• My Journey to Auschwitz

    My Journey to Auschwitz – By Helen Turner


    My heart felt like it had been ripped out. I could not believe what my eyes were seeing. Before me stood a case, the size of half a room, filled from floor to ceiling with human hair. This hair was all that remained of countless victims of Nazi atrocities at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

    What struck me most about my reaction was that I have seen this hair before. I specialize in material culture in Auschwitz-Birkenau and have seen countless images of human hair which was taken from Nazi victims. However, seeing these human remains in person, standing in the haunted grounds of Auschwitz, changed my perspective on Holocaust education forever.

    This summer I had the privilege of travelling with the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants on an educators trip on Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. This incredible trip would last fourteen days, spanning from New Jersey through Germany, Poland and back again. I was accompanied by 25 educators from across the United States and three incredible leaders who would shepherd our group through the physical and emotional terrain of the concentration camps.



    After eleven days of museums, concentration camps and Holocaust memorials we arrived in Auschwitz. For me, this was a place to fear. Auschwitz has loomed large in my mind due to my research and personal connection with many Auschwitz Survivors. The emotional complexity of experiencing the camp first hand daunted me as we pulled up in our bus. To my surprise, the information center was packed. It was a busy day for visitors and eerily the smell of cafeteria food wafted from the center, a stark contrast to the starvation that was experienced here 70 years prior. Our group was quickly outfitted with headsets and a tour guide. We began to make our way through the visitors area and approached the notorious entrance of Auschwitz. The gate loomed before us, surprisingly smaller than my imagination had conjured but menacing none the less. We passed through and were greeted by stone barracks, the first buildings of Auschwitz 1. These barrack s currently serve as a museum of the camp and it was here that we encountered the physical evidence of the murder of over 1.1 million people. We encountered room after room of possessions: shoes, pots, combs and hair. The devastation became manifested in what remained; the echoes of life. It was here I experienced the first punch to the gut. That hair. That hair that represented so many victims; mothers, daughters, friends. Human beings who were stripped of their dignity before death. I will never forget that hair.


    After completing the museum we made the short drive to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The infamous death camp was so large and encompassing it stuck me as a movie set. How was this possible? The vastness, the economics that went into the destruction of human beings. It didn’t make any sense. It still doesn’t. Our group walked among the barracks and stood within the buildings that housed prisoners. As we stood discussing the appalling living conditions of inmates rain, fat and heavy almost hail-like smacked the roof. To stand in that eerie space, hearing the rain attack the roof, to hear what those poor people must have heard on similar rainy days brought a reality to the moment which I had been struggling to grasp.


    We then walk the same steps thousands took to their deaths; from the railway tracks, past the camp to the final stop, the gas chambers. While the chambers and the crematorium were destroyed by the Nazi’s during their hasty retreat the remains emanate pain and suffering. From here we walked to our final destination, a memorial to those murdered at Auschwitz. It was here that candles were lit, kaddish was said and I recited the names of my friends who suffered here: Claire Heymann, Annie Bleiberg, Werner Reich, Alex Rosner and Ruth Mermelstein. In that moment, surrounded my new friends in a foreign county, my heart broke.

    As I sit here today, writing this blog I am still journeying to Auschwitz. It is a life-long journey to understand, to comprehend. My trip to these haunting camps has changed me. My eyes have been opened, my heart has been shattered and my knowledge has been expanded.


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