It's a strange thing to say "I've always wanted to go to Auschwitz" out loud. As someone that ate up any and all books about the Holocaust as a child, though, it's true- I have always wanted to go to Auschwitz. Walking through the gate that read Arbeit Mach Frei ("Work Sets You Free") into the stunningly well preserved camp it felt almost like walking onto a movie set or, worse, going back in time. The barbed wire, the signs still in place, the barracks. It was almost comforting to spot a modern office or archive room through a curtain.
The place was, predictably, swarming with tourists, but it was large enough that you still had fleeting moments of being completely alone to take something in. Merlin and I stood in this room, a gas chamber, until we heard footsteps approaching behind us. When we turned the corner to the next room, there were two ovens, a wreath placed atop each. Two men took turns taking photos in front of them (neither smiled, thankfully) and we waited until they moved on before we took our own photos (not including ourselves). I initially loaded the picture to place here, but something about it just felt gratuitous. Walking up from the morgue, we were almost surprised to find that the day above ground was just as sunny and warm as we had left it.
A number of guided tours were being conducted in the museum. I really appreciated that they were being given through headphones, keeping the grounds relatively silent accept for the guides whispering into microphones. There were a number of people, including us, that chose to walk around at their own pace, stopping to read the information panels that were erected in a few choice spots. Instead of overwhelming you with information, the simple marble posts, that vaguely resembled tombstones, would simply say something like: "This is where they hung the bodies of those who attempted to escape as a warning," in Hebrew, Polish and English.
Inside a number of the barracks were exhibits donated by other countries and/or curated by the museum itself. A sign outside one read "Physical Evidence of Crimes" and we entered expecting to find legal documentation or film reels about the Nuremberg Trials. Instead, there were long hallways filled with confiscated belongings of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz. There was an entire hallways of shoes (above), another with prosthetic legs and crutches.
To see the thousands of shaving brushes, eyeglasses, suitcases with names and drawings painted on them was incredibly overwhelming. On the very top floor was a smaller room dedicated to baby clothes, shoes, rattles. It was fairly harrowing. We actually left Auschwitz I shortly after that to walk over to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the second camp, built mainly for extermination when the sheer number of people passing through became too much for the crematorium of the first camp to handle.
We were glad to have the half hour walk to refresh ourselves before entering Birkenau. A railroad track runs right through the front gate and skeletons of barracks stretch as far as you can see. It was impossible to tell where they ended and the bare trees in the distance began. Near a pond filled with ashes of people who perished on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau stood these tombstones, written in English, Polish, Hebrew and German. Looking into the water, you could see the bottom was completely white.