In August, before going to Bucharest, I went to visit Auschwitz. The former extermination camp is located around 70 kilometers west of Krakow. From Krakow, you have many options to visit Auschwitz. You can go by train, bus or car.
Although I have read many things about this extermination camp, it’s entirely different from being there. It is one thing to get info about the life in the death factory and a different experience to be in a chamber where hundreds of thousands of people were killed.
The Auschwitz camp was first used as a labor camp and then, from 1942 to 1945, was an extermination camp. In January 1942, the Nazis decided to kill all the Jews from the German-occupied territories. Therefore they start moving more than one million Jews from Ghettoes to the exterminations camps by trains. Those who were not able to work were sent directly to the gas chamber. That included old people and children. It is estimated that more than 1.1 million people were killed in this camp. During the war from the six extermination camps, this was the camp with the most victims.
The Nazis tried hard to hide the atrocities they did everywhere and the massacres against innocent people. Their actions to conceal facts failed. For example, in Auschwitz, they blew up the gas chambers before leaving the camp in January 1945. The Auschwitz museum was open soon after the war in 1947. Since 2016, more than 2 million people have visited the Auschwitz museum in the concentration camp each year. Having many visitors is a good sign that we learn from history not to repeat the same horrors.
That day in August, I heard about many atrocities and impressive stories told by our guide. I won’t mention those things here as this is not the purpose of this post.
In one of the buildings, there were two long opposite walls with pictures of former inmates. On one wall, there were pictures of men while on the other of women. Under each image was written the date when they entered the concentration camp and the day they died. They were all prisoners selected for work. They had better physical condition when they arrived. The guide told us that, on average, men resisted more prolonged than women. That was not because of physical strength but because of mental differences. During that time, women were expected to marry, have children and grow them. For many being there meant the end of life, that they were prepared to live. In many cases, the death happened within weeks after the arrival in the camp. It was not dying because of hunger or physical extermination but because of giving up hope.
I wanted to understand more of what was causing that. I read Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Searching for Meaning”. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist imprisoned in Auschwitz and wrote about this experience.
He said that those who had a purpose in the life lived longer. His advice for humans was not to ask “what life offered me?” but rather “what can I do for this life?”. The answer would help us find meaning in life.
Another idea from the book is that the things that happen to us are not under our control. What matters is how we respond to the things that happen to us. Seneca said this in a format of heroism: “The bravest sight in the world is to see a great man struggling against adversity.”
There was one more insight. Viktor Frankl quoted Goethe, who said: “If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” I have resonated for a long time with this statement.
On my departure from Auschwitz, I looked back over the camp and saw the light coming down through the clouds over Birkenau. That light was over the place on earth where some human beings killed so many innocent humans. The ashes of so many people rose to the sky there, and human beings suffered a lot. We should not forget this.