Being a sensitive person especially affected when it comes to intense situations and the horrors of the past, I was sceptical and extremely nervous to visit Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, I knew the visit would be something I would most definitely not regret nor forget.
How right I was.
The solemn affair excursion trip began with heavy watching courtesy of a short film on the bus shot by soviet cameraman. The film made all the viewers sick to their stomachs, and ruined any sense of myself being mentally prepared to visit the site where such unimaginable horrors went on.
Pulling into Auschwitz I, pathetic fallacy was the only way to describe the weather. Amidst the weekend with mid 30°C heat, the site was clouded over. The statement Arbeit Macht Frei (work will make you free), was marked above the entrance. However, like the weather, I am sure no light was shed on the hopes of the prisoners trapped in the death camps.
I couldn’t even manage to flash a smile at other visitors under the circumstances, purely as a mark of respect for all those who endured a stay there. I wasn’t the only solemn visitor with the majority of others walking in silence and hanging off every word the tour guide uttered. The site, now a memorial, aims to educate visitors about the travesties of World War II to ensure such horrors are never repeated.
Today I visited #Aushwitz ….an eerie atmosphere, I could hardly speak on way round, but glad I paid my respects RIP to all the victims
— VICKY JONES (@VickyJones7) July 31, 2015
The entire place had an eerie feeling that raised the hairs on the back of my neck, leaving all tour visitors needing fresh air after exiting each building. I was constantly on edge, feeling like the doors would shut on me at any moment, and that I too would be made prisoner. I can’t even begin to imagine what went on in the heads of those being held captive.
The knowledgeable guide kept everyone engaged, and even us personal relatable stories, including one about an elderly man who gave up his life for another who was going to be starved to death after one of his room-(if you can call it that)-mates had escaped. This shows that even in terrible conditions, humanity still existed. The man survived to tell the tale.
The most difficult part for me was seeing all the suitcases that were originally filled with items the people grabbed under pressure with hopes of creating a new life elsewhere. Instead, they were led to the site, and forced to part with their possessions. This meant that the prisoners were not only left without their most treasured family heirlooms, but also simple necessities that would make life the tiniest bit more bearable.
Recently, reports of a newly found Nazi gold train have been given, and the finders have demanded a 10 per cent share of its contents. However, under the circumstances I disagree completely, and believe the items should go to survivors or the families of those most affected by the Second World War. Claim should not be allowed simply for finding the potential treasure that in no way, shape, or form ever belonged to them or their family.
Seeing the amount of glasses, prosthetic limbs, shoes, and children’s clothes got to me just as much, eventually forcing me to look away and swiftly exit.
The tour continued, with the guide taking us to a partially reconstructed gas chamber. Upon entering, a man in the tour group uttered a distasteful comment to his partner that gained him glares from the rest of the crowd who had their heads bowed out of respect for those who had died there. It shocked me to believe anyone could attempt humour in such a solemn place, especially when it was not funny in the first place.
It took a lot of courage for me to enter the building, and once inside all I could think about was the fact that I was standing in a spot where hundreds had stood before me before, and a room where tens of thousands, had died. It was not at all pleasant, and the eerie feeling increased ten-fold, along with a sickly feeling.
No more than 30 metres away from the gas chamber, in the suburbs of the death camp, lays the building that housed Rudolf Hoess’ (the site commander), his wife and his five children. How anyone could live so close to the atrocities is beyond me, never mind the absolutely shocking and extremely disturbing trivia that the wife stayed long after the commander left, knowing full well what was going on right outside her front door.
It’s safe to assume that I could not stomach any of my food when I got back onto the mini bus to travel the distance to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I took in the sheer size of the site with utter disbelief.
As you can see by the train track leading through the entrance (below), continuing straight to the gas chambers, Birkenau, dubbed the death camp, was built with efficiency in mind. It was sickening to view, especially when knowing the prisoners were in a sealed vessel and could not see what horrors they were heading straight towards. In a way, I suppose I would not want to see either. A similar sealed train carriage to what was used in the 1940’s was situated on the track, and the tour guide explained how many of its passengers travelling from afar did not survive the poor and claustrophobic conditions, meaning they were either disposed of en route or sent straight to the crematorium.
Surviving the journey, meant being judged on their health and ability to work by a quick glance from a Nazi doctor. People’s lives were put into his hands, and decided by a flick of a wrist. If the doctor saw them fit, they were forced to live in horrific conditions as well as work during the blistering summers and freezing winter temperatures, facing tortuous punishment for mere things such as going to the toilet at the wrong point during the day. This routine resulted in the majority becoming ill and being sent to the ‘hospital’, a crowded building where prisoners lay six to a bed, before being sent to be killed if they looked funny, took too long to recover, or showed no signs of being able to return to work. The whole treatment of the people in the camp was beyond inhumane. I still cannot believe that Hitler’s army went along with it.
Three of the four gas chambers and crematoriums were knocked down by the Nazi’s after hearing of the Soviet Soldiers liberation proposals. This was done in order to destroy the evidence of the horrors endured by the prisoners. Earlier, the fourth and final ones located at the site were destroyed by some of the Jewish prisoners who had to work on it, as a sign of rebellion. In hindsight, their efforts only helped the Nazi’s who had to make quick work of tearing them down. Regardless, I’m sure it gave them some level of satisfaction.
The area at the end of the railway tracks, central in reference to the larger gas chambers, has since being made into a memorial to honour the dead.
Lest we forget.
All in all, it was definitely an experience I could not muster the ability to repeat. However, courageous ex-prisoners visited shortly after their release to aid civilians in finding out the horrors that went on there, and eventually helped to create a full enough picture for it to become a memorial.
The entire visit was chilling, and as an emotionally exhausted sensitive soul I know it is something I could not ever repeat. None the less, it is a humbling experience everyone should have on their bucket-list in order to ensure such travesty never happens again.
In the current world climate with some countries, and people opposed and reluctant to taking in refugees, a powerful reminder of what happened at Auschwitz could do people good.
“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time” – Elie Wiesel