This is one of those posts I dread writing. It is so hard to convey in words the emotions of visiting a place like Auschwitz, and I am not a great writer, so I am not really going to try.
Our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau was one that we had been talking about for a long time. Everyone had read several books related to the topic over the past few months and Peter had studied the holocaust extensively in school, so we all had awareness of the atrocities which occurred in these places, but nothing prepares you for visiting them. I had been to Auschwitz when I was 16 and Dachau when I was 22, so I had some sense of what to expect and I knew it would be a tough day for everyone.
We took a bus out as part of a tour we booked through the hotel. Our transport and arrival was a bit chaotic as the tour operator was dealing with multiple busses and languages. When we arrived I was shocked to see the infrastructure that had been built up since my last visit along with the number of people visiting. We figured New Years Eve would be a slow day, but quite the contrary the place was packed. We received some headphones so we could easily hear our guide and all met just outside the main gates.
Our guide was very nice and informative, but spoke very quickly and had a THICK polish accent which made listening a real chore. In addition the absolute throngs of people made it difficult to make your way through each barrack where the exhibits are.
We all agreed later that the tour and the amount of people detracted from the experience rather than adding to it. That being said, the experience was still massively powerful. Adding weight to the visit was the weather. It was a nice winter day, the sun was shining through broken clouds, but it was cold with a slight breeze. Hearing about daily roll calls, rain or shine, cold or hot, where prisoners would stand outside for upwards of 19 hours until every last soul was accounted for, was more poignent when we were shivering in our down jackets.
The exhibits had not changed much since my last visit and are still haunting.
The visit to Auschwitz took almost two hours and then we were given a break before heading to the massive complex at Birkenau.
Stepping off the bus in Birkenau we were hit with dropping temperatures and a cold wind. This area is much larger and was built when the Nazis ran out of space at Auschwitz. It is only about 10 mins away, but it is out of town and completely exposed to the elements. It was built to be the largest and most efficient death camp possible and the scale is hard to imagine. 800 acres of barracks, gas chambers and crematorium. As we were guided around the weather kept deteriorating and we were freezing. The last stops were in a barrack and the sanitation house. Picturing someone trying to live in these conditions was unimaginable, we all agreed we would not last long.
In the end we thanked our guide, who clearly cared a great deal about what he did and reminded us all never to look away from these events, because they are still happening in places like Syria and headed back to the warmth of the bus. The ride home was silent as expected.
We did not really choose to visit Auschwitz on New Years Eve, it was just the only day that we could make work. So we had the unenviable task of trying to celebrate a new year in the face of a visit like this. We made it home and rested for a while and then started planning our evening. We have never been huge New Years participants, so we decided to continue the tradition with a night a home. That was made easier by the fact that the Sheraton was throwing a huge party in their open atrium so we could hang out on the balcony, hear the band and participate in our own way. Stacie and I ran up to the market to get some dinner, sausage of course, and we watched a movie to help eat time before midnight.
The band was loud and we would head out onto the balcony to watch and dance every once in a while to the complete embarrassment of the kids, and then the big moment came. We welcomed the new year in from the balcony of the Sheraton with about 300 of our closest Polish friends down below us. I think we can safely say this will be a New Years Eve we will never forget.