Thursday, January 24, 2013

More about Courtney Williams

Courtney Williams wrote her family last night after returning to the hotel from a long day.  She offered to share her words with you back home, in the hopes that you might have an insight into at least one person's perspective about a rather amazing day.  I'm grateful to Courtney for sharing these thoughts, and I know you will be too:


So, now that I've been there, thought about it, cried about it, and processed it, I would like to tell you about my experience at Auschwitz Birkenau. We took an overnight train from Prague to Krakow, and after being watched by people in the train station, followed by some creepy guy, and being the last one to board the train only to spend my night with 5 of my now closest friends in a tiny compartment with all our luggage and crap. Not the best experience.

We arrived in krakow at about 6:30am, into snowy, windy, bitterly cold conditions and had to walk a good quarter mile to where the busses were meeting us. We had little snacks we brought for the train, and since we didn't have breakfast on the train, I had tomatoes and potato chips for breakfast. Our rooms weren't ready, so we left our things in Ali and Molly's room, as they had about half of the rooms ready. We had just enough time to brush our teeth and layer up before we left for Auschwitz at  9:30. I've never worn so many layers.

We got to the camp around 11, it's About an hour and a half away from Krakow, in the middle of this modern village. The village wasn't there in the second war. We went into the museum/main building, and got our headphones like we had at the Capitol in DC, where only we could hear our tour guide. From there, we went outside to the outside of the camp. It was a 2 and a half hour tour through just Auschwitz.

The entrance gate to the camp is surrounded by barbed wire and the gate itself says "Arbeit Macht Frei" which in German basically means "work will set you free" which really meant, you'll die working and then you'll be free. We saw the roll call square where the prisoners would stand for hours on end while the nazis did roll call, the gallows where they did public executions, and went through the different exhibitions in the different buildings. They were basically a museum, different pictures, letters, pictures of most of the prisoners, and it was very moving to see it in person, not like at the museum in DC. But, then we walked into a room filled with hair. Hair from the women prisoners. Another room was filled with just children's shoes. Another with adult shoes. One room had suitcases and bags, another had pots and pans and silverware. We also saw all the empty cans of the cyclon b pellets that the nazis used in gas chambers. It's nothing like the holocaust museum. I wasn't ready to see the hair. It was 2 tons of human hair. And all of the other belongings just piled up in the room. Just piles and piles. I can't even imagine.

Then we went to the execution building, which has been left in its original state. We saw where the prisoners stood trial, where they got ready and stripped in the washroom before execution, the shooting block, and the different punishment rooms they had in the basement of the building. We never learned about that. They had starvation rooms, suffocation rooms, rooms wherein 5 or 6 people would stand all night, and a number of other cells, all how they would have looked back then. It was haunting. We walked around the barracks, the prisoners slept on straw, with 8people on a bunk, and the barrack could fit a few hundred prisoners.s no toilets, and most died from starvation, disease, or cold from the shitty living conditions.

There was so much barbed wire everywhere, and it used to be electric, so any escapee would likely die of being electrocuted. It's terrifying being in there, walking where so many were tortured and worked to death and being murdered for who they were.

The last building we saw at Auschwitz was the crematorium and gas chamber. We went into one of the gas chambers where millions were killed. And saw the crematorium where they were burned and their ashes scattered to the river or used as fertilizer. It's nauseating to see and think about.

Birkenau was incredible. Most of the camp is gone, the Germans blew it up when they figured out the Russians were coming, so most of the camp is rubble, including all four of the gas chambers and crematoriums. The rubble has been left where it was blown up so you can still make out what happened there. The camp is over 1/5 of of a mile long, yes we counted up steps, and really wide. We went into the wooden barracks, which were o more than stables with bunks. Drafty, freezing, with a singular stove for heating, which I bet never got used. The toilet room was basically slabs of concrete with holes in them, and you had 15 seconds to go to the bathroom, only twice a day. No dignity. You got a shower maybe once every six weeks and didn't get to wash your clothes. The camp is out in the middle of nowhere, so it is bitter cold in the winter and scorching in the summer. And you're walking, there's no other mode of transportation. We were freezing even with all the layers on, I can't imagine how it was to have next to nothing. The camp has a single railway car that stands in the middle of the track, and it's nothing extravagant. A cattle car that hundreds of people would be forced into and travel for days on end.

As far as my emotions went, I have never felt more hollowed out, more raw than I did when we left. I started crying before we got to the gate at Auschwitz, and had a hard time containing my tears as we walked around. I wanted to look down as we walked, because I felt like I couldn't bear to see what the Nazis had done. But there was a little voice in my head that kept saying"you will look up and you will see this" I didn't look down again. The hardest thing for me to see was the hair all piled up. I can't even explain it. I was so angry for most of the tour, and nauseous as well. To be in a place where so many atrocities went unchecked just disgusts me and breaks my heart. Millions of men, women, children, grandparents, siblings, lovers, all brutally ripped away from their lives and sent to death because someone thought their race was better. 

The worst room I went in was the gas chamber. When I walked in, I felt like I couldn't breathe, and there was something holding my chest. I couldn't stop the tears flowing. But I couldn't look away. It was so unnerving to be in a room where people thought they were going to shower and be clean, and instead they were suffocated and killed. How does one justify that? How do I look at this from my faith's perspective? I feel angry that no one stopped this, I feel nauseous that I visited the site of a genocide, I feel torn in why God didn't stop it, or if God even had some hand in it. And I am so sad that all those innocent people had to live through it. How does a human race plot something like that, and how do others not put a stop to it? I don't know if I can put away these emotions that seem to be taking me on a roller coaster ride. It is like a wave of anger and grief and pain and confusion.

I know I'm not even doing this justice by putting it into words, but I'm afraid it's the best I can do. What I saw will be in my head and heart for the rest of my life, and even now I don't think I can fully understand and come to terms with it.

We sang a song in choir last year called "In Remembrance" and it kept popping into my head yesterday, just the last line. This is what I will leave you with. It isn't something to be forgotten or brushed over. I will struggle with my emotions and thought on this for days and months.

The line went: "Lord, in your infinite mercy, grant them rest. Rest forever more."



  1. I'm sitting here on break at work reading this, and bawling out loud. Thank you for sharing this experience and your thoughts Courtney.

  2. Thank for sharing your words, Courtney. I visited Auschwitz many years ago, but I can remember its powerful effect on me to this day. How do we as humans have the capacity for such vile acts, yet immeasurable beauty, too?