Wake up was 7:30. There was a lot of sleep lost last night, the anticipation of going to Auschwitz paired with trying to sleep in a former SS barrack for the night made for a lot of restlessness. Everything in the morning was a little quieter than normal, a little more hesitant. There was a lot of nervous laughter. Going through security I filmed some people's initial feelings and most of them were: I'm nervous. Ever since we've heard about the Holocaust we've heard the name Auschwitz, and now we were actually GOING there.
The first thing I noticed was the barbed wire fence. It's very present, wherever you look it's there to remind you where you are. Looking around and seeing trees and grass, hearing birds singing, and then being interrupted by grey concrete and wire is...jarring.
Our tour guide [Wojtek] was spectacular. He wasn't afraid of Ms. Freeman, for one thing, and he gave us just enough time to process things without making the tour too long. He hit key points and knew what he was talking about.
Everything in Auschwitz one gave me a sad, weary feeling, but there were three installations in Block 27, placed one after another, that hit hard. First: a room filled with projections of Jewish life before the war. These floor to ceiling videos and pictures showed life before the horrors of Auschwitz, normal people doing normal things, skiing, getting married, going to the beach, having birthdays. It was backed by happy music that filled the room. After seeing what was done once people passed under "Arbeit Macht Frei", seeing individual stories, peeking into individual lives, was powerful. It made me remember that EVERY SINGLE PERSON in Auschwitz had their own personal story that was ripped away from them the moment they stepped through that gate.
The second installation was a memorial to Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust, and it was simply a blank room with children's drawings of concentration camps and deportations.
Finally was the book. A massive, tiny-print, take-up-the-whole-room book filled with the names of Jewish people murdered in the Holocaust. After seeing the room with the videos and recognizing victims as individuals the number of victims, the size of the book, the sheer mass of the murder was overwhelming. That room pushed a lot of people over the edge.
Birkenau was a lot more walking but less emotional. It was harder to imagine atrocities there because it was so spacious and kind of pretty. There were a ton of flowers and trees and birds, more like a picnic area than a death camp. It gave me an eerie feeling.
We also went and saw an exhibit in the basement of a monastery filled with drawings created by Marian Kolodziej when he was in his 70s. This was a good way to end the day because we had seen a lot of where people lived, how people lived, etc. This exhibit put faces in those places. His drawings were full of gaunt, haunted, tortured faces: the faces of Auschwitz.
The rest of the day was basically bus and dinner. We laughed, played music, joked around with Mr. Lane, and had a lot of fun. It's almost like we're on two different trips: the one where everyone is psyched to be in Europe and goes out with friends and has a blast, and the one where we deal with the worst of humanity. I'm trying to make a film at the end of this trip and I already know that I'm going to struggle trying to bring those two experiences together into one cohesive piece, but I don't want to split it up ether. I want to capture the concentration camp and the Bauhaus, walking around Berlin and walking through the Fallen Leaves exhibit, all the laughs and all the tears.
Today was a roller coaster. Many of my friends were very scared of the hotel. The breakfast was D1. They had sausage and eggs. Better than Westbury!!!! But not as good as Rox's Diner. The day took a sharp sad turn quickly.
Auschwitz 1 was not at all what I expected it to be. I did expect it to be emotionally grueling but I expected more memorials than museum-like exhibits. I expected the buildings to be restored to their original inside form like Birkenau. I did like the headphones we had in order to hear our tour guide because I could still hear the tour but be able to look around and read many information sets while listening to the tour. The first haunting thing for me was looking at the hair from many of the Auschwitz victims. I had an unsettling feeling that rose in the bottom of my stomach. As we progressed through the tour I became more and more saddened. I began to tear up during the touching music tribute in the dark room to the victims of Auschwitz. As we walked upstairs we came across a room dedicated to the child victims of Auschwitz. The screams playing in the background and the drawings were truly haunting.
The picture of the 3 people hanging really got me in the heart and finally the book with most of the names of the Holocaust victims got me extremely emotional. The book truly captured the scope of damage that the Holocaust done to the targeted people the Nazis slaughtered.
