Voices from the ground – a journey to Auschwitz

All over the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide and the Holocaust. For a long time I have been intrigued with the Holocaust and the Nazi occupation of Europe during WW2. I do not possess a great deal of knowledge about world wars or have undertaken any study of them however I have taken an active interest in the Holocaust, even as a teenager. When I was studying media studies in my final year at school, one of the curriculum films was Schindler’s List. I remember as a 17 year old year 12 student, I went and saw this film at the cinema three times in a period of a month. First with a fellow student and then twice on my own.

There was no doubt in my mind that I would visit Auschwitz during my first trip to Eastern Europe.  There was no way I would come back to Australia without visiting this historic site. To me it would be like going to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. Therefore I made sure that a visit to Oswiecim, a medium sized industrial town about an hour outside of Krakow, Poland the home to two Nazi run concentration camps: Auschwitz (or Auschwitz I) and Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II), was a part of my itinerary in the year 2000.

Now I am certainly not writing this to glorify what happened at Auschwitz. Most reasonably, educated people should have an understanding or at least an awareness of this significant chapter in our world’s history. Many of us have heard of the horrific stories and the incredible tales of survival that have emerged from Auschwitz. But the recent 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, has inspired me to write this piece and after having personally visited this historic landmark, as brief as it was, I felt even more inspired.

I have visited several other concentration camps during my travels but no other was as emotionally intense as my visit to Auschwitz. Even though I had eagerly anticipated visiting the camp after all these years, I believe nothing can quite prepare you for the experience one will encounter when they make the pilgrimage to this sad but informative site. How could it not? Auschwitz was the largest of the German concentration and extermination camp facilities and more than a million people – the vast majority of them Jews – died there between 1940, when it was built, and 1945, when it was liberated.

Photo:EPA

The tour of Auschwitz I begins as visitors walk through the infamous gate that reads Arbeit macht frei, a German phrase that can be translated as “work liberates” or “work makes free”. Just the site of this inscription alone sent chills up the spine – a haunting forewarning of what lay beyond that point.

Once inside the camp, we were able to explore several of its buildings which display the museum’s collection of photographs, documents, and the personal items of prisoners. Be aware as these displays are very powerful insights.  They included hair, eyeglasses, shoes, luggage, and a display of children’s clothing in large, glass displays. The sheer volume and mounds of hair, glasses and shoes on display was extraordinary.

Here they are, still a pair, the husband standing on one side, wife and child on the other. There, elderly people: an old father and mother, already weak, opposite him. Brothers are standing and looking over to their sweet sisters. Nobody knows what will happen. But everyone can feel that some kind of selection is about to take place…
The mass is divided into three groups: women together with the children; boys and old men; and the third group, the smallest about 10 per cent of the transport. No one knows which group is better, safer. Everyone guesses that this is a selection for different kinds of work. Women and children for very light work, boys and old men for ordinary work. The third, the smallest group, with the ones who look fittest, must be destined for very hard work… From the notes of the Jewish inmate Zalmen Gradowski, found in the camp after the war.

As we sauntered along the dimly lit corridors, thousands of black and white photos of the inmates hung outside of the deserted rooms. No words were expressed or required as we absorbed the innocent, tormented faces and tragedies of each photo that still today are embedded into my soul. Individual mug shots of beaten, shaved inmates in black and white striped uniforms with the Star of David and their identification numbers sewn on the top, left hand side of their prison garment for full display. We then walked into a room where only the black and white mug shots of children were displayed. This, I remember with a heavy heart, was poignant. There was nothing to say to my fellow travel companions as the tears were streaming down some of our faces. The air was silent and solemn and one cannot help reflect on just how much we take our own lives for granted.  Suddenly all the pettiness and frivolousness in my life seemed irrelevant as an overwhelming wave of guilt and shame came over me.

Exiting the corridor we reentered the grounds of Auschwitz. Directly across from where were standing was Crematorium IV, the fourth of five buildings built by the prisoners for their own cremation. Two towering chimneys erected from the roof remained as we descended the stone steps into the chamber. Approximately eighty ovens lined the chamber, their capacity being able to hold three or four bodies at one time. In a twenty-four hour period almost two thousand gassed bodies were turned to ashes.(1)

Next to the crematorium ovens was a long, tiled room that resembled showers. They were intended to fool the prisoners into thinking that they were to take disinfecting showers. With only the entrance door and no windows, there was no escaping the gases that filtered down from the pipes. And I imagine no concrete wall could confine the tormenting screams that choked in the throats of the defenceless victims.

Walking back from the crematorium, we passed the infamous Block 11  – The Killing Wall where thousands of prisoners were executed. Today a memorial to those killed stands in front of the wall.  

Stories of mutilation, deprivation, starvation, experimentation and cremation were told to us as we entered the ground floor of Block 11, The Death Block – the only part of the camp buildings that are preserved in their original form. In these areas you can really begin to get a sense for what life must have been like for the prisoners. This block also housed the Gestapo Police Court which handed out thousands of death sentences. It was also in this building that the Nazis conducted their first experiment with the chemical Cyclone B for mass killings.

Birkenau is three kilometres away from Auschwitz. Upon arriving in Birkenau its differences from Auschwitz are easily seen. Birkenau has been left in the condition that the Nazis left it in as they fled. We went to the top of the guard tower that is at the entrance. I remember feeling disgusted at the site of a couple who were posing and smiling for the camera. It is at this point you get a real perspective of the size of the camp (about 425 acres) and can see the railway tracks that ran through the camp and were used for importing prisoners. This was also the area where the fate of the prisoners were decided –  chosen for work or for death.

Auschwitz is a place everybody should visit given the opportunity. You will no longer feel like a tourist in this foreign land, but far, far from home.

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~ by Shae on March 2, 2010.

3 Responses to “Voices from the ground – a journey to Auschwitz”

  1. Powerfully written Shae – I have not personally had the chance to visit these places yet, although I plan to in the next few years. I have read extensively on the Holocaust, but I think I need to see and feel for myself to truly understand how bestial and depraved mankind can be. May I recommend a book titled ‘For those I Loved’ – by Martin Gray – he was a survivor of the extermination camp at Treblinka, and I believe it is the most poignant book I have ever read. It is however, easy to think that the Holocaust was an isolated instance, perpetrated against one group of people…. The behaviour is not that uncommon – it simply has not been managed to be repeated on the same scale… ie; The Hutuu and Tutsi massacres in Rawanda, the so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Balkans. I would suggest that only limitations to the size and power of the participants reduced the scope of the carnage. Conflict between mankind is not unnatural – we are, after all imperfect creatures emotionally. However, I don’t think I will ever understand the motivation for genocide – the only one that comes to mind is pure, unadulterated evil. Your post has done justice to a tragedy that we tend to let slip from memory because it is just too horrible. My view is that to forget – is to set the scene for it to happen again. The civilised world has the responsibility to stand united against tyrants and criminals who perpetrate genocide, no matter what the cost. To do otherwise is to disgrace the memory of victims who have gone before – such as those who died at Auschwitz. There can be no half measures.

  2. I watched Schindler’s list only once, I could not face the sadness again. The same for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the Pianist which evoked the same incredible powerless feelings. Life is Beautiful was haunting and harrowing. I don’t know if we tend to forget or just prefer not to remember…

  3. As Steve said, we seemed to have forgotten. Cast our minds back to the 1990’s – Bosnia, Rwanda etc. And the world said it would never allow this to happen again!

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