We stand beneath the infamous entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp, about to enter the site of the darkest part of human history. An overweight man coughs and spits on the floor. A group of schoolchildren laugh and giggle. I dont even try to hide my disapproval. I am stone faced, struggling to process exactly what happened here, to picture the history of the place, to imagine the terror that must have gripped those who once stood where I do at this moment.
On a sunny Polish day, with groups of tourist groups and gift shops, it is hard to imagine. I, like most, am aware of the basic facts of the Holocaust and of Auschwitz, but from a comfortable western upbringing, the reality of the horror is so far removed that it is unimaginable in the fullest sense. In school we learn statistics, facts, dates, but they stay as just statistics, facts and dates. On screen we may see some harrowing recreations, but again, they stay as mere recreations. Standing beneath those three words, you immediately know:
This is it.
This is real.
This is not just a number on a page of a textbook.
This is the ground, the buildings, the fences, upon which hundreds of thousands of men, women and children faced unimaginable terror, torture, starvation and death.
This is Auschwitz.
Even as I enter and walk through the main courtyard, I still feel detached, I still struggle to picture what went on here.
This changes immediately upon entry to the first building.
The first is dedicated to the process of transport and selection that the victims were subject too upon their arrival. The large picture on the wall shows a train platform, the man in the centre pointing left, telling the elderly gentleman to join the larger of two lines. The guide explains, that the able bodied were sent to the work line, while the elderly, weak, women and children, some 80% of arrivals, were sent to their death immediately.
I suppose, until that moment, you don’t really think much about the children. In that second it hits you. Of course children were sent to their deaths too, again, by the hundreds of thousands.
It is upsetting, but I have seen these pictures before, my thoughts are with the children or specifically, how any one group of people can ever get to a point by which they can believe that slaughtering hundreds of thousands of children is the moral course of action.
The second building is dedicated to the industry surrounding the deaths here and is perhaps the most surreally dark of all that one sees on a visit.
Of course, upon arrival, all valuables were plundered, but most were sold or burned when the Nazis fled the camp. Nothing can prepare you, however, for the evil calculation that must have gone into the subject of the next display. Unfortunately, it is one of but a few places where out of respect, photography is not allowed. It is a room, about 40ft in length and 14ft high. It is split down the middle by a glass partition. On one side, me, the visitor, and on the other, a mountain of human hair. Still visible are braids and plaits, greys, browns and black. As unsettling as it is, looking at the hair of some 20,000 massacred human beings it is not until you learn the reason behind it, that the disgust really takes hold.
Before entering the gas chamber, all heads were shaved. The hair was then taken and shipped to several different companies, who would use it to make material for all kinds of purpose. The shock of this calculated, mechanised aspect of the events here is staggering. That the killing machine built here, was so ruthlessly efficient, that they found ways to offset the cost, by recycling human by-products for profit.
Appalled and reeling from what I had seen and learned in the second building, it was the third that delivered the killer blow.
The third building, is dedicated to the scale, showing Items taken from victims before their deaths.
The pictures that follow speak for themselves.
As harrowing as these are, the shoes, suitcases, glasses and prosthetics here are only the ones taken from the last few groups to arrive here before the camps liberation. In numbers, that means that there are roughly 20,000 pairs of shoes on display in the above picture. That is 20,000 of over 1 Million.
This portion of the visit is rounded off with the real canisters of Zyklon-B gas, used in the gas chambers. A method of killing that is in equal measures, horrifically efficient and horrifically painful. Horrifically efficient in that it meant that at the Treblinka camp, just 30 guards could be responsible for the massacre of 800,000 people. Horrifically painful as it was not a quick, painless death, like a bullet or injection, nor was it a slow, euphoric demise as in other gasses like Carbon monoxide. Rather, it was an agonising 15 minute death asphyxiation, which invariably included emptying bowels, profuse vomiting and incomparable fear, as for the 15 minute eternity, you would know your fate, and through vomiting and diarrhea have nothing but to try to comfort your loved ones or children and pray death would come soon.
While reeling from the displays of scale, the visit continues with more individual stories, compounding the images above with real faces, real stories and real pain.
I visit prison cells, standing punishment chambers, the execution wall and gallows. Then on to Block 10, the workshop of the infamous Dr Mengele, who tortured children in sadistic medical experiments.
I have found the entire experience to this point to be an utterly surreal one. There is no way that I can process this amount of pain, suffering and evil in a few hours. Looking around, I can tell that most others react in the same way, no one cries, men look stone faced and women shake their heads and occasionally gasp. Everyone looks, like I imagine I do, confused. Confused trying to process everything that we have witnessed, confused trying to process the numbers, trying to comprehend what we have seen and heard and above all else, asking why?
