The Auschwitz camps were the largest German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centres and around the world and the place has become a symbol of terror. I was unsure about whether I wanted to visit Auschwitz at first. However, there was a quote that really stood out to me; it summarised why my friend, Atlanta, and I made the right decision to go there:
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana.
This quote shows how it is important to be aware of what happened in Auschwitz. You can read books and watch documentaries about the place but it’s tricky to really gain an understanding of what happened there without visiting it for yourself.
It’s hard to put into words how I felt about the informative day. Some that immediately come to mind are: emotional, deflated, shocked, distressed, saddened, numb. I wasn’t sure whether to write a blog post about it or how I could ever choose the right words to express the horror that happened there. I knew this would be the most difficult post I’ve ever had to write. However, the quote by George Santayana helped me to realise that it is important for me, and others, to remember the tragedy. Therefore I have written below about some shocking things I learnt there.
(I did not take many pictures throughout the day as I wanted to respect the victims.)
We first visited Auschwitz I camp. This camp held over 16,000 prisoners, mainly Jews but also Poles, Gypsies and other ethnicities. All around the camp there were gates and barbed wire fences.
Inside the barracks were photos of the concentration camps. Our guide told pointed out the expressions on the people’s faces. They had no idea they were walking towards their death. These photos were probably taken hours or minutes before their deaths.
We also saw pictures taken by the guards. No one knows why this happened as the Germans were so keen to hide the evidence of Auschwitz.
There were various exhibitions showing people’s belongings such as their suitcases and shoes. The most haunting of the exhibitions was a mountain of human hair. Prisoners had to have their heads shaved before going into the gas chambers. Much of their hair was sent back to Germany to be used to make clothes and other such things. Even after this there was a mountain of hair still left. It helped to put into perspective the number of victims at Auschwitz. It was harrowing to see.
We saw a wall where mass executions took place, known as the ‘death wall’.
We observed set ups of the rooms in which people used to sleep in. At first they slept on hay. Then this turned to mattresses. And eventually bunk beds were bought in. There could be up to three people on one mattress. We heard about the brutal conditions in which they used to live with little food and wearing the same clothes for 6 months with no washing.
Along the walls were people’s names and numbers. Our guide told us to pay attention to the dates people arrived and the dates they died. Most people didn’t last longer than a year with the poor conditions. One person I noticed survived for only 6 days.
We went inside a gas chamber where so many lost their lives. Words can’t describe the feeling of walking in there.
Auschwitz I wasn’t big enough to hold all the prisoners so they built a second camp: Birkenau (Auschwitz II) which is where we visited next. This camp held over 90,000 prisoners. Around 90% of prisoners over the Auschwitz camps died at Birkenau, around 1 million people.
There was a train track that ran directly into the camp for fast transportation of the Jews. They were herded like cattle, nothing like the human beings in which they were.
When the Jews arrived they were split into males and females. For nearly everyone, this was the last time they would see their loved ones. They would have had no idea whether they would die or survive.
The prisoners stood in a line and approached a man. This one man made a decision based on how they looked whether they would go left or right. Those that looked healthy and strong would go one way. They would live and work, for a while. Those who looked weak, for example the elderly, pregnant women and children would go the other way. To the gas chambers. To their death. One man made the decision on life and death. One man.
I remembered back to the photos we saw at Auschwitz I of people walking towards the gas chambers with no idea of what lay ahead of them. The children’s faces so innocent.
At the end of the train line is a Holocaust memorial with the following plaque:
We saw the gas chambers that the Nazis burnt down. Our guide told us a story of one of the prisoners who was removing dead bodies from the gas chamber, only to be faced with his wife. Another prisoner was guiding people to the gas chambers (it was the prisoners who had to do the dirty work). He saw his mum. He told her not to worry and that they were going to registration, and then he walked into the gas chamber with her.
We were by the spot which had the greatest human mass extermination in history. It was truly harrowing.
The prisoners who were doing the work Nazis didn’t want to do rarely lived longer than six months. This is because the Nazis didn’t want the word spreading to the general population about what was actually happening at the camps.
At the end of the tour a man in our group told us of how his dad survived Auschwitz. His dad arrived there when he was only 16. Seeing this man get emotional reminded me of how recent this horrific event really was and that not only has it effected it’s victims, but it will effect generations to come.
There was also an Auschwitz III camp but most of the evidence here was destroyed by the nazis in the hope to cover up what they’d done.
There are so many more shocking things I learnt this day. The ones I’ve written above are the ones that stood out the most to me. To those unsure about visiting, I think it’s critical that you do. I would be lying if I said the visit wasn’t difficult. Even writing this was terribly emotional. However, I think it is important to remember the horrors of the past and how far human cruelty can go, in the hope that it will never happen again.