The world is shit at the moment and it’s likely to be shit in the future, and it was most certainly shit in the past.
Sometimes, going on holiday can help you forget the usual 9-5, the growing dirty clothes chair, the loud neighbours and the deafening sounds of your alarm clock – but one of my latest trips was different. It was to Auschwitz.
“Why would you want to go there?”, “Isn’t that just… depressing?” and “Why don’t you just watch a documentary?” were just some of the questions asked when my family of three and I told of our plans to hop on a Ryanair flight to Krakow, Poland, for two nights and learn about the horror of World War 2. The answers: to educate, to remember, and to reiterate that extremist behaviour, discriminating attitudes and disturbing actions cannot repeat themselves, ever. And heck, no number of documentaries, film adaptions or books would’ve prepared us for facing the reality of Auschwitz. This was the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centres where over 1.1 million men, women and children innocently lost their lives.
‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’, translating to ‘work sets you free’ lined the gate which lead into the camp of Auschwitz 1. Rewind to 1940, the ironically cruel slogan mocked millions of prisoners as they walked through, never to return. Even today, no birds flew over the camp and no wildlife habituated the grounds as even they could sense the eerie past which haunts and hurts.
Standing in 35-degree heat, the suns beams hit as we stopped, looked and listened to our tour guide recall the sobering history. She recalled of the thick, heavy snow which would line the floor and the bitter cold that officers would use to add to the prisoners’ torture as they were forced to stand bare foot for over 24 hours straight. The guilt was overwhelming as one lady in our group complained of her flip-flop blister, and others asked their partners for a drink of overpriced bottled water.
It was however, the wall of photos which hit me. Hard.
Each post-camp relic which once ‘housed’ prisoners has been turned into museum exhibitions, although several had been kept in their original condition. One block was lined with photographs which left endless eyes staring back at us, there were rows upon rows of faces, all adorned in striped shirts and adapting to their freshly shaven heads. Sadness, despair and fear filled the eyes of those forced out of their homes, away from their families and to the camp by the SS. Having their photograph taken for identification purposes, was then the least of their worries.
Name upon name was listed beneath their photograph, alongside their previous occupations and then the date their train pulled up in Auschwitz 1 followed by the date they met their fate in murder. We were told how each person pictured was lucky to live two-three weeks and of the terrible conditions and fierce punishments they were likely to endure.
Auschwitz 1 displayed the hair off the heads of those killed in the gas chambers in room 5 of block 4: the hair of 140,000 victims. The twisted sick medical experiments of Dr Mengele were also revealed with his fascination of experimenting on twins, as were the punishments and execution methods enforced daily in block 11. Watch towers, prisoner belongings, and even the gas chambers where lives were taken as they believed they were to take a “shower” all teach of the brutal human imprisonment, slavery and homicide.
From Auschwitz 1, the tour heads to Auschwitz-Birkenau just 3km away – the twentieth century hell for over a million. No one spoke on the mini-bus; astonished by what we’d learned and saw, somewhat nervous for what to expect next. Arriving, it was the size of Auschwitz-Birkenau which struck me the most. In January 1942, the Nazi party launched the “Final Solution” with the sole purpose of Jewish extermination, leading to the opening of Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) later in the year – holding the largest prisoner population of all camps.
Attempting to extinguish evidence of the destruction of the camps, much of Auschwitz-Birkenau has been burnt and destroyed in hope to hide the cruel happenings which took place for years on end. But, we shall never forget. At the end of the train track which bought those to their torments and deaths lays a memorial where flowers lay and a plaque reads ‘forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazi’s murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.’
Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz-Birkenau are camps to remember and despite not being typical touristy stops – they’re places of importance and relevance which commemorate the victims and keep the memory alive.