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  • After our shock of the layout and experience at Auschwitz I, I’m pretty sure that most of our class was apprehensive about visiting Birkenau. I was worried that it is treated similarly to Auschwitz I in the complete museum layout and being heavily tourist-focused. I really didn’t want it to be, because I had a feeling that if Birkenau wasn’t altered to such an extreme, I would be enlightened more than any other camp we visited on this trip. Prepared for either case, I climbed to the top of the tower at the entrance and surveyed the camp in its enormous entirety from above. It was then I could tell that Birkenau is different from its predecessor. It is desolate and broken down. Remnants of barracks are scattered about like a town abandoned mid-construction. There didn’t seem to be any evident manipulation of the sites, which made everything more the unnerving. This is the real thing. I wanted to stay in the tower. It is safer to stay up there where we can keep a safe distance. That idea, though, was short-lived.

    We were led to many different barracks and “top spots” of the camp, including the train car, the disinfection room, and a hall of remembrance with pictures of victims. One thing I had been eager (don’t take that word the wrong way) to see was the crematoriums. Right before we reached the first one, we were brought to a little pond of ashes. I tried to imagine so many bodies of ash being dumped into it. Frogs croaked. The sound gave me shivers. Then our guide said, “If you look on the ground, you can see small pieces of white. Those are bone.” I froze; I was standing on the bones of the victims of Auschwitz. I wanted to jump and stay levitated. Standing on these fragments of bones felt so wrong and overwhelming. There haven’t been remnants of the victims besides ashes so far on our trip, but to know these are real parts of corpses still haunts me.

    The crematoriums took on a whole new meaning for me after the bone incident. I was able to connect the pieces of people I had just seen to the place of their incineration. A major issue I had struggled with in both of my Holocaust classes is, “Should Auschwitz be renovated?” Prior to this trip, I had really that they should be for the sake of memory. But now seeing the fallen crematoriums, I realized that one, it is not really possible to completely rebuild them and keep much of the structure original, and two, whether or not it is restored does not change the change the reality that this did happen.

    In Primo Levi’s memoir Survival In Auschwitz he says: “Even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization.” The importance of visiting Auschwitz is to carry along this memory of the survivors. Through memoirs, testimonies, and the sites of atrocities themselves, it is possible. We owe it to the victims of the Holocaust to help preserve the memory that they fortunately survived to tell.
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