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The road to Auschwitz winds past farmland, historic churches and small country homes. Our driver, Irek Wis, knows the route well. For nearly two decades, he has taken visitors to the world’s most infamous concentration camp, making the round-trip roughly 250 times each year.
As we drive there, he offers us this advice: “You are on vacation,” he says. ‘Try to relax…I know that for you it will be a very unpleasant visit. No one promises that it will be easy. But try to little bit relax or the bad emotions will burn you.”
My parents and I know that Irek is right. We have twice postponed plans to visit Auschwitz. And there’s a reason. A personal one. Both my late paternal grandparents were imprisoned in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. And as Irek drives and talks about what to expect, it’s hard to reconcile the past with the present.
When we arrive, the parking lot is full of tour buses. We see school groups and families and backpackers and older couples all excitedly, nervously anticipating what lies beyond the museum doors.
Located 40 miles from Krakow, Poland, Auschwitz is a frequently visited Holocaust site. In 2015, more than 1.7 million visitors toured the concentration camp-turned-museum. That is the largest number of visitors in a single year since the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum opened in 1947.
My parents and I walk through metal detectors, down an office-lined corridor and back outside into the crisp morning air. And there it is: the entrance to Auschwitz.
We stand and stare in silence at the cruelly deceptive words above the main gate: Arbeit Macht Frei. Work makes you free. After seeing the entrance to Auschwitz in countless photographs, it’s smaller than we expect, roughly 16-feet across, but as my mother can attest, no less powerful.
“I walked under that gate, Arbeit Macht Frei, took a deep breath and thought, ‘I am here,’” my mother Helene Springer recalls. “It’s a place I never wanted to be, but I was walking under the gate and into some horror that I was going to see that affected people I loved and many other people I didn’t know. And it was horrifying.”
Once inside, I ask our guide Łukasz Lipinski, “Is there any way to find out what happened to my grandparents here?” He takes us to the archives, housed in a large brick building by the main gate. We enter a small, white room. In the middle of one wall, a large interior window reveals a vast expanse of file cabinets.
My father fills out forms that ask for his parents’ names, birthdates, hometowns and occupations. He also writes down his father’s tattoo number - 141555.
“[The number] was the most significant thing they had because they could organize [by] it,” says my father Felix Springer. “I remember not remembering my mother’s for some reason. And I was so pleased to be able to remember my father’s, which I’ve carried with me all these years.”
An archivist finds three documents connected to my grandfather. They show that my grandfather arrived at Auschwitz on August 26, 1943, then was sent on a death march to the Mauthausen concentration camp in late January 1945, days before the liberation of Auschwitz.
Knowing the majority of prisoners survived, at most, a few months, we do the math quickly. My grandfather spent 17 months at Auschwitz.
“I found that extraordinary and remarkable in ways that spoke to me that I candidly did not expect,” said my father. “When I saw that there were documents, it was the only time that I teared up.”
We leave the archives and walk deeper into Auschwitz I. At its height, Auschwitz consisted of three main camp complexes and the core area covered more than 15 square miles. It was the largest concentration camp built by the Nazis.
We head toward former prison blocks, a collection of two-story brick buildings laid out along a grid of dirt roads. Łukasz tells us about the selection process and the gas chambers and the staggering number of people murdered each day, sometimes more than 5,000.
Different blocks house different exhibits. We file past piles of suitcases and shoes and eyeglasses and hair left behind by men, women and children sent to the gas chambers.
Łukasz draws our attention to the smallest of the suitcases, “Many of the suitcases also belong to the babies,” he said. “Yes, little kids.”
My father asks Łukasz how many people were found alive when Auschwitz was liberated.
“7,000 alive,” says Łukasz. “But those were the ones who were left here basically to die. Weak and sick prisoners that could not take part in the evacuations, the death marches. So, among the prisoners that were here found by the Soviets, there were many people who were like skeletons.”
Taking this all in, we wonder how anyone could have survived here for 17 months.
In block 27, we come to the Book of Names - a memorial to the Jews murdered during the Holocaust. It is 8,000-plus pages hanging from a black stand in the middle of an otherwise empty room. Each page is 3-feet long and contains hundreds of alphabetically listed names.
“The immediate compulsion was to seek out names,” says my father.
Almost as soon as everyone entered the room, they went to the book and searched for familiar names. My parents looked for the names of family members. My mother found her namesake, while my father found a couple of his uncles, my grandfather’s brothers.
“Here’s a family that I never knew,” says my father. “And [I was] kind of wondering who this person would have been, who this person was, it was really overwhelmingly sad.”
Especially when we find the name of my grandfather’s older brother, Szaul, and see that he was murdered in Auschwitz. We knew he went to a labor camp in Poznan, Poland with my grandfather and figured they were transferred together to Auschwitz. Now, we know he died here.
My father says, “[I] can imagine how awful that was for my father.”
We move on to the crematorium at Auschwitz I and see where camp workers loaded bodies into ovens. It is another overwhelming experience, particularly when Łukasz details what happened in the room where we stand.
“The bodies are put on such iron trollies that are over there,” says Łukasz. “They used to put two or even three bodies on one trolley, the members of the Sonderkommando that did this job. Then, they pushed the bodies inside.”
From Auschwitz I, we drive two miles to Auschwitz II, a place often described as a death factory. More than one million people were murdered at Auschwitz. And most died here.
We climb a couple flights of stairs to the top of a guard tower. And we look out at what remains of the camp. Its size is absolutely staggering. Spread over roughly 350 acres, it stretches all the way to the distant tree line.
We leave the guard tower and walk toward the tree line, passing a train platform along the way. It is here, Łukasz tells us, that Nazi doctors would decide who lived and who died.
“This was the place where for the last time they saw their families, their relatives,” says Łukasz. “For me, it is one of the most important places in Auschwitz.”
Auschwitz II, with its destroyed gas chambers, train tracks, brick chimneys, wooden barracks and empty foundations appears less sanitized than Auschwitz I. Still, the thick grass all around seems out of place because of something my grandfather once told my dad.
“I remember ankle deep mud,” says my father. “And when I say I remember, that’s what I remember hearing about.”
We learn from Łukasz that starved prisoners ate the grass and the ground turned to mud.
Three weeks after our visit, my parents and I receive an email from the Auschwitz archives. It contains copies of my grandfather’s concentration camp records, including the form filled out when he arrived at Auschwitz. It’s the first time we see the entire document.
“Looking at those papers, it was extraordinary to me,” says my father. “That was my father’s signature. Henry Springer, now. Chaim Springer, then. It was exactly the same as his signature. This was him, there, signing this paper, documenting…As a young man, well, a young man of 31, 32.”
“In some ways, seeing the paperwork said, ‘Oh, my G-d, this really did happen.’ That he had gone through this.”
We didn’t find any documentation for my grandmother, but my father thinks she spent more time at Auschwitz than my grandfather. I ask my father if visiting Auschwitz gave him a new appreciation of his parents.
“Absolutely, one how strong they must have been physically and then how strong they must have been mentally to have survived all of this,” he says. “I had a new appreciation of how special they were. And I hadn’t had that in that way.”
There's a strange pride in how my grandparents went on after the Holocaust. They didn’t know each other at Auschwitz. They met after the war, and married in a displaced person’s camp. They built a new life together. As my parents and I remember, they were kind, generous, optimistic and loving. And given what my parents and I saw at Auschwitz, that is also extraordinary.
This segment aired on January 26, 2016.