It is with unease that I am on a trip to see the former concentration camp of Auschwitz, particularly as it is unplanned and unexpected. Am I completely sure that this is something I want to do?
During my childhood my mother and father spoke incessantly about WWII as they had lived through it in Britain; but they never spoke of the Holocaust, insisting that not one of them knew what was going on.
Auschwitz is now a museum intent on preserving the authenticity of the original camp. But it is also a gravesite and place to pay respect to those who lost their lives. The infamous internment centre would eventually turn from a prison for Polish detainees into the place which was the answer to the Third Reich’s ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’, an extermination machine on a scale hitherto unknown.
On route, the landscape is snowy, bleak…even lifeless; cement buildings, white fields, leafless trees and grey skies possibly matching my frame of mind. ‘Eerie’ and ‘forelorn’ are words that can’t describe it.
We arrive and our guide lays out the mechanics of tours here, explaining that information and the ‘tone’ of a tour of Auschwitz is tailored to each individual group. Taking into account age, ethnicity, and nationality; only when this information is obtained will it decided how much can be told to individuals about what took place here.
Across the entrance to the complex is the iron sign that reads ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (Work makes you Free) which has come to represent something the Nazis will always be remembered for, incessant and twisted propaganda. I walk through the double row of barbed wire fences accompanied by an increasing sense of dread.
Auschwitz was created on the site of a former Polish army barracks in June 1940 and at the beginning was a camp for Polish political prisoners. Only in autumn 1941 did Soviet POWs start to be deported here and they were placed in nine blocks of the original camp.
I find the exhibits, which are housed in two blocks, extremely moving: luggage with names and addresses written on them, prosthetic limbs (truly sad because these people would have never survived past their first day as they were not able to work), kitchen utensils (Jews had been told they were being ‘re-located’), baby clothes and one truly horrendous exhibit. An enormous glassed off section along the side of a hall is filled with women’s hair removed when the person had died. It is decaying, naturally, in a hermetically sealed environment. It is the enormous amount of hair that is disturbing as it brings home the sheer numbers involved. Hair was apparently even woven into fabric, for what use I do not want to contemplate.
Outside of the prison are SS buildings and accommodation. A pub, a hospital and also a crematorium that is preserved purely because it was used by the SS as an air raid shelter. It is thought that 70,000 corpses were disposed of here.
There is also the gallows where the first Commandant, Rudolf Höß, was hanged after being convicted of his war crimes. Is it inappropriate that I feel a small sense of elation and gratitude that at least someone paid for these crimes? Probably. Soon there will be more information about the perpertrators included in the exhibits at Auschwitz.
We then travelled in a coach the 40 km2 of no man’s land that lie between Auschwitz and Birkenau, the extermination camp. Seeing Birkenau is another experience completely as it is here the killing took place on an industrial scale.
Birkenau was opened sometime in spring 1942 and extermination started that same year even as the camp was still being expanded. By early 1943 four large crematoria and gas chambers were opened. May, June and July 1944 was the time when the mass extermination of Jews deported from Hungary took place.
As I enter the grounds, the snow masks the marshy grounds of this 72 acre site. Dozens of barracks are still extant but it is the lone railway car sitting on the tracks that grabs my attention. There are a group of Jewish men in black clothing laying stones on a protruding piece of metal in commemoration. The tenderness of the act brings tears to my eyes. It is a mute and humble memorial to the innocent victims who lost their lives.
As there are three main railway lines converging outside of Oswiecim, it was quite easy to lay tracks from the main lines, through the camp and straight to the gas chambers. None of these deportees would have known what awaited them.
Doctors would be ready for the trains of Hungarian Jews to arrive and, on disembarkation, these men would separate the arrivals into two groups. Those healthy enough to work… and those not. The fate of those sent to be gassed is almost too horrific to discuss.
Ultimately, the number of victims was estimated to be one million Jews, 70 -75 thousand Poles (non-Jewish), 21 thousand Sinti and Romani gypsies, 15 thousand Soviet POW and around 10-15 thousand others.
This is thought to be the largest mass killing site in the world.
1.43 million visitors come here every year, the majority of which are young people.