Assistant Sports Editor
I stared blankly into the dark, musty room. On the wall was a picture of a former prisoner. His eyes bulging, his lower lip swollen and coated in blood. His head was shaved and his mouth was slightly open.
His striped inmate uniform was tattered. I tried to match his deadly, hollow stare, but couldn’t hold his gaze for more than a second.
I stared intently at the wall as I stepped through the doorway into the room where they held prisoners of the Stutthof Concentration Camp in Sztowo, Poland. As I crossed the doorway, the air suddenly got heavier. Outside of the room, the sun shone brightly through open windows. The air was just below an uncomfortable warmth, but inside the holding room, the air was dense. It was thick, dry but still moist. It pained my lungs to take small breaths in and out.
Again, I tried to make eye contact with the picture on the wall but quickly looked away. I turned around and looked through the doorway. It was difficult to breathe, standing in the same spot that so many malnourished, innocent Jews had stood.
Looking out into the bright open room where 110,000 Jews had been processed, measured, and held for extended periods of time with just small rations of water and bread, the war suddenly hit me.
I had always known about World War II. I’d read about it in history textbooks, seen montages of it on the History Channel, and read stories detailing the atrocities that took place in concentration camps, but the war was never real to me. I wasn’t in any way connected.
No one in my family served, I wasn’t of Jewish descent, and it didn’t affect my way of living. WWII had always been words on a page or pictures on a screen. But suddenly, standing in this pitch-black room, where so many prisoners had perished or began their demise, it became real.
I suddenly understood it all. I had always respected what took place in Western Europe during the Holocaust. I understood that it was horrible, that it went against every moral in my body, but I had never seen it or experienced it. I had heard stories that gave me goosebumps and made me question my own way of living, but I could never physically see what had happened in my mind.
Now though, now I could see the SS-Soldiers standing in the doorway, barking out orders to a beaten man, stick in hand ready to lay down another blow. Now I could see Jews being hoarded into small barracks with little to no sleep or food. I could see the scrawny bodies of countless Jews trying desperately to avoid the wrath of the guards.
I left the holding room and walked outside where the sun beat down through a cloudless sky. I walked down the same cobblestone sidewalks that so many SS-Soldiers and Jews had done 70 years ago. I walked into a second building where many Jews had been held. This one had no rooms, no doorways besides the one I walked through. It was an open room, but yet just as haunting.
On the floor in the heart of the room, ranging from one wall down the length of the entire floor to the other was a giant pile of shoes. Not the nice Nike or Adidas shoes that are seen today, but the charred remains of the shoes worn by the prisoners. You could see which shoes were worn by children, the tiny soles that you could fit into the palm of your hand. Then there were the larger shoes, worn by the grown men and women who had been taken forcefully from their homes for no reason other than the fact that they chose to believe a certain belief.
The pile of shoes went all the way to the back wall, covering half of the floor and standing about 3 feet tall, some still holding the string that would have been stitched to connect the top of the shoe to the bottom.
After leaving the shoes behind, I walked out into the sunlight and towards the main gate. The gate was all wood, with the guard tower positioned on top of it. The doors were massive, standing 10 feet tall with an open door to the right. On either side of the gate was barbed wire, allowing me to see into the remainder of the camp. The foundation to multiple barracks, the camp infirmary, and the kitchen were in the center of an open field. At the far end of the field next to a giant Star of David was the crematorium and gas chamber, both still standing.
The gate was appropriately named “Death Gate,” and when standing in front of it, you could see and feel the prisoners being marched in, their items taken from them, and their freedom forever stolen. I shut my eyes and I could see them entering, their heads hanging, their will to live being pulled out of them. They would have seen the prisoners already in the camp, their bodies slowly eating themselves from the inside. The malnourished men and women walking back and forth from their barracks to their job site.
110,000 prisoners entered through “Death Gate.” 65,000 of them never saw freedom again.
I never imagined what I would feel when I entered a concentration camp. I knew I would see the world differently, but I didn’t realize just how differently. I always wondered how individuals had fought to stay alive in these camps, but after being in one, standing in their cells, seeing their shoes and walking through “Death Gate,” I realized it took an incredibly head-strong individual to make it out alive.
For those that entered concentration camps and left with their lives, they are the strongest human beings on this earth. Forget the weight lifters, the athletes, and the gym rats. They never fought for their life. They didn’t see someone get beaten to death just because the guard was bored. They didn’t go through the same things that these prisoners did.
For what they went through, these survivors are the toughest, bravest, strongest individuals to walk this earth, and thankfully, now I can see what they saw. Now I can imagine what they went through. Now, I understand just how fortunate we are to live with our freedom.