Why this was allowed to happen?
Why any single person would want this to happen?
Why a population would rally behind this happening?
Why a man, would stand amongst his friends and peers and march thousands of innocent women and children to their deaths?
Against the ropes, mind swimming in a mix of confusion, depression and anger, Auschwitz was about to finish me. The last stop on the tour was the gas chamber itself.
It’s a unique experience, to stand in a room, not much bigger than your garage at home, and know that hundreds of thousands of people took their last breath here. Nail marks on the wall are so fresh that they could have been made yesterday and for a small second, you fear that the doors are about to close behind you, that the room will carry out its grim duty once more.
I suppose, it is the image, learned when hearing about the Zyklon-B earlier, that haunts you the most as you stand in that room. The so-called “pyramid of bodies”. At the end of each execution, bodies would be found in a pyramid, with the strongest on the top, and the weakest on the bottom. This was a result of the weak dying first, collapsing to the floor, while the stronger were able to clamber up their deceased friends, to gasp cleaner air from the ceiling. Eventually, however, they would all die and the result would be a macabre triangle of bodies and a new set of nail marks in the wall, left as if grabbing something solid would help hold on to life.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau
With a brief interlude; 20 minutes to allow all I had seen so far to process, we were to resume with the larger, perhaps more iconic camp – Birkenau. I doubt that there is one building in the world, as simple, as unspecial, yet as recognisable as the entrance to this camp.
When the officers and soldiers here got wind of the fact that the Russians were coming to liberate the camp, they took to destroying most of it. This is a fact that I find particularly disturbing, as it means that they must have known that what they were doing was wrong. If anything is an argument against a universal, or inbuilt moral code, it is the events that happened here but the only way that I had managed to comprehend how men could be so evil, is to imagine that swept up in propaganda and the cultural norm, shrouded in the safety cloak of “following orders” and truly believing that those whom they were exterminating were evil, they were able to carry out their orders. If any of this was the case though, why would they have destroyed the most incriminating evidence of their crime? If they believed what they were doing was the ethically correct course of action, then why be in such a hurry, to make sure that no trace of it existed?
Moreover, by destroying the evidence, or parts of it, as soon as they got a scent of the fact that people were coming, it acknowledged that they must have known all along, that what they were doing was wrong. To me, that is the most disturbing fact of all. Knowing that men killed millions, confidently in the knowledge that what they were doing was wrong.
I was immediately back to asking Why? perhaps now, with the addition of How?
This is what remains of the Main two Gas chambers at the Auschwitz Birkenau Camp:
Most of the barracks, although left in tact by the Germans, were dismantled by the Russians to give wood and building materials back to the communities and homes that had been torn apart to build the camp. As a result, all that stands now, to give the scale of the main camp here, is the brick chimneys of hundreds of wooden cabins.
The last and final portion of the visit, related to the living conditions of those in the camp, with visits to the last few buildings that were left intact. Below, the completely original bunk house, this one for women designated temporary spots in the camp, before most were sent to their fate in the gas chambers.
These tiny, three tier, wooden bunks were the home to 15 women at a time, 5 on each level.
With more of an element of competitive brutality, was the much more common mens bunk. The smaller, wooden framed bunks were home to just three people per level, with the strongest on the top, and the weakest on the bottom. The reasoning behind this being that due to the unsanitary living conditions and terrible diet, workers here would be in an almost constant state of diarrhea. I’m sure from there, you can work out why, being on the top bunk would be a massive benefit.
With that, and with my mind swimming in a plethora of mind-alteringly depressing facts and the real life place in front of me to back them up and shatter any detachment that I may have been able to cling to in the past, I had seen as much as I could take. As the low winter sun set over the remains of the camp, I stopped to take a few last pictures, engrossing myself in ISO and aperture settings to try and detach myself once more from this place and horrific things that our species is capable of.
If I was to offer a final thought, it is that I believe that it should be compulsory to visit Auschwitz, as surely one must learn what the species is capable of, as the only way to ensure we can learn from and leave these mistakes as but numbers, statistics and dates in the pages of history books.
A century before Hitler, the German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) predicted: “Where one burns books, one will, in the end, burn people.” ‘Book-burning campaigns took place in Berlin and other German cities between March and June 1933, with senior academics and university students incinerating books deemed to contain “un-German” ideas. Less than 9 years later, Auschwitz opened, and less than 3 years after that, around 1.1 million had been gassed and burned here.
I only hope, that through real education, we can make sure that anyone ignorant enough to be intolerant of others beliefs, will be able to see what went on here and what, at all costs we must stop from happening again. I still think that too many people in our time are burning books.