began.

‘Nothing Untouched by Horror’

I had a lot of prior knowledge about Auschwitz, a result of the many novels I’d read growing up, lectures, and documentaries. But seeing something in real life is much different, especially every time our tour guide reminded us that this was not only a historical place, but the largest graveyard in the world; a tribute to millions of victims. A line from a documentary I’d seen the week before in my European history class was stuck in my head as I looked around the gloomy, cold place:

“The mud in the forests surrounding the camp are filled with human ash.”

The camp has been left undisturbed, in the same state as it was the day it was liberated. The first gate is inscribed with “Arbeit macht frei,” or “Work Sets You Free.”

Each building is set up as a tribute to each aspect of a prisoner's’ life at the camp. Each building is more horrible and surreal than the last, and together they outline every step of the process, from selection of workers on the platform after they had spent 10 days or more in the railway car without food or water, to every manipulation from SS officers after.

I’m certain that there are many of these images I’ll remember for the rest of my life. One long hallway has portraits of women on one side, and men on the other. There are three dates listed below each of the hundreds of pictures: date of birth, date of deportation and date of death. Each of these people, every single one, and millions more, were dead. So many times there I felt in my heart such a sense of urgency, as if there were something I could do for all these people who had been murdered decades ago; an urge to do something for them, anything. But I couldn’t. No one could.

The only thing that separated us was time, but I felt so close to them, taking in every wrinkle on their faces and smudge of dirt on their cheeks. The only way to demonstrate exactly how many people were murdered is by belongings, pictures and objects. I found myself needing to be reminded that as easy as it is to just see a pair of shoes, or a portrait, each item represented someone who had a life, a family. Each item surely must symbolize the fear of being torn away from families.

The images were hard to look at. They were just portraits, but some I could only look at for a few seconds before turning away. Every few faces, there was an elderly woman, probably someone’s grandmother, with a shaved head, who looked completely defeated, upset, sometimes with tears in their eyes. Some looked angry. There were young women, practically children. Each portrait listed  exactly how much time had passed between the date they arrived and the date they were murdered. For some, it was a matter of months, or almost a year. For many, though, especially the grandmothers, it was a matter of days. It was awful.

Sometimes in between buildings, our tour guide would stop and turn to a perfectly ordinary fence or wall, and tell us how a priest was starved, or how corpses would be put on display here as a warning to prisoners considering escape. Nothing here was untouched by horror.

The most distinctive part of the tour was the dorm where just a small sample of the belongings found after liberation were kept. A long hallway, with glass cases on both sides, easily the length of a large lecture hall, was completely filled with shoes. Each one was different, some were sandals, some were decorated with flowers, some were men’s work shoes; all formed a tribute each, singular individual who had endured a terrifying death, afraid for themselves and their family. An equally large hall was filled with hair shaved off of prisoners. Even more horrifying, in another room, a smaller, glass case was filled with children’s shoes. It continued throughout the tour, rooms filled with objects of everyday life that had been packed with care into suitcases in the ghettos where they had been forced to stay: cooking pots, eyeglasses, shoe polish and hairbrushes.

Someone wore these and brought these here, thinking that they would get to leave with them, too.

Each time I would walk out of a building, I would remind myself that someone else didn’t get that same chance. Some of the prisoners were here even less time than I was; they were rushed from the train immediately to the gas chambers.

Bearing Witness

The tour guide walked us around the last building on the tour, and after detailing accounts of survivors, he stopped: “Now it’s your turn to tell others about your experience here. You have beared witness to the violence and genocide that occurred at Auschwitz and Birkenau. It is our job to make sure this never happens again.”

As the semester comes to a close, I’ve been asked by friends and family to reflect on my lesson from  this study abroad, and what I think I’ve learned. Poland somehow made all my lessons all abundantly clear.

Everything has been pretty easy up to this point in my travels. I’m not saying I’ve never had scary moments or struggled, but I’ve always found an easy fix, and maintaining the stereotypical, upbeat persona of a study-abroad student has been pretty easy. But as I’ve experienced, those really aren’t the moments when you learn, and most important, study abroad doesn’t necessarily exist to give us an easy experience. It exists to teach us lessons and to help us grow. It is an experience we choose, regardless of the good or bad. It is a chance we take, not knowing whether or not things will go according to plan, or how our experiences will impact us.

I think the lesson I’ve learned is that not everything needs to make me feel good, and everything doesn’t need to be a pleasant experience. I didn’t go to Auschwitz to feel good about myself, and while accepting the sadness of this monstrosity was necessary, it was also necessary to realize that there was no part of this to feel good about. Sometimes the only thing to do is feel sad. There were lessons in that experience at Auschwitz, but it was not about me. It was about honoring the deaths of these prisoners, witnessing history, learning about marginalization, and learning what we can do as global citizens to never let this happen again. Genocide still occurs and is occurring even now in the world; I want to bear witness.

I learned how much that trip to Auschwitz meant to me. I learned what I was willing to do for it, and I do feel I surprised and even learned something new about myself. It would have probably been easier for me to plan a weekend in Ibiza or Paris, or even just skip the tour and consider the money a sunk cost, but that wouldn’t have made me think twice.

Another important lesson: I had failed. I failed to catch my bus, I failed to arrive on time to the correct location, and I failed to respect my tour guide and bus driver’s time by being late (and inconvenienced people along the way). While I have had many experiences that were near-misses or narrowly-avoided disasters, I had never actually failed badly enough to spend that much money or be desperate enough to put in that much research.

I’m not ashamed of failing, though. As I told this story over dinner that night, my friends reminded me: I had failed, but I had also fixed my mistake quickly and well. These are the moments we grow: when we’re sad, when we’re scared, and when we’ve failed.