Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Auschwitz/Birkenau Student questions and answers

One of the most valuable part of this Fulbright exchange is being to interact with your students.  Katerina is absolutely amazing and I am so thankful to be doing this exchange with her.  Students back at Cavelero are studying WW2 and are reading Diary of Anne Frank.  During my spring break here in the Czech Republic, I traveled to Auschwitz and will be going to Anne Frank's house on the second half of my break.  Katerina sent me a list of questions that her students at Cavelero had for me about Auschwitz and Birkenau.  The questions are the students, the answers are mine.

1.       Is Auschwitz anything you thought it would be? How?  I thought Auschwitz would be more depressing but it wasn’t as bad as I thought.  It was definitely sad and a heavy presence loomed over the place but it was very small.  I imagined it to be soooo big.

2.       What does Auschwitz look like now?  Now all the original buildings still stand, the barb wire fence is a constant reminder that it is a concentration camp but most of the insides of the buildings have been reconstructed since they were destroyed during the war.  The crematorium 1 building still stands but the Nazi’s had destroyed the smoke stack, trying to hide their crimes, so that was rebuilt for historical remberance.

3.       What was the first word you thought of when you entered Auschwitz? Humanity

4.       What were some of the feelings you had when you went to Auschwitz?  Everyone, me included were so quiet. I was in awe of the feelings that I was having.  I was overwhelmed at times too.  Birkenau (Auschwitz 2) was the real cemetary.  You could feel the sadness hanging in the air and after we left the woman’s barracks at Birkenau, I started to cry.  It was so sad what these people had to go through.

5.       Was it very emotional when you were there?  I was ok at Auschwitz but Birkenau was very emotional for me.  It was 30 times larger than Auschwitz 1 and most of the prisoners were the ones who built it…built their own hell.

6.       Is it eerie? Did you get the chills when you entered Auschwitz?  I did have some chills when I went into the Crematorium 1.  It was a wave of dread and sadness standing in the gas chambers.  Birkenau was nearly destroyed but you could feel the presence of lives lost there.  It is the largest cemetary in the world and it was eerie to think that I was walking on ashes of lives lost.

7.       Does it smell weird?  No.  But I was told that during the war EVERYONE in Europe could smell what was going on.  There were people who lived near Auschwitz and we were told that the smell was horrific.  There wasn’t anyone that lived in Europe that didn’t know what was going on because of the smell.

8.       Is there a feeling of ghosts in Auschwitz?  Most definitely.  More so in Birkenau.  There was just a strange silence, calmness and I got chills through my body more than once.

9.       Did you see something that not many people know about the concentration camp? Maybe something the Nazis used to use.  Not really. I learned a lot of interesting facts that I didn’t know before.  For example, we see pictures of bodies being thrown into mass graves.  I thought they were buried there but I was wrong.  The Nazis burned EVERY BODY to hide the evidence.  The prisoner’s ashes were spread all over the camp on the ground so people would walk on the ashes.  Also I learned that prisoners were crammed in railway cars and came from as far away as Greece.  Most didn’t survive the long journey.  They found ticket stubs after the war from the people from Greece.  They had to BUY their own ticket to their death.  I can’t imagine buying a train ticket to your own funeral.  I will post more of the information I learned on my blog.

10.   Did you see any tank with poisonous gas there?  There were the empty cans in the museum at Auschwitz.  I was in the gas chamber and saw the three openings in the celing where they would drop the poisnous gas down.  It took 7 cans to kill 800 people.

11.   Did you see a shoe of a poor little boy or girl? Oh yes.  The Nazis sorted out all the prisoner’s belongings and the usable things were cleaned, disenfected, and then sold to Germans. Good shoes were taken and sent out to Germany.  There were 80,000 (which I saw) pairs of shoes found at Auschwitz after the war.  They were all the unusable shoes. Many of them were summer shoes.  The people had no idea where they were being taken in the beginning so just put on a easy pair of shoes…even in the middle of winter.

12.   Are there any bones left?  No bones.  Everyone was cremated.  There are still ashes though.

13.   How big were the beds?  They were a wooden slab.  At Auschwitz there were about 6 people per bed in the buildings.  At Birkenau there were about 8 people per bed.  They were not allowed to use the bathroom during the night or during working hours so many people were suffering diarehha and other sicknesses so they had to go to the bathroom in their bed.  The blankets were said to be able to move on their own because they were so infested with bugs. 

14.   How big is Auschwitz?  Auschwitz was VERY small compared to Birkenau.  Auschwitz was already built before the Nazis took over.  It was built as a Polish Military Base.  The Nazis chose Auschwitz for three reasons:  1:  it was located between two rivers so it was completely isolated from everything else and there was NOTHING there besides Auschwitz. 2:  It was already built and 3: it was perfectly located for the train system. All trains led to Auschwitz.

15.   What does the entrance look like?  It’s weird.  It’s like a normal base entrance.  The sign is now a replica of the original because of being stolen. The signs says:  Work will make you free…it’s eerie.

16.   What was the worst thing you saw?  The Women’s barracks at Birkenau and the cells at Building 11 in Auschwitz and the crematorium 1 ovens.

17.   What interesting things did you find out about Auschwitz?  So many interesting things…for example the creator of Auschwitz death camp, Rudolph Hoss (with two dots over the o) lived feet from the camp with his wife and child.  They lived next to the horror like it was nothing.  It is what the movie, Boy in the Stripped Pajamas was based on.  The child would play in the garden while people were being gassed and cremated…soooooo creepy.

18.   Do a lot of people still visit?  Yes.  Our guide said the best time to visit is in the winter because the crowds are overwhelming in the summer.  Plus visiting in the winter makes it more realistic to me.  For example, it was -5 degrees celcius when I was there yesterday and I was absolutely freezing.  But I had on a wool sweater, coat, gloves and hat….winter temperature during WW2 got to be -25 degrees celcius  and all the prisoners had to wear was a thin pair of pajamas…no gloves, hat, etc.  I can’t even imagine how cold the people were.

19.   How do you like to teach about Holocaust? Is it scary to teach?  I am very passionate about WW2 and the Holocaust.  I never want people to forget how low humanity became and I want the lives lost to be remembered so the Holocaust can never happen again. For me, going to Auschwitz and Birkenau was profound.  I teach about this place every year and now I can teach from a place with more knowledge and compassion.  It is not an easy topic to teach and there is no way to truly teach someone about the horrors that went on.  As humans, we want to step away from that horror so we don’t have to think about what went on but we have to think about it.

HANA, Holocaust survivor
20.   Did you speak to the Holocasut survivor about her life?  She didn’t speak English so I wasn’t able to talk much with her.  I did hear about the beginning of her life.  Her dad is Jewish and her mom was Czech.  She lived in Tabor her whole life (and she even went to the Gymnazium where I am teaching and Ms. Kubesova teaches).  She said that her childhood and early life was wonderful.  Then the war happened.  She said that they were moved to Sezimovo Usti (spelled?) where all the Jews were moved to, like a ghetto type accomodations.  She said that Jews were not allowed to go to school, play in the streets, or do anything.  They stayed inside the house everyday, all day.  Her father was taken away because he was Jewish but she was allowed to stay with her mom since she was Czech.  Later she was taken to Terezin and then to Auschwitz.  I didn’t get to hear that part of the story.  She is the only surviving Jew in Tabor.

21.   What was the most interesting or touching thing you learned about the last Holocaust survivor?  Her will to survive and tell her story


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