Birkenau was a different experience. It wasn't as emotionally as Auschwitz but the fact that most of the buildings were restored to original form made it seem as if we were stepping in that time. The memorials there were especially moving. The nature at Birkenau also made the camp seem peaceful in a very creepy way. It was creepy because of the horrors that occurred there but the nature made it seem so beautiful with the vegetation growing back.
The rest of the day was an upward mood. Dinner was very trill. Westie has a new rivalry Eduardo Sanchez vs. Mr. Lane. This mans almost exposed your boy in the BUGACCI group chat. The bus was very lively on the way to the hotel and we lifted everybody spirits with Spanish music and dancing.
All in all today was an emotional rollercoaster. I felt like we all got more close as a group. We all as a group cried together and laughed together all day and I think we couldn't get a better day than that.
On Easter Sunday, we arrived at the old SS barracks building some time after 10pm. Ms. Freeman had told us it was right across the street, I still wondered what "across the street" meant. It. Was. Right. There. Quickly, especially with the kind company of Lucy, I acknowledged that the creepiness of the hotel was 93% me projecting creepiness onto it, and the other 7% was the flickering of the light when you turned it on and the ghost beds (though some rooms had only two people assigned, they still had a third unmade bed, i.e. ghost bed).
Auschwitz one neither exceeded nor failed my expectations-- I had virtually none. I could not place it on a scale I simply had no left or right to. The conditions were no longer photographs. Their belongings were in piles as tall as I am - even taller. The book of names was my breaking point, though I feel like I never stopped breaking. the exhibition dedicated to children will stick with me forever. The drawings produced by children younger than me, even younger than the little brother I left at home, humanized them more than any film has for me. That is what they saw every day. That is how they lived.
The gas chambers were the focus at Auschwitz two - Birkenau. Regardless of how long it took, their fates did not depend on the journey there. I drew a visual guide:
Flowers now grow alongside the ash-filled waters. They've even taken over the mass grave. We even saw two deer dance over this -- and this is odd to say -- beautiful field.
It really makes you think.
Today I learned a lot about the resiliency of the human spirit. We've learned about Auschwitz many times this year, seen pictures,heard stories and watched movies. But even after all of that, nothing could ever prepare someone for the things they see and learn once they step foot through the gates. At first, I was taken aback by the cool and casual tone of our tour guide and wondered how someone could be so calm while discussing one of the greatest crimes in all of humanity. By the end of the tour however, he taught us about distancing himself in order to convey the power of the camp and allow people to have their own feelings. And trust me, there were a lot of feelings. The tour went through many buildings from actual barracks where people stayed, to where they worked, to where they were ultimately killed. We saw memorials and restorations and some of the most powerful art work I've ever seen done by children who were victims of the Holocaust. There were horrifically large displays of hair that had been cut off of the woman and lost shoes,collected luggage and old glasses. The amount of objects never got less shocking. We then had a disruptively good lunch in the cafe there (in my personal opinion that is a mad strange place to have a cafe)
We then headed to Auschwitz 2/Birkeneau which was absolutely massive and disturbing beautiful. There was the greenest grass and colorful flowers which gave the bizarre and relatively scary realization that there must've been nice weathered days there, something you don't often picture when you think about the concentration camps. We saw the mass graves left there and also got a little bit in almost trouble with security because I guess we walked somewhere we weren't really supposed to.
The stop after that was in the basement of a church and the things we saw there are things I will never forget. A man named Marian Kolodziej who was number 432 in Auschwitz (meaning he arrived in 1940 at the age of 18) made incredible art work in his late 70's after surviving a stroke that left him unable to talk and walk. He had not shared his experience in the camp all his life but with these haunting images and chilling work he expressed his experiences in such an incredible way I really don't have the words to describe it. Even pictures don't do it justice.
Today was one of the most difficult and eye opening experiences of my life. I truly believe that this is the way everyone should learn about such an important pieces of world history.