I feel like this is the most important blog post I’m ever going to post on this site. On a recent trip to Poland, I visited Auschwitz.
A couple of people I knew had been and a few people purposely missed it out when visiting nearby Krakow, but for me there was absolutely no doubt that I had to go. On my first day in the city I booked onto a tour to visit not only Auschwitz I, but also Birkenau, 3km away.
The people I know who had been told me to expect the absolute worst, that it is so emotionally hard hitting that I would do nothing for the rest of the day but ponder how humanity can be capable of such disgusting actions. The strangest thing for me is that although that feeling did hit me at one point (more on that later), it didn’t come straight away…
The tour arrived at Auschwitz I and we had a little time to use the toilets and grab a snack if we wanted. The entrance is located in a village, surrounded by houses and restaurants, and there’s a number of food stops and vending machines when you arrive that I couldn’t help but feel were a little distasteful.
The tour took us through the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gates, mockingly telling prisoners that work would set them free – even though the Nazi guards knew full well that no such thing would ever happen. The camp was originally a Polish barrack, and it was because of this setup that I found it almost difficult to comprehend how such atrocities could ever have occurred there. Yes there was barbed wire. Yes there are exhibits to show some of the heinous activities that happened there. Yes there was the shooting wall, where people were routinely murdered in front of the other prisoners. But was it easy to imagine how these simple, run of the mill buildings housed all of that? No, not for me. It was unsettling, yes, but even being there didn’t help take my mind back to how it must have been.
One of the exhibits in the museum buildings that did hit a nerve however was the case of shoes; the quality shoes were taken from prisoners and sent to Germany, but the case showed a huge selection of the footwear people arrived at the camp with deemed not good enough to send back. Most shockingly were the tiny child’s shoes standing poignantly at the front, showing there was simply no mercy shown to anyone, even the youngest of victims. Cases of suitcases, glasses and even hair followed, shaved off the heads of those who fell victim to the Nazis.
As the tour continued, we were led into the buildings which were mostly used as accommodation for the Jews, Poles, Roma, homosexuals and other prisoners. We walked past the hospital, which instead of being set up to help people, was used as a picking pot to select the next victims to be experimented on either by the lunatic ‘doctors’ or those developing the Zyklon B gas which would eventually be used for the mass extermination of over a million people.
The final section of this part of the tour was the one remaining gas chamber. A small, concrete room. That was it. One small room, where hundreds of people would be trapped after being forced to strip outside, time and time again. The hole is still there in the ceiling where the gas crystals were dropped. There’s silence now as you walk in, but standing there imagining the terror and chaos that people would have experienced in that room less than 100 years ago is indescribable. The thought that the chamber was only used for a short amount of time as it wasn’t big enough for the scale of extermination that the Nazis craved is again just a disgusting reminder of how humans can behave. The crematorium next door was equally as sickening.
So yes, this part of the trip did affect me, but not quite as much as I expected it to. That all changed though, as soon as I got to Birkenau.
The atmosphere was immediately different. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps it was the menacing “gate of death”, which looms over you as you arrive. Perhaps it was the sheer scale of the place; the majority of wooden barrack buildings were destroyed just before the camp’s liberation but the brick chimneys still stand, in uniform. Unlike the densely packed buildings at Auschwitz I, this camp cut through the landscape, as far as the eye could see.
Another thing that got to me straight away was the train track, leading through the gates, ending just outside the now-demolished gas chambers. There’s something eerie about the end of train tracks at the best of times, but here it just fits in with the uncomfortable, heavy atmosphere. The rail cart still stands on the side, a reminder of the cramped carriages that delivered hundreds of thousands of people to their death. Following those tracks, following the route that so many victims walked, following the cruelly named “pathway to Heaven” struck a cord, and is an experience I will never forget.
Another reason that Birkenau got under my skin more than Auschwitz I is that there was time to think. The guide did tell us information about the camp and showed us inside some of the remaining blocks, but aside from that I had the opportunity to go much more at my own pace when walking around and really take in what I was looking at. We weren’t necessarily rushed at Auschwitz I, but there is so much to comprehend that having some quiet time to gather my thoughts was incredibly important.
Will this visit be something that I remember for the rest of my life? 100%, and I am incredibly glad about that.
I asked someone who had been in Krakow a few weeks whether they had been and their answer was “I haven’t got around to it yet”. Get around to it. We need to visit these places, we need to remember what happened in the not-too-distant past and we need to remember those people who we never met. Will it dampen your day? Of course it will, but you will walk back through that gate and get on with your life. Over 1.1 million men, women and children never had that opportunity, and we owe it to them to never forget.
It is our responsibility to make ourselves aware of what happened.
We owe it to them.