“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again” George Santayana
Does anyone else have a morbid fascination with World War II and the Holocaust, or is it just me?
Maybe I was exposed to Schindler’s List at too early an age. Maybe I was dragged to the Holocaust museum in DC on one too many field trips. Maybe it’s my Polish heritage and the fact that I grew up next door neighbors with one of the original Band of Brothers, Patty O’Keefe. Who knows? But for whatever reason, I developed a strong interest in WWII, and WWI for that matter.
This tumultuous period of European history has encouraged and inspired some of my more off the beaten track trips in Europe, like to bunkers in Belgium to Nazi secret police headquarters in Hungary. Owing to my odd obsession with history, one of my favorite things to do why traveling is to visit historic places, especially ones I have researched and read about.
And the one place that has been the notorious epicenter for the Holocaust and disturbingly at the top of WWII haunts I’ve wanted to visit: Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp in Poland.
I finally journeyed out to Krakow, land of my ancestors, and to Auschwitz during Easter week in 2008.
It was a gray, overcast day with intermittent snow flurries when I arrived at the camp in Oświęcim, Poland. The ground was soggy and the mud squished around my sneakers as I walked from barrack to barrack. I can still remember thinking that it was April, how on earth did anyone survive that hellhole in the dead of winter wearing those terrible striped pajamas? Most didn’t.
Without a doubt Auschwitz is the saddest, most depressing place I have ever been. The whole place smells like death. It’s truly horrible. Trodding amongst the ruins of the gas chamber and crematorium, I felt a deep disgust with humanity. How could something like this happen?
It is one thing to read about the Holocaust and see it in films, but to walk around the grounds of a place like Auschwitz, is a whole other matter entirely. To see a room filled with shoes of prisoners, then another room filled with suitcases, one filled with hairbrushes, another with eye glasses, and finally a room filled with hair, I mean, how do you even begin to digest that?
You can’t help but leave a place like Auschwitz in tears.
I hardly took any pictures that day, and I was angry at all the tourists that did. I just felt…wrong.
I took this shot as we entered the camp, following the footsteps of millions unlucky souls before me, I passed underneath the poignant wrought-iron sign Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work will set you free.” This photo is of the original sign. It was eventually stolen and replaced with a replica in 2009.
Why would I visit somewhere like this on vacation? Why write about something so deeply and utterly sad? Because we have to remember. Things like this need to be faced and not forgotten. Auschwitz was a good reality check, and I reminder of not only how precious life should be, but of my own fleeting humanity.
Ok, I have waxed poetic enough for the day. I’ll end on a lighter note, here are my six favorite, epic World War II films.
5. The Pianist
Have you ever been to Auschwitz or another concentration camp? Would you go had you the opportunity? Are you interested in historical travels? What’s your favorite WWII movie?