It would be hard to go to Poland and learn about it’s history without visiting some of the sites of what can only be described as one of, if not the worst crimes against humanity in modern history. Lets not sugar-coat it. The Hallocaust was a disgusting display of human arrogance and Auschwitz was at the heart of so much of this suffering.
It violated every human right. Men, women and children were murdered because of their religion, the colour of their skin or even because of a disability as small as wearing glasses. I have found it hard to put into words everything that I learnt about and saw at these camps as a lot of what happened was so indescribably cruel, but I feel it is important that we don’t forget what happened to these people.
We took a coach from Krakow to the camps, which is about an hour of travel. During the journey we were shown a video that gave some background about the Nazi regime in Poland and how they ran the Auschwitz camps. We were all so focused on this video that the journey flew by and in no time at all we were parked outside Auschwitz. Before we got off the coach we were told that we couldn’t take large bags into the camps for security reasons, so any bag bigger than a clutch had to be left behind. So if you are thinking of visiting, don’t take a large backpack.
There are a network of camps that make up Auschwitz; Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkeneau, Auschwitz III-Monowitz and other satellite camps. As Auschwitz-Monowitz no longer exists, we started our tour at the smaller of the two other camps, Auschwitz I. I’m not going to lie, as we passed the security point and were led to the front gate of Auschwitz I felt nervous. No one is sure what they can expect to be behind the masses of barbwire and I don’t think I was at all ready to hear some of the facts that I was to learn over the next few hours.
We walked under the gate with the infamous lie “Albeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free) and there was a strange silence that swallowed us all – from this point nobody but the tour guide really talked. One of the first things we learnt was that these camps were built in Poland because about 3/4 of the world’s Jewish community lived here and so were easier to access for the Nazis than if the camps were to be built in Germany!
We were led round blocks and learnt how prisoners were transported from ghettos to Auschwitz, how they were selected, removed of any thing that they bought with them, given their uniforms and sent to work or to be killed. Each of these blocks are now used to exhibit what was found at this camp when it was liberated. Some of the blocks are kept exactly the same as they were to show living conditions or prison cells. For example, Block 10 was originally used for horrific medical experiments and a few of the blocks housed the items that were taken from people as they arrived at the camps.
These blocks in particular really effected me. The first collection you walk past is tonnes upon tonnes of human hair. Hair that was shaved involuntary from the heads of prisoners, put into bags and sent to Germany to sell on so that they could get money back to fuel the running of the camps. Other personal items were stolen from these people as they entered the camps including suitcases, pots and pans, clothes, shoes and glasses. As we walked from room to room seeing these possessions piled high it really was hard to not feel emotional. Amongst these personal items you could occasionally see a small curl hidden in the matted hair or a small child’s shoe amongst the thousands of larger black and brown shoes or a date of birth on luggage that sharply brought home the cruelty of what the Nazis were doing, even to young children and babies.
For me one the most chilling part of the Auscwitz I tour was the corridor which was lined with photos of prisoners. To see the faces of the people who were here and had to live through this hell was heartbreaking. On these images were dates of when the prisoners entered the camp and their death date. One man only lived for one day. At this camp prisoners were either hung, sent to the gas chambers or the execution wall. To even stand in the same room where these atrocities took place was extremely emotional, especially the confined space of the gas chambers and the execution wall which we learnt saw the murder of one of the youngest prisoners, a 2 month old baby. The execution wall is now a small memorial where people have placed flowers and notes. It would have been nice if we could have had time here during the tour to pay our respects to those who lost their lives here.
My friend mentioned that there is a myth that no birds over Auscwitz and I can see why. Nothing between the barbwire walls is really living. It would have been a cruel act of God to send birds to fly freely over the camp, mocking those inside who could not escape.
The second camp, Auschwitz-Birkeneau is a lot larger than the first camp and is roughly the size of a small town. This camps was all built by the Nazis, whereas the other two were already existing barrack locations and factories. Birkenwau was known as the camp where the most murders were made. The disgusting reality is that the Auschiwtz camps were not only labour camps, but were death factories. Some of those transported here didnt even make it to the barracks as they were seen as not being strong enough to work and were sent straight to the gas chambers. So many people died at this camp that our tour guide mentioned that there were so many people burnt here that are still ashes that float around the grounds.
As you walk along the train tracks and into the camp you are bought onto that unloading platform where these sections were made. The platform is so long that thousands of people a day must have been sorted and you can’t even start to think about to what scale the Nazis were working to.
Our tour took us along the whole of the platform, past the hundreds of barracks and up to the location where the two largest gas chambers at Auschwitz were blown up by the Nazis to try and over up what they had really been doing at these camps. The rubble of these chambers still remains and hasn’t been touched since the end of the war so you can still see the difference sections of the chambers where prisoners were sent in underground and never came out. A lot of this camp was destroyed by the Nazis before the end of the war and so there isn’t as much to see at this camp.
From here we were taken down a very muddy path to some of the barracks where women prisoners would have been kept. We witnessed the living conditions that these women would have endured and it was horrific. They would have slept on three different levels, only separated by wooden panels. Many of the prisoners would have been ill and so our tour guide said the best level to have slept on was the top, so that nothing would drop on you as you slept.
After visiting these living conditions our hour at the second camp was over. I still didn’t know how to feel now that I had walked round the camps and seen everything that I had only been able to read about before. I honestly think I have come away with more questions as to how this sort of thing was allowed to happen, than when I entered. The journey home on the coach was very quiet. Some slept, some reflected and others were just silent. It is a lot to take in in one day and very emotionally tiring.
We booked a guided tour for our visit against the advice of many other travellers. But now I see why. Everything that our guide said was informative and insightful but it wasn’t anything that the information boards around the sites couldn’t have told us. We had 1hr40 at the first camp which personally wasn’t enough time to see everything that we wanted to see as well as take in everything that was being shown to us. I would have liked a little more time to reflect and pay my respect to those who lost their lives here. It was all a little rushed and we didn’t get to go in all of the buildings that were open to the public, which, if like me you don’t plan on going back was a little frustrating.
I know I will never return to these camps, it was just something that I felt I needed to witness in remembrance of the millions who lost their lives; because all these horrific things really happened not even 100 years ago.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana