If there’s one place that words cannot do justice, it’s Auschwitz.
With the horrors of a place so absolutely shocking, it is little wonder so many at the time (less than 70 years ago) and others still today, refuse to believe that such monstrosities could have taken place.
I won’t get into the history of Auschwitz; there’s plenty of information out there for those who want to know more about the camp and its larger sister camp Birkenau. Suffice to say that of the 1, 300 000 people to go to Auschwitz, 1, 100 000 of them died there, 90% of them Jews.
It took about an hour from Krakow by bus to get to the town of Oświęcim where the two camps are located, and that time was spent watching a video on the liberation of Auschwitz and the countless barbarities that took place there. Whilst the video was unsettling to watch (to say the least) it wasn’t until we arrived at Auschwitz that two things became very apparent.
The first, was how recently it all happened. The buildings at Auschwitz camp 1 are are all still in fine condition, the windows intact, the wire fences showing little sign of rust or age. The camp was liberated in 1945 and since 1947 it has been a ‘museum’, which I’m sure has benefited its preservation, but still does not excuse the fact that it all happened in the lifetime of people who still live today.
The second, was the absolute organisation and coordination that took place behind the evil. It was easy for me to believe, before visiting the camps, that whilst the Jews had been so obviously maltreated and abused, that it was by the hand of a few extremists who took pleasure in unsystematic torture and bloodshed. That perhaps the intentions for the camps had been different to what actually took place.
What I saw when looking around the camp, was that I was wholeheartedly and naively mistaken.
Every building was built with a purpose, every hole in the ceiling designed to fit the dimensions of a gas canister. Every prisoner was photographed front on, side on, and at an angle, their date of arrival at the camp recorded, as well as the day they died. Documents recorded the names of those who committed the first and every subsequent execution, signed off and stamped as if it were a class role call. There was undeniably no shame in what they were doing, and the evidence of that remains in the documents that have endured.
People were not brought to Auschwitz to be detained or imprisoned.
People were brought to Auschwitz to die.
The lucky ones got to live a little longer when they were deemed fit to work, but even then, they were used until malnutrition, disease or exhaustion killed them or had them executed when found inept.
The belongings of all the victims of Auschwitz remain in the museum. I was utterly astounded and moved by the volume of possessions that still remain, their owners never again returning to claim them. Millions of shoes are stacked high behind glass walls, pots and pans, glasses, brushes and combs, and suitcases named and addressed in anticipation of retrieval pile high.
The most distressing of these things for me was the narrow corridor lined with glass, which served as a window display to the several tonnes of piled human hair that remains at the camp. When the camp was liberated, the Soviet Army found 7,000 kilograms of human hair packed in paper bags, intended to be used in the war industry for making cloth, ropes, and even socks for the soldiers. For me, that pile of human hair may as well have been the bodies themselves.
One story that stuck with me was from our guide, who said that his grandfather had lived 50 kilometres outside of the Auschwitz Birkenau camp. None were allowed to go near the area, and most claim to not have been at all aware as to what was happening there. But his grandfather said the townspeople had noticed a distinct smell coming from the direction of the camps. It wasn’t until the liberation that they discovered the smell had been the stench of burning bodies.
It’s a strange sensation visiting a place such as Auschwitz. Some level of disassociation is necessary to take it all in without losing your mind at the pure evilness of people. That said, there is a peculiar longing to find out more about the victims, how they suffered, how they survived, and what it must have felt like. I think this comes with a desire to make some sort of sense out of what happened, in an attempt to try and understand how such a thing could have occurred, and perhaps even in an effort to make sure it never happens again.
It feels a little crude to say I ‘enjoyed’ my visit to Auschwitz. No one can enjoy a place like that. But I am glad I visited. It’s easy to go through life and forget that bad things happen, to ignore them when they are happening, and be like the townsfolk who smelt burning bodies and were totally unaware of what was taking place on their doorstep.
Philosopher and novelist George Santayana said, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”
I hope that the world forever remembers what happened at Auschwitz.