The city of Oświęcim is tucked into a quiet wooded town in southwestern Poland. It’s nondescript part of the world that looks like any other in Central Europe or the middle of America.
However, what took place here makes it one of the most infamous plots of land on the planet. Oświęcim is the location of the single largest concentration camp used by the Nazis, Auschwitz. 64 kilometers outside the city center of Krakow lies one of the most somber places on earth.
In May 1940 the Nazi’s build Auschwitz to house political prisoners and Soviet POWs. As World War II waged on Auschwitz began to serve a different purpose, the war against the Jewish population.
It was here at Auschwitz in September 1941 that the first gas chamber was tested and put into use. An old arms storage building had a hole punched into the roof. This where SS soldiers dropped Zyklon B, containing hydrogen cyanide, into a room full of Jewish prisoners. Cremation ovens were installed adjacent to the gas chamber to dispose of the bodies. This ended up being such an efficient means of killing, they constructed additional camps purposefully built to be killing machines.
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70 years have passed since the doors were shut forever. Now Auschwitz has been turned into a museum of what happened here. Walking the grounds of Auschwitz, I found it hard to picture the horrors that took place here. I’m not sure what I was expecting from our visit, but Auschwitz felt very sterile to me, almost too clean.
Each of the original 30 block buildings has been turned into museum exhibits about different groups of people’s plights during the war and the camp. As detailed and well done each of the buildings were, it didn’t have the profound impact on me I was expecting, and the connection I was hoping for.
Near the end of our visit, I walked into the gas chamber room where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered. On the floor in the center of the room sat a single vase of flowers.
I’m not sure why, but it wasn’t until that moment that I felt the weight of this horrible place. I stood in front of the flowers trying to keep back the tears starting to well up in my eyes. My first thoughts were “a single vase of flowers was just not enough”. Each flower petal would represent 1,000’s of people who were senselessly killed here.
After staring at the vase for a minute or longer, I began to feel like maybe it was that impactful because there was only one small vase. One small piece of color surrounded by the stark gray walls. One small piece of life in a room of death.