My thoughts on the trip Hannah and I made to Auschwitz and Birkenau in 2009.
We arrived by bus from Krakow. It was a bright sunny day – one felt it would have been more appropriate to arrive in the cold and snow. We walked into the the museum, under the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” lie, and set off on our tour of the nightmare.
It was an uncomfortable mix of experiencing the shocking shell and echo of something, but without really being able to grasp or imagine what this very place would have been like a mere (normal) lifetime ago. Not that any of the poor people here had anything like a normal lifetime. The majority who arrived in the cattle trucks from across Europe were not allowed to live beyond the first day. Many others died of hunger, illness, cruelty or experimentation, or were shot for a small misdemeanor; for the audacity of wanting to be alive, free and treated with the minimum of respect and dignity.
We toured the camp, filing in and out of those of the 30 or so three-storey brick prison blocks and other buildings which were open for visitors, weaving round guided parties, reading words about planned and calculated inhumanity. We read the personal records of those murdered – their height, face shape, eye colour, type of ears – all documented and recorded assiduously and meticulously , as if they were recording plants in a garden.
The pictures were often even more disturbing. Around the corridors of the blocks were endless rows of head-and-shoulders black-and-white portraits of condemned men; wearing the striped uniform of convicts. A few looked defiant, some scared, the majority just blank. All had died in the camp, one way of another. A few had flowers tucked behind the frames by some future relative who had found their picture.
Of all the other photographs documenting the dreadful Nazi atrocities; three were particularly disturbing. One of a large crowd of Jews who had just been (literally) herded off the cattle trucks, with all their possessions, expecting to be resettled with their families, about to be separated and mainly murdered. The second was of three boys standing naked, the victims of Mendel’s experiments. They stood as uprightly as they could, with empty expressions, their genitals having been removed.
And finally a picture of some women showering, watched by a German guard, trying their best to preserve what little female dignity they could by covering themselves with their hands. I think it was the treatment of the women and children which horrified me the most and stripped away in my mind any last possible shred of humanity or compassion or courage their jailors could have been credited with.
These were the most totally evil of men. How could so many cruel and sadistic men have been found or groomed to perpetrate and seemingly revel in this physical and psychological torture? Was it pure fear of the consequences which drove them? Did they rationalise it all away in their minds as being against animals rather than humans? For years the Jews had been described as sub-human vermin to be evicted from the ayrean homeland. How did that ‘logic’ work with the Polish or other non-Jewish prisoners? How did that racism survive the cries and anguishes they heard and witnessed? Had they no compassion at all?
Or did they rationalise it by the fact if it was not them, it would be someone else? What has happened to these men who perpetuated this awful cruelty? Has the country which planned, authorised and encouraged it been fully cleansed of the real vermin within its own peoples? Could it have ever happened with Englishmen – were the German’s by nature so different? What would I have done as an SS guard in one of these camp I asked myself later in the day? I think I would have rather died.
We were both moved by the block containing the possessions of those thousands who were murdered in the gas chambers. A massive pile of grey-brown human hair stacked behind a glass front which had been found ready for dispatch when the Russians liberated the camp. You could smell it. It was wiry and dull with age and the only remains of those who were shaved of it moments before death. The piles of shoes and the smaller pile of poor little children’s shoes. All of the children were murdered on arrival, along with the pregnant women and their unborn babies. The pile of glasses – each having once sat on a nose and a face. The roomful of suitcase, each bearing a name and an address like a field of fallen tombstones. An enormous pile of prosthetic limbs which had been removed and kept. And so on and so on and so on.
There was one block which had been maintained as it was when used to stable the prisoners. Carpets of straw beds, rows of toilet pans (with of course no privacy) rooms of very basic showers. I touched the bricks of one block, conscious that they had been laid by men under the most extreme of conditions – cold, scared, hungry and incarcerated, having lost their family, wives, children, freedom and dignity.
How must they have felt as they lay in their beds, fighting to stay alive, struggling to appear healthy so as to avoid being “removed”, and with no prospect of escape beyond the electrified fences and gunners in sentry posts? No wonder some decided to deliberately throw themselves on these fences when they could take no more. But I guess the majority must have just decided to survive the best they could, keep out of trouble, and hope to avoid a random attack from an angry guard. And believe somewhere in their soul that someone out there one day would liberate them. Unfortunately for the vast majority, liberation came too late. And many were left to starve and die of cold after the Germans left, before the allies arrived.
Block 11 was called the death block. Inside the judges and juries of any prisoner’s alleged misdemeanors slept in comfortable beds in furnished rooms before waking to pronounce sentence around a table. The additional punishment could be incarceration in the cells of this prison block within a prison. Some were left to starve; shockingly some were locked in tiny cells with only a small hatch at their feet to stand all night, not knowing when they would be released. As one who suffers from some claustrophobia, this was too awful to imagine. Others were flogged on “specially designed benches”, or hung by their wrists for hours from the posts in the adjacent yard. Here in this yard was the “death wall” where many were shot. As elsewhere we were all asked to respect the place with silence. Most did. Here was the last sight of this world for so many.
But the most repulsive and shocking exhibit (the reality of which we were to see more of) was the reconstructed model of the gas chambers and crematoria. What hit me as I stared at this conveyer belt of death was both the awful depth of the inhumanity and the shocking and unimaginable extent – the sheer numbers of individual souls who were murdered. It is easy to quote the statistics – 1.5million homicides – but much less easy to imagine them – an entire city the size of Glasgow, a hundred towns as large as Shepshed. And impossible to grasp the fact that every single one was a person like you and me, with family, friends, hopes, fears, ambitions and the inalienable right to live in peace, security and freedom. Not to be herded like sheep into a room, made to strip, and then to breathe in cyanide until they died. And then to have our bodies and our memory disposed of in a crude incinerator.
Later we walked inside the remaining gas chamber on the site – ordinary rooms with no windows, one entrance and no exit. There were reconstructed furnaces with the trolleys they used to feed the bodies in; the smoke of death escaping through the tall chimney. Most of those killed were done so at Birkenau. But thousands had died here. As we left I said to Hannah “we were able to walk out”. They weren’t.
At the side of this chamber stands the gallows on which the camp commandant Rudolph Hess was executed after the war. One notable death for so many hundreds of thousands in this place is no justice.
We ate lunch and then took a taxi a mile up the road to the Birkenau camp.
Birkenau had a different feel but the same horror. Auschwitz is a compact site with buildings made entirely of red brick and mortar, each block being three storeys high. Birkenau occupies an area probably 5 times as big, with a mix of brick and wooden huts, all one storey high. Only about a quarter of these still survive, sat now in a fields of long grass, dissected by the infamous railway line, and fronted by the SS guard house with a high tower above the “Death Gate”. Here human beings would arrive, the vast majority guilty of no criminal offence, to be separated according to age, sex and apparent health. Most would continue their journey to annihilation in the gas chambers at the far end of the camp. The rest would be incarcerated in conditions we would not tolerate for farm animals.
We walked the extensive complex – less sanitised for visitors than Auschwitz. We could walk inside huts and see the shelves in the walls for four men each. It reminded me of the living conditions on the replica of the Mayflower we had seen in Boston. There was also a washroom with a hole in the ground. Again the whole site was guarded by electric fences, sinister looking lights and trigger-happy guards in tall buildings.
We walked up the railway line, and then into the west side of the camp, taking a detour down again to see Birkenau own” death block”, before going back up the length of the camp to the gas chambers.
This is where most Jews were systematically killed by the Nazis. We walked around the ruins – they were dynamited by the Germans before they evacuated the camp at the end of the war, in a vain attempt to cover their tracks. So all there is now are outlines of rooms and stacks of rubble. A little is now being done to preserve them, but one got the impression nothing had been done so far to keep these monuments of mass murder as a warning to future generations.
The men, women and children would descend the stairs into the sunken chambers. I stood at the top of the steps down into three of the chambers into which thousands had walked meekly and unwittingly to their deaths. There was a ribbon preventing you from following actually going in. I tried to imagine, but couldn’t. If there is a small solace, it is that they probably didn’t know what was happening to them and that the gassing was hopefully not too painful (I don’t know this though, and I’m not sure I want to check).
The final chamber in the top right hand corner of the site was not ribboned off so it was possible to walk through the outline of the rooms amongst the low layers of bricks. At the side of this one is a lake and memorial stones. A few roses had been placed at the water’s edge. This is where the ashes of thousands of victims had been deposited, literally without ceremony. Trees have grown on the far bank.
Between the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria is a monument to the Holocaust. To be honest we weren’t very impressed with it, but then what could possibly represent or symbolise the terror and horror of such a monster? People had left candles and plants and there was an inscription in many languages “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity”. Indeed.
The walk back to the gatehouse was a long one – all the way round two sides of the camp. We were tired, and hoped to cut across at various points, but couldn’t. So we came across at the front of the camp, which meant we were able to see and enter some of the few surviving wooden huts. It was hard to make out the conditions, save they looked like barns used to rear battery hens rather than places fit for human existence. Apparently it was in these huts that people were first placed in order to teach them the necessity of submission.
And so we left somberly and reflecting. We had seen the pictures, read the words, seen the shells of the camps. We had seen no emaciated and frightened prisoners, we hadn’t witnessed or experienced any of their pain, humiliation and terror, and we had left to return to our comfortable, secure and liberated lives. But if such a visit has made us a little more resolute in our humanity, more compassionate and understanding of others, more humble, more grateful and more determined to do the right things to hold back the excesses of evil in this world, then it was worthwhile. And if others leave feeling the same, then a small part of that unimaginable ocean of suffering may not be in vain.