Reflecting on Auschwitz: A Photo Essay with Words

Edited by Beth Cortez-Neavel

The FASPE fellows spent two days at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. We asked the group to share their thoughts. 

Auschwitz

A rain-puddle reflection of Auchwitz's infamous gate. Photo by Valerie Hopkins.

A rain-puddle reflection of Auchwitz’s infamous gate. Photo by Valerie Hopkins.

The gate into Auschwitz reads "Arbeit Macht Frei" or "Work Will Make You Free." Photo by Bogdan Mohora.

The gate into Auschwitz reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Will Make You Free.” Photo by Bogdan Mohora.

On our first day at Auschwitz, white specks floated down from the sky, settling sometimes on the ground and other times on our clothes. I couldn’t help but imagine ash. Instead, the specks were seeds, carried on puffs of cotton-like fibres from willow trees. Each year, hundreds of thousands of tourists pass through these barracks to learn about the Holocaust. There is not just sorrow but growth at Auschwitz.

– Allison Griner, Journalism Fellow

The camp's electric barbed wire fencing. Photo by Bogdan Mohora.

The camp’s electric barbed-wire fencing. Photo by Bogdan Mohora.

Visiting Auschwitz sharpened my sense of purpose as a journalist and a person. I’m humbled by the courage of the surviving victims and by the scale of the crime against the millions who were brought there. I feel resolute to question anyone who deprives people of their rights and to identify what means they use to do so.

– Toby Salinger, Journalism Fellow

There used to be train tracks here, in between the barbed wire separating the concentration camp from the SS administrative headquarters. Photo by Valerie Hopkins.

There used to be train tracks here, in between the barbed wire separating the concentration camp from the SS administrative headquarters. Photo by Valerie Hopkins.

I was so angry there, when we first arrived at Auschwitz. The blatant tourism, the rows and rows of headphones, and the multitude of people waiting, seemed so cold and fake to me. But I quickly realized that I, too, was a tourist here to witness the power of this place. Sometimes I hid behind my camera or my pen and notebook, other times I made myself look at the reality of the place. Either in memory or photographs, I will take as much of this place with me as possible to keep something like this from happening again.

– Beth Cortez-Neavel, Journalism Fellow

Corroded cans that once held Zyklon B - the small blue pellets that turned into a deadly gas when met with moisture - fill up one of the museum display cases. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

Corroded cans that once held Zyklon B – the small blue pellets that turned into a deadly gas when met with moisture – fill up one of the museum display cases. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

You get slugged in the belly by two tons of human hair. Later, you realize the people who turned this place into a museum curated this exact exhibit because they knew this particular emotional reaction was so important. Then you feel ashamed that it took endless piles of hair to elicit this response in the first place.

– Natalie Shure, Journalism Fellow

FASPE fellows walk through Auschwitz. Photo by Bogdan Mohora.

FASPE fellows walk through Auschwitz. Photo by Bogdan Mohora.

I kept touching my great-uncle Lucien Williamson’s marksmanship medal in my pocket during my first visit to Auschwitz. In truth, I’d not experienced such a visceral thing. Each exhibit affected me more than the last, and left me with no words to elucidate further; I feel a greater obligation to help mankind remember its past and I think it will take me back to Mississippi.

– Byron Wilkes, Journalism Fellow

The "Wall of Death," where prisoners were shot in the head,  is now a memorial site. The bullet hols in the wall are still visible. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

The “Wall of Death,” where prisoners were shot in the head, is now a memorial site. The bullet holes in the wall are still visible. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

What is surprising is the ideology of hate the Nazis were steeped in, for, instead of running for their lives or throwing that extra SS soldier to fight the Soviets, the Nazis were still busy liquidating Jews in the final moments of the camp.

– Abhijit Mazumdar, Journalism Fellow

Prayer cards of all faiths, notes and stones are pushed into the "Wall of Death" in between Block 10 and 11 at Auschwitz to remember the victims who were shot here. Photo by Bogdan Mohora.

Prayer cards of all faiths, notes and stones are pushed into the “Wall of Death” in between Block 10 and 11 at Auschwitz to remember the victims who were shot here. Photo by Bogdan Mohora.

Numbers cannot convey what this was. More than 1 million exterminated at Auschwitz? You have to think of each and every one of those lives, each with families, hopes, memories, any of them could have been my mother or father or sister or brother. That’s when you can maybe, barely begin to comprehend the horror!”

– Harman Boparai, Journalism Fellow

The chimney of Auschwitz's Crematorium I. Now flowers and grass cover the building where hundreds of prisoners were gassed to death and then burned to ash. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

The chimney of Auschwitz’s Crematorium I. Now flowers and grass cover the building where hundreds of prisoners were gassed to death and then burned to ash. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

A partial view of the camp from the Death Gate watchtower. The camp is too large to capture in just one photograph. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

A partial view of the camp from the Death Gate watchtower. The camp is too large to capture in just one photograph. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

I was unprepared for the vastness of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I also was astonished by the obvious, systematic, routinized nature of what went on there. I think we often conceive of terrorism as being perpetrated in brief moments of temporary insanity–the shootings in Newtown comes to mind, for example. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, on the other hand, unthinkable crimes against humanity happened over such an extended period of time that it forces one to consider how any person could have possibly allowed for systematic murder to become part of their everyday routine.

– Kevin Humphries, Law Fellow

Inside the barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Prisoners slept two or more to a bunk. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

Inside the barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Prisoners slept two or more to a bunk. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

The heating chimneys - hardly used due to lack of fuel - are all that is left of some of the Birkenau barracks.  Photo by Valerie Hopkins.

The heating chimneys -hardly ever used due to lack of fuel – are all that is left of some of the Birkenau barracks. Photo by Valerie Hopkins.

The visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was much harder for me than going to the museum at Auschwitz 1. Auschwitz 1 is a horror, but at least there are many distractions. If I found one case disturbing, I could move to another — or another room. But at Birkenau the landscape of sadness is unrelenting. Tower after tower, bunker after bunker, gas chamber after gas chamber. There was no escape.

– Ari Goldman, Journalism Faculty

The pathway leading to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Crematoriums. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

The pathway leading to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Crematoriums. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

A forest of Birch trees, where prisoners were often made to wait before being forced into the gas chambers. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

A forest of Birch trees, where prisoners were often made to wait before being forced into the gas chambers. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

Before today, to me, the Holocaust occurred in black and white. What strikes me is the vast Polish sky overhead, rapidly changing moods and colors, from a suffocating grey ceiling to a blinding blue-white infinity, crowded by lush, orb-like clouds and a piercing low sun. I am not sure, but I think I regret using a black and white film camera here today. Am I perpetuating a version of Auschwitz-Birkenau that we know from history books and films—one that lets us feel removed from it, lets us feel that this has all passed? I would have liked to have honored the sky that the victims of this camp looked up to—a moody, changing sky that may have provided hope, a relief from the despair, or just a peaceful place for the eyes to glance when all hope was lost.

– Claire Ward, Journalism Fellow

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Crematorium V at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photo by Bogdan Mohora.

Family photographs of prisoners inside the Sauna, or bathhouse, at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The display is meant to give the names back to  the victims of the camp.  Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

Family photographs of prisoners inside the Sauna, or bathhouse, at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The display is meant to give the names back to the victims of the camp. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

We come to and leave from Auschwitz as we please, unlike the millions of people forced into the camps and murdered there. We roam through the barracks, stare at photos of men, women and children and try to imagine their incomprehensible terror as they are led to their death. When we’ve had enough of the suffering, we can walk past the barbed fences and watchtowers and out through the front gate. We’re free to go at anytime. But it’s impossible not to feel as though someone is being left behind. Their naked, tortured bodies hang on the walls of the barracks and their ashes are sunken into the soil underfoot. We can come and go but 6 million people never had a choice.

– Bogdan Mohora, Journalism Fellow

A small statue at the end of the “final destination,” the platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photo by Valerie Hopkins.

A small statue at the end of the “final destination,” the platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photo by Valerie Hopkins.

 

These photos and reflections are just a small representation of our experiences at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

We encourage you to visit and bear witness in your own way.

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