Touring the gas chambers helped Emily Barber absorb the somber reality that is the Holocaust. Photo by Emily Barber

Visiting Auschwitz changed my life

By  Emily Barber, Youth Speak News special
  • May 26, 2016

Life has a knack for continuously shaping our perspectives, for changing how we view the world through exposure to new experiences and ideas. These changes can be gradual or arrive in a sudden rush of mind-blowing revelation, as happened when my life was changed by my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

A history buff, I had been looking forward to this day for months. It was summer last year. I was taking a fun school course in Europe with a great class. At first, this was just another destination, albeit a momentous one.

But as soon as we entered, my mood changed entirely. It was like a heavy weight was pressing down on me as I glimpsed the rows of barracks, barbed wire, the silent streets. I was haunted by the amount of misery, anguish and suffering that had occurred there, a sentiment reflected in the faces of those around me. Minutes earlier, everyone was chatting and enjoying themselves, even being a bit callous about what we were about to encounter.

But as soon as we set eyes on the gate, an unprompted hush fell on us all. 

The arch above the gate bore the words “Arbeit Macht Frei — Work will set you free.” In retrospect, it seems fitting that such a place should have a twisted and deformed motto. After all, who would create such a place as Auschwitz except those utterly twisted and deformed of mind?

It is astounding how meticulous the Nazis were. Nothing was wasted or left to chance, not even the geographical position of Auschwitz. Away in Poland, the Nazis could continue to hide the truth of the concentration camps from the rest of the world. 

Families were ripped apart, screaming children were torn from their mother’s arms. With a wave of his hand, an SS officer would decide a person’s fate: an instant agonizing death or the slow torture of the labour camps. But the deportees knew nothing of this. Instead, they saw each line split, people headed for the camp or the “shower room” to be “disinfected.” 

Those sent to the showers suffered a grim fate. Through the vents and shower valves, a gas was released causing a slow agonizing death. It took up to 15 minutes for a person to die.

The reality of their horror struck me as I stood in this room of slaughter. It must have been terrible to be naked in a packed room, vulnerable and afraid. Waiting. Then all of a sudden you are gasping for air, and people are screaming, clawing at the walls. But struggle is of no avail. Pain is unbearable and terror overwhelming as you realize you will soon die. Then, nothing.

Of the many barracks we visited, one stands out in my mind — the kitchen house where Jewish musicians would play for the amusement of the SS men. I could easily imagine the musicians, their trembling lips on a trumpet, their skeletal fingers dancing a bow on the violin, creating music, a solitary remnant of beauty in a living hell. 

But even more disturbing was what lay in a separate room. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in that one, out of respect for the dead. Behind a massive pane of glass, was a giant mound of human hair. Staring at the pile, I felt physically sick. The Nazis used the hair to make socks, blankets, even jackets. Utterly revolting. 

The same happened to the prisoners’ possessions. The Nazis took everything for distribution to German officials. But what I did find heartening was the nicknames given these warehouses, “Canada I” and “Canada II,” as Canada was considered a country of prosperity, and prisoners who worked at the warehouses were treated slightly better. I’ve never been overly patriotic, but it made me proud to hear Canada was, for some, a symbol of hope. 

The past seemed so real to me as I looked around a large, desolate courtyard. As I was leaving, I reached into a pocket and took out a token my grandmother had given me. 

Oval shaped, it had a heart on one side and “Love” inscribed on the other. A Jewish war survivor had asked her to give it to me so I could leave it at Auschwitz. Almost alone in the courtyard, I walked purposefully to the memorial  and laid down the token. 

Then I bowed my head, turned, and walked away without looking back.

I only pray that our generation will never have to endure even a tenth of the suffering, a tenth of the loss, a tenth of the heartbreak Auschwitz caused. I now see that I cannot go on ignoring the stark warning of what the consequences of such vindictive hate can be. 

(Barber, 16, is a Grade 11 student at Father John Redmond Catholic Secondary School in Toronto.)

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