When I Got Lost in Auschwitz: How Taking One Wrong Turn Made Me Come to Terms with an Entire History

You see, we had to catch a train.

It was the only train to Krakow that could also put us on the last train to Warsaw, meaning we needed to be at the Oswiecim station at exactly four thirty four – or sixteen thirty four, if we’re sticking with regional time. This meant we needed to leave our four hour tour early and hightail it down the street from the Auschwitz complex to the dinky little train stop on the edge of town.

We had been with the group for just about two hours and had already visited a few of the plain brick buildings that made up the camp. Half of them had been converted into museums, half were retained in their original state for display purposes. However, the watchtowers, ‘hault’ placards, gravel roads, barbed wire fences, and the infamous enter sign are exactly as they were in 1943. When I was bumbling through with a fifteen person tour group, I managed to forget where I was and what happened where I currently stood. When I looked at my watch, said goodbye to the tour guide, grabbed Lindsay’s wrist and marched off toward where I THOUGHT the exit was… everything changed.

The people – the shuffle of feet, the murmured words, the mix of languages as the tour guides corralled everyone – disappeared. And it became just me and Auschwitz. I felt Lindsay exhale slowly beside me as we crunched through the stones back the way we came. Everything there is on a grid: three buildings, a street, three buildings, a street, all sectioned off. We thought we were just two “blocks” away, but once we looked to our lefts we found only fences and a distant view of the administration center. I swallowed, mouth dry.

“I…thought it was just up here?” I said. My voice was suddenly shaky.

“I’m sure it’s the next one. I’m sure.” Lindsay’s firm voice kept me on her heels, but I couldn’t stifle the shiver down my spine.

I’ve never been one to believe in “auras.” I’m not a ghost hunter by any means. Spirits or communicating with the dead has never interested me. But it was at this point, wandering through deserted Auschwitz, that I realized that Energies, in whatever form, are definitely present in our world. It was as though a permanent fog had descended upon this place, settling upon their clothes, working its way into their hair and swirling around their feet when they leave. It’s something strangely tangible, yet unassuming and fluid.

My palms wiped down my forearms and I gave my shoulders a shake. You’re fine, I kept telling myself. There are people around, don’t be so superstitious. We trudged on, checking the next cross-road and the next. Both undernourished and stressed, we were nearing panic-mode. I let myself glance back – we had moved just enough so the groups were no longer in sight. Auschwitz had literally become a ghost town.

You hear the facts and figures all the time. How many died gruesome and premature deaths; how the SS planned countless ways to continue to ship off more and more types of people to be murdered in cold blood; how innocents were made to work until complete exhaustion and then some; the food shortages; the gas chambers, the death marches: you can lose yourself in the technicalities.

It’s not until you’re hyperventilating, near-running toward the next street, muttering half-hearted prayers that this is somehow the escape – then you realize what happened. And maybe you don’t feel it then, or on the train home, or as you climb into your hostel bed that night. But it seeps over you in time. It’s not depressing or spiteful. It’s not bitterness or hysteria. It’s an understanding.

An understanding, I thought as I caught the glint of the arched words of the entrance.

An understanding, I thought as we both sighed through our teeth.

An understanding, I thought as I picked up my backpack, threw it over my shoulder, and walked out of the complex.

I’ll be back, I thought. I just have to catch a train.

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