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When History Came to Life for Me at Auschwitz

Imagine how much the hair on your head weighs. Might be as little as an ounce, or as much as a pound.

It’s probably not something you’ve ever bothered to consider, because you never had to. But I find myself pondering this topic ever since I visited Auschwitz in Poland.

I’d gone there on a press trip, and I’d hoped to be able to grasp in some way even an inkling of the horrors that were cast upon the Jews at this concentration camp. Watching movies about the Holocaust (including Schindler’s List, since I knew we would be visiting his famous factory) did little to really shake me and make me capable of empathizing what the Jews went through. I am not Jewish. I have no personal connection to World War II, and yet I sought to understand it.

Jews at Auschwitz

Yet as I walked around through hollow, empty barracks that once housed 1,000 people in cramped conditions, I couldn’t connect to the reality of their being converted from human to animal through the inhumane treatment of the Nazis.

The Moment Everything Became Real

Then we approached the “hair room.” We were asked not to take photographs there, out of sensitivity for the victims. I couldn’t imagine why you could take photos in the death chamber but not there…until I entered.

There, behind glass, was over 4,000 pounds of hair, piled up in giant mounds. The Nazis had shaven the heads of those they gassed, and the hair was used to make fabric in factories. Most of the hair was the same matty gray-brown color, likely due to the Zyklon B gas changing the chemical makeup of its victims.

I stopped in horror. This was real. This hair belonged to men, women, and children. People who, before they were persecuted for being Jewish, walked the streets of Warsaw. Of Krakow. Budapest. Paris. All over Europe. I’d spot the errant strand of blonde hair and wonder who had proudly brushed it or put it up in a coiffe for a fun Friday night of dancing. The hopes and dreams of those who had grown the hair more than 70 years ago was long gone.

Holocaust suitcase

After the piles of hair, we viewed jumbles of eyeglasses. Pots and pans. Shoes. The shoes affected me as well. A stray red shoe had tumbled from the pile, and its owner, maybe a woman my age, wouldn’t be reaching down to adjust the buckle and assessing how that pair looked with her flower wrap dress. The baby shoe would never be outgrown within a matter of weeks, the way baby shoes are. The men’s loafer would never pause in the streets to get a shoeshine.

Auschwitz pile of shoes

Touring Auschwitz and then the death camp Birkenau, nothing brought history to life quite the way those piles of discarded items did. I believe it’s important for us to witness, even from the safe distance behind thick glass, the capabilities of the human race, to see that, no matter how much we disbelieve that something like this could ever happen again, it really could.

Barbed wire at Auschwitz

Entering Auschwitz, there is a quote by George Santayana:

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

May we all learn from that.

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