Not for the first time, I asked myself if I should be visiting Auschwitz. The apprehensive mood inside the minibus from Kraków cloaked us like a shroud. Driving rain from an ash-grey sky beat a staccato rhythm on the windshield, which increased in tempo as we approached the former death camp.
“I watched The Pianist last night to get into the mood,” shared Katerina from Athens. Beside her, Athanasius, her husband, intermittently hummed an unknown tune.
Stepping outside at Auschwitz it was cold. Bitterly cold. The sort of cold that penetrated my down coat, woollen gloves and warm boots. But, in a strange way, that felt fitting. Standing in front of the concentration camp where an estimated 1.1 million people perished, 90% of thew Jews, the bleakness of the day brought home the reality of the Holocaust in a way that no book or film ever could. The outside chill matched that slowly creeping up my spine.
Visiting Auschwitz I: Work will set you free
We enter Auschwitz I under the twisted iron of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate – work will set you free. Whilst it has a cruelly symbolic status, only a small proportion of the estimated 1.3 – 1.5 million prisoners who entered the concentration camp passed under this gate.
Auschwitz was, in fact, a collection of camps. Auschwitz I, a former Polish Army barracks, had its first intake of political prisoners in June 1940. However, Hitler’s murderous intent knew no bounds. Thus, in 1941, to increase the camp’s capacity from 30,000 to 100,000, Auschwitz II – Birkenau was built, 3km northwest of Auschwitz I. It was here that the majority of Jewish prisoners died.
Once through this infamous gate, we are greeted with a series of perfectly preserved red-brick barrack buildings, neatly spaced in rows. Some of these are largely untouched, frozen in time. The remaining buildings house exhibitions displaying a total of 80,000 artefacts remembering the lives lost during the Holocaust.
Block 5 – Material Evidence of Crime
In Block 5 we walk past a case piled high with shoes of every conceivable style, from work boots to flowery summer sandals, the type of fancy footwear that you might wear on a day trip to the beach.
A tangled mass of eyeglasses, weighing a total of 40 kg, peer out at us from another case. Behind a glass wall running the length of one room are seven tonnes of human hair, shaven from victims before or after death. In life, this mass of hair would have been a spectrum of colours. Over time, it has faded to a uniform dull grey.
Documentary photos show no evidence of distress as Jews awaited transfer to Auschwitz. There is a good reason for this. Unaware of the fate that awaited them, the Jews believed that they were being relocated.
This is evident from other exhibits in Auschwitz’s Museum. There are hundreds of suitcases, neatly labelled with their owner’s name. Displayed in another case are kitchen utensils, colour-coded in keeping with Kosher law, never again to be used in the preparation of a family meal.
Block 11 – The jail
The infamous Block 11 housed the administrative offices of Auschwitz and was the central jail for prisoners across the camp complex. Here, prisoners were punished and tortured in regular, dark or standing cells.
Standing cells were a particularly cruel form of punishment. Each cell was a space measuring less than one square meter and the only source of air was a 5 square centimetre opening covered by a metal grille. Prisoners could be confined here from one night up to several weeks.
In the courtyard between Block 11 and Block 10 is the so-called Wall of Death. Thousands of prisoners met their fate here, lined up in front of a firing squad.
Opposite the entrance to Block 11, you can see two unremarkable wooden posts. From here, prisoners were hanged from each hand tied behind their back. A barbaric form of punishment.
Twice a day, at 4.30 am (5.30 am in the winter) and 7 pm, prisoners assembled in Auschwitz’s central ‘square’ for roll-call. They were counted, and if the numbers didn’t tally the roll-call would be prolonged. There is one 19-hour roll-call on record.
Winters in Poland in the 1940s were harsh and lows of –25 degrees were not unheard of. Many perished during these head-counts. As the number of prisoners increased, eventually roll-call was conducted in front of individual barracks.
The gas chamber
The remaining gas chamber at Auschwitz is easily the most chilling area of the former concentration camp. For a truly spine-tingling moment look upwards. Light struggles to peek through the small holes in the roof, into which the Nazis poured deadly Zyklon.
The entire Auschwitz complex had seven gas chambers and five crematoria. Prior to the liberation of the camp, the Nazis blew most of these up. However, in their haste to destroy any incriminating evidence, this gas chamber was overlooked as it had been converted into an air-raid shelter in 1943.
Documenting arrivals at Auschwitz
However, avoiding the gas chamber was no guarantee of surviving Auschwitz. This is evident from the rows of photographs displayed in the museum.
Until 1942, guards documented an image of each new prisoner. Under each haunting image is the person’s name, nationality or ‘status’ (for example; “Jew”), occupation, date of arrival at Auschwitz and date of death. For most of these people, there is only a small gap between these two dates.
Visiting Auschwitz II – Birkenau
The size of Auschwitz II – Birkenau reflects the scale of Hitler’s murderous ambition. Less of a museum and more of a memorial, Auschwitz II – Birkenau is 20 times the size of Auschwitz I.
The remains of its structures, including its 300 mostly wooden barracks, have been left untouched. These include a pile of rubble that was a gas chamber and Crematorium IV. Unlike the other crematoria at Auschwitz, this was not blown up by the Nazis. Instead, it was burnt down during a mutiny led by the Sonderkommandos earlier in 1944.
The Unloading Ramp: Where dreams began to die
For me, the most moving section of Auschwitz II – Birkenau was the unloading ramp. Here, the cattle-cart transport unloaded its human cargo at the terminus of their long, arduous journey. With a swift flick of his finger, the SS Commander decided how would live and who would die on that day.
Only those deemed to be useful – invariably the young and fit – avoided the gas chamber. Their ‘reward’ was a sentence of forced labour and existence in appalling conditions.
It was at the unloading ramp that dreