A is for Auschwitz

The spectacles of victims still remain

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.

Auschwitz Camp 1

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.

This was just one of the many prisoner photos found when the camp was liberated. I found this man's face so interesting. Below the picture is recorded the date he arrived at the camp and the date he died there. He lived only 6 months in Auschwitz.

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.

Those deemed unfit to work were sent immediately to the gas chambers. Crutches, aids and prosthetics of wounded Polish WWI war veterans accounted for most of this particular collection.

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.

Millions of shoes taken from victims still remain.

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.

Barbed wire fences kept the prisoners from escaping, although accounts say that many threw themselves onto the electric fences in an attempt to 'free' themselves from the horrors inside the camp.

25 comments on “A is for Auschwitz

  1. You have taken some beautiful photos (insert appropriate “ohs” and “ahs”) and your experience there sounds amazing. I never made it to the concentration camps when I went to Europe in 2010 (in part I think I was a little nervous about going, especially after visiting the harrowing museum in Washington D.C. early in my trip). I imagine it is a very emotional experience – thank you for sharing it with us!

    I look forward to reading about and seeing more from your trip!

    • Thanks Stef. Auschwitz was emotional, but I am glad I went, if only to be reminded of the evil that the small thoughts of few can achieve.

      And thank you for letting me steal your expat alphabet idea! :)

  2. Wow, the glasses and shoes. With all the organization and “efficiency” that went into this place, I wonder why they let things pile up. I’d never heard about the hair–very disturbing.

    • I think, like the hair that was found packaged in paper and is now also piled in glass cabinets, it was all taken out from probably more orderly storage and put on display as it is now.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. Being Jewish, I hope to one day visit Auschwitz and learn more about what happened during that awful time. This was a beautiful, thoughtful post on a difficult topic.

    • It isn’t an easy place to visit, and I’m sure even more so for Jews or any with a history or heritage that leads back to the camps, but it is a place worth visiting if you are interested in the Holocaust and finding out more about what happened at the time. Despite all I had read and heard about Auschwitz, I don’t think I really comprehended the what really went on until I was actually there. It is so easy to become desensitised to stories of brutality, so I appreciated the reminder that not all is well and good in the world even if I don’t see it in my own life.

  4. I’m so glad that you blogged about your trip to Auschwitz. It was a great post with moving photos! People I think forget how terrible this was, and how easily it happened. It’s insane to think that it was less than a century ago, this wasn’t some medieval thing, it was people like you and me that were brutally murdered. So thank you for reminding all of us to remember these people.

    • It’s really quite scary how easily it all happened, and right before the world’s noses. It makes you wonder what you go through life not knowing or ever witnessing. One can only hope such horrors are never seen by the Earth again.

  5. Thank you for sharing as well as the photos. What a lifetime experience! I would like to know more from a family standpoint from my mother’s side about this, but the people who knew were silent and now are no longer with us. A thoughtful post on an important and tough topic.

    • It is a shame there isn’t more literature from those involved (although in saying that, I haven’t really gone looking for any..perhaps there is?), but it doesn’t at all surprise me that those involved were silent and the victims couldn’t speak about it. We were told that even those too young to remember their time at Auschwitz, still suffered as adults from anxiety, fear of loud noises and unease around the German language and people in uniform. Just awful.

    • Surviving Auschwitz is an achievement in itself, let alone for three years. Your father must have been an incredible man. I can imagine it would be a very different and difficult experience visiting Auschwitz having known someone who was there, so I’m not sure whether to say I hope you get there one day or not. Either way, thanks for your comment, Stuart.

  6. Hi, Katy.
    I visited Auschwitz in 2010.
    I remember the felt made from human hair. And all those shoes.
    I could not believe the way people were acting. Grinning and mugging all over the execution wall and the “stop!” sign where prisoners used to be shot if they went beyond it. And strolling around under the Arbeit-macht-frei sign, stuffing their faces. Like this was some kind of death-camp Disneyland.
    Sometimes I hate people.

    Did you know that Auschwitz III, which is between Auschwitz I and Birkenau, is still in operation? It’s being used as a factory by some chemical and rubber companies. I walked by it, because I took the train to Auschwitz station and walked to the camp on foot. Creepy that it’s still being used.

    Oh, and a romantic couple snogging in Birkenau. I mean really all over each other. I’d be surprised if they didn’t find some unlocked barrack and shag each other in it. Totally disrespectful.

    I’m really not so sure homo sapiens is all that sapiens.

    • That is awful! My experience was very different, and on the day I was there everyone in our group was very quiet and respectful, as were the other groups walking around the camps. At Auschwitz II, we were even asked by the guide to walk around the camp in silence as a sign of respect.

      People really can be so crass though.

      I didn’t know that Auschwitz III was still in operation. It would be very creepy to work there, or anywhere in the area. When I saw cars driving by Birkenau I couldn’t help but wonder if they were on their way home from work, and if it felt eerie to drive past every day, or, if they perhaps simply didn’t notice anymore?

  7. Your post is very moving. I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. I got a glimpse of what you are talking about. I am glad that you wrote this post to remind people of the way things were. We must never forget.

    Have you read: Sarah’s Key, The Book Thief or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? Very good reads about this time period that I think you might enjoy.

    • Thanks for the reading recommendations, Mary. I haven’t read any of them (although I have been meaning to buy The Book Thief). The other book I’m interested in reading is The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy, written by a Polish man whose pharmacy overlooked the square in the Jewish Quarter where the Jews were rounded up before being taken to the camps. After visiting the square, hearing what happened there, and hearing about the author’s role in trying to help the Jews, I’d love to read his account of what he witnessed.

      Thanks again Mary.

  8. Oh, Katy – that must have been such an emotional day for you. Despite living in Europe for two years I never wanted to visit any concentration camps. I just couldn’t face it. Maybe someday. Great post – you handled the emotion without being sentimental or nasty.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gretchen. I have always had an odd curiosity for learning more about abominable events like the Holocaust, not because I enjoy sadism or gawking at the misfortune of others, but in a genuine attempt to understand how such things could have occurred and in an endeavour not to become desensitized or numb to the terrible things that happen in the world. The news is always filled with so much brutality, it becomes too easy to lose sight of what it actually all means. I suppose they, along with wanting to learn more about the events of the time, were the main reasons I wanted to visit Auschwitz. Of course that said, I absolutely understand why it is a place that many would never visit – it isn’t an easy experience.

  9. Yes, from that standpoint, I can definitely see the interest – and I agree, it is fascinating…in an awful way! I guess, for me, living in Berlin, I just couldn’t do it. In addition, I cry easily and I think I’d bawl the whole way through. I’m going to read your Berlin post now – can’t wait!

  10. Pingback: K is for Krakow | storytelling nomad

  11. Thank you for your moving description of your visit. Until I read your words I thought that I could never bear to make that visit…. Now I think I will, simply out of remembrance and respect for family members forever lost to me.

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