I visited Auschwitz during the winter on a bitterly cold February day. Crunching through the deep, freshly fallen white snow I arrived at the gated entrance to Auschwitz 1. Above the gates are the words, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, which translate as ‘Work Brings Freedom’ – a chilling welcome and reminder of the cynical cruelty facing all those who came here unaware of their fate. A few crowds of people had started to arrive and were about to embark on guided tours but having decided beforehand that experiencing what survives of Auschwitz was something I felt I needed to do alone, I moved away and began exploring on my own. Though many years have passed since the horrors and atrocities that took place here in the same place my two feet were standing, I felt proud that humanity had not forgotten what took place here and that people across the world still come in their thousands each year to see it for themselves. Some come with painful family memories or stories, others like children and students come to learn, and many others come to pay their respects or simply to witness with their own eyes the horrors that human beings are capable of. I belong to the latter category and having now seen with my own two eyes the ruins of gas chambers and crematoria and walked on ground where people were killed by firing squad, I would encourage anyone who has the means to try to come here at some point during the course of their lives.
Auschwitz 1 is a maze of camp blocks and barracks, all surrounded by barbed wire and overlooked by overbearing guard towers. The site was originally a Polish military camp but when the Nazis arrived they turned it into a prisoner’s camp. Several of the blocks can be explored inside. As you move through the blocks, you are surrounded by floor to ceiling glass-fronted collections of personal belongings that have survived of those men, women and children who were sent to Auschwitz to perish. Among the possessions are 3,800 suitcases, 40kg of spectacles and 110,000 shoes. Another room holds two tons of human hair; in this room people were visibly upset by what they were witnessing and moved swiftly through to the next room which was filled with more personal artefacts. It was here at Auschwitz 1 where the first camps were opened and where the Nazis carried out executions and conducted experiments on prisoners.
As I walked up the steps into Block 11, also known as the ‘Death Block’, I felt anxious knowing something distressing must have taken place inside. I quickly discovered that inside these four walls prisoners who the camp gestapo suspected of carrying out clandestine activities like attempting to escape, making contact with the outside world or organising mutinies were held. Those who were unlucky enough to be brought to Block 11 would be endure brutal interrogation and torture before being put to death, usually by firing squad in the adjacent walled yard.
Some prisoners were put to death by starvation by being kept in dark cells for days or weeks at a time. Others, like the Sonderkommando (the special unit of prisoners who were forced to cremate bodies) who were housed here for a time, were confined to standing punishment cells in the basement of the block. Peering inside four tiny cells no bigger than 1 square metre wide, it was impossible to fathom how four standing prisoners could possibly have survived in each one night after night with their only source of air being a 5x5cm opening covered with a piece of metal. Block 11 was also where the SS carried out experiments with Zyklon-B, the lethal insecticide which led to the mass killing of millions of Jews and other groups considered to be inferior including Roma, physically and mentally disabled people, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political prisoners and those involved in the resistance. In 1941, during 3-5 September, 600 Soviet POWs and 250 Polish political prisoners were selected from the camp infirmary to act as guinea pigs for the experiments.
Leaving Auschwitz 1 where tattered, wooden skull and cross bone posts dotted around the perimeter of the camp threaten anyone who dares to wander too close to the barbed wire to ‘halt’, I travelled to what remains of Auschwitz-Birkenau just a short taxi or bus ride away.
I was not prepared for what I encountered when I walked through the gates of Auschwitz Birkenau. My eyes followed the train tracks as they led up to the gates, through the gatehouse entrance and continued into the camp into the bleak distance. I walked along the tracks, the same ones that brought countless deportations of people in cattle wagons each carrying over 1,000 people to the camp. My thoughts were of families being torn apart, many never to be reunited. While some people who were fit and strong to work were spared until disease or malnourishment took their lives, the majority of people were immediately taken to the gas chambers, the remnants of which can be seen as you wander around the site.
“The first to perish were the children, abandoned orphans, The World’s best, the bleak earth’s brightest. These children from the orphanages might have been our comfort. From these sad, mute, bleak faces our new dawn might have risen” (Auschwitz Birkenau).
I could see others around me walking the tracks in the same solemn silence. Auschwitz-Birkenau sits on 200 hectares of ground – a vast expanse of space that was blanketed in thick snow brought by the bitter Polish winter. Late afternoon was drawing in and the temperature dropped so much so that I could feel the icy air slowly penetrating through six layers of warm clothes and three pairs of socks to reach my bones. My fingers and toes were starting to suffer in the freezing temperatures – it was minus 10 that day. I had come prepared for these conditions, but I found myself unable to comprehend the perishing conditions that all those human beings just like me faced wearing nothing but thin, striped pyjamas and wooden clogs.
Approximately 1 million European Jews were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Walking around all that can be seen are the remnants of gas chambers and crematoria and what is left of the barracks which housed so many prisoners. In 1944 over 100,000 prisoners (Jews, Poles, Roma and others) were here, housed in just 300 wooden barracks. Look out posts still stand tall – haunting reminders of the guards who once watched over the prisoners’ every move.
After a while the people drifted away, the coaches departed, and I was the last person left. In that moment I felt quite uneasy with nothing but the shrill sound of icy air hissing past my ears to be heard; but despite its eerie, bleak disposition Auschwitz-Birkenau was captivatingly peaceful. An extraordinary sense of calm filled the air, and everything became very still. Nothing moved, nothing sounded – not even the birds.
I am one person out of millions who has visited Auschwitz and millions who are yet to come. My experience almost certainly mirrors what others have seen and felt but one thing I am sure of is that I took home a very unique gift from my visit; a gift from the trees in the forest which still stand, the ground which is etched with the footsteps of those who perished here and the evidence of persecution that remains. The gift cannot be extracted from books or films because it is simply the gift of hope which comes from every visit to Auschwitz. This hope is shared between all those who make the journey here as a reminder that if humanity can survive something so hauntingly horrific, there is hope for future generations. Through young and old making the journey to Auschwitz now and in the future, we will have a greater understanding of what human beings are capable of if we allow hatred and discrimination of others to be tolerated.
“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.” Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945
Six million people lost their lives during the holocaust, a statistic I like so many others find too overwhelming to ever begin to comprehend. Through concentration and extermination camps, ghettos and mass-shootings, those six million lives were taken prematurely – persecuted for no other reason than being born as a member of the human race – just like everyone else. On this day, 27th January, now known as Holocaust Memorial Day, in 1945 Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi’s killing camps. Holocaust Memorial Day remembers the six million people who lost their lives during this dark period of our history, as well as the lives that have since been lost or altered forever in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
The words of Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor whose words are etched for the world to read at Auschwitz-Birkenau should forever be remembered;
“I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented”.