Auschwitz-Birkenau: Visiting the Museum of a German Nazi Death Camp

My brother and I came to Poland to remember our family’s past and to bond. We came to see where members of our family were born and died. I came as an act of defiance — a proclamation of survival and perseverance to those who wanted us to disappear. As a Gay Jewish man I feel an intense commitment to remember what happened to people like me 70 years ago. I need to tell and re-tell the story so we cannot forget. As the generation of Holocaust Survivors succumbs to time, it is up to the children and grandchildren — it is up to me — to keep their memories alive. We need a new chorus of voices speaking about what happened. This is why I came to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2016. This is why I want to share my experience with you.

Our Journey Begins

Radek, our driver, picked us up from the hotel on the central square in old town Krakow around 10 AM. A tall, thin former Polish soldier, he told us it would take an hour or so to get to Auschwitz. It all depended on the traffic. We exchanged a few pleasantries in Polish in the hotel lobby before hopping into his Skoda sedan for an awkwardly comfortable drive to a Auschwitz. Driving through the rolling countryside I wondered what this journey was like 72 years ago. Things changed in the space of a single lifetime. Towns and villages blended into each other with only signs distinguishing them. Billboards for fitness clubs, car parts, and restaurants dotted the route. As we entered Oswięcim, we saw a billboard encouraging people to live and invest in the town. The sight made me cringe. Yet I understood that time and everyday life did not wait for my emotions to catch up.

Radek parked the car in a lot across the street from the museum. A small pizza place and souvenir shop were there. We walked over to the entrance and through security screening. Hundreds of people were waiting in line. We heard Polish, Spanish, French, German. Some were with tour groups from Krakow — here to learn more about the place and what happened. Maybe some of them wanted to make what they knew from books and movies more real. Others, like me, came for personal reasons. Radek was helpful as we made our way through and he passed us over to our guide Piotr — a young Polish man, slight with sandy brown hair.

The Museum and Memorial

Piotr has been guiding at Auschwitz-Birkenau for 10 years. Quiet and insightful, he led us under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign into the camp. The sign is a replica since the original was stolen a few years ago and eventually recovered. The museum has an enhanced focus on security and preservation.

We walked among the red brick buildings of Auschwitz — part of a sprawling complex. It’s the scale of the place that surprises you. So much effort, time and energy to achieve an incomprehensible goal. These buildings housed Polish prisoners of the German Nazi occupation. Piotr explained that this part of the complex was key to the brutal occupation of Poland. While Jews were prisoners here — this part of the camp wasn’t used for their industrialized mass murder.

Some of the buildings here were converted to exhibition space. The exhibit in Block 11 was particularly chilling. Prisoners were taken here before execution. Some were hanged, others shot. It was a place of immense violence and degradation. Poles and other prisoners were crammed into inhumane cells — some so small and dark that suffocation loomed. The block had a gallows at the end of the hall. It embodied and maintains an atmosphere of extreme evil.

Gallows at Block 11 at Auschwitz

We walked in silence through much of the building, stopping to peer into cells and offices. We came out into the courtyard where the firing wall is located and stopped to look at the flowers and candles laid in honour of those killed.

Other buildings told the story of the fate of over 1 million Jews at Auschwitz. Transport trains arrived here from as far way as Oslo and Athens. They brought men, women and children to their deaths. The enormous number of victims and the scale of the murder is still beyond my emotional grasp. Displays that bring the crime to a personal level are what affected me the most. Eye glasses stripped from someone’s face. A piece of luggage with the word Pharmacy scrawled in Polish with a red Star of David showed what people planned for. It showed what they expected of their journey. They wanted to be prepared — to be helpful. A single stylish woman’s shoe stood out in stark contrast to the the thousands of others collected here — testament to the last steps she took.

Shoes collected from victims of the Holocaust at Auschwitz

We made our way over to Birkenau — where the transport trains from across Europe arrived at a final stop. At its massive gates, one got a sense of the camp’s scale. Train after train bringing masses of people here. As we walked through the gates we came across a group of Israeli teenagers. For all I know, it was the same group that annoyed me as we walked through the old Jewish part of Krakow. At Birkenau they were different. I could see from their faces they were aware of the significance of where they were. They themselves were a presence — defiant, proud, Jewish.

Their energy rubbed off on me. It helped me understand the importance of my own pilgrimmage. It is about reclaiming our place in the world. Whether we live in places like Canada, Norway or Israel — the proclamation of Jewish survival is an important part of our own personal healing process. It’s not done to diminish or to devalue the suffering of others. It’s done to assert that despite the attempts of an advanced industrialized society to exterminate us — they failed. They failed spectacularly.

Israeli teenagers at a barracks in Birkenau

As we walked through the grounds of Birkenau we saw rows of barracks where the prisoners endured a pitiful existence. We walked the length of the tracks to the selection point where Nazis made life or death decisions. Turning right meant the gas chambers and death. We turned right. We walked to the end of the path and saw the ruins of gas chambers and crematoria. We made this walk in silence.

I took in the sights around me — the broken walls and bricks strewn behind fencing. I saw the forest of birch trees growing in the place where the ashes of my kin were disposed. I saw small flowers peeking up from the mossy ground and a spectacular blue sky. The sights, the silence and my thoughts wrap around me and I think of what was and what might have been.

We walked over to a part of the complex called euphemistically “Canada II”. Prisoners at camp gave it this name because of all of the riches it contained — it represented their perception of Canada. Here they sorted and processed all of the things looted from the dead. The eerie irony of the name didn’t escape me as I stood looking at the spot where another part of the crime took place. We walked into a room where the “Canada Commando” searched the clothing of the Jewish victims for valuables. The clothing was then sterilized in large autoclaves before being sent to Germany for use by civilians. All of this was a lot to process — so many thoughts were swirling through my head.

Sorting room at Canada II

Reflection and Reconciliation

We walked back from Canada II toward the large memorial erected to commemorate one of the most massive crime scenes in history. Piotr came up beside me and we started to speak about the present. He asked if people thought Poles were anti-Semites. I paused and told him that this was a difficult time and a difficult question for me to answer. I explained that he was asking this of a person who’s family was murdered by Nazis in this country. He was asking this question of someone who was kicked out of what was then Communist Poland. He paused and said “I’m sorry.” I couldn’t help but stop. I looked at him and I felt sorry too. I felt sorry for the crush of history on this place and on people like Piotr. Burdened by the crimes committed by others on this soil, they are not completely reconciled with what happened.

Writing about what happened here is fraught. Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and its brutal occupation resulted in the deaths of millions. Decades of suffocating Soviet domination skewed perspectives and narratives of the War to fit a Communist political narrative. Poles are justifiably wary of their country being unjustly cast as a villain in the apocalyptic history of the Holocaust. However, for Jews — survivor Polish Jews in particular, the reality is that this is where and when their thousand year history in Poland came to an end. From a population of about 3 million in 1939 to a tiny fraction of that today, many Jews can’t help but look at Poland as a graveyard. We don’t travel to Germany to mourn our deep loss — we come here to Poland to remember and grieve. But the point is we need to understand each others perspectives — each others truths — if we are to find reconciliation with one another.

As we were leaving the camp, Piotr told me he was Baptised and raised Catholic. He is a proud Pole. He told me that he thinks he has some Jewish ancestry and that is one of the reasons he guides at the museum. It is one thing we share — a commitment to understanding what happened to us — to Poles and to Jews. I believe that commitment to memory will help bring lasting reconciliation to a 1000 year shared history that ended so violently.

We met up with Radek in the parking lot in front of the pizza shop and jumped into his Skoda sedan. He was friendly but gave Andrew and me the space we needed. Exhausted, we drove back to Krakow. I remained silent in thought and reflection — a step closer to finding the closure I seek.

Note: Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.

End of the rail line at Birkenau

Married gay, Jewish former Ambassador interested in history, justice and the environment. Former Ambassador, and leader in Canada's intelligence community.

Married gay, Jewish former Ambassador interested in history, justice and the environment. Former Ambassador, and leader in Canada's intelligence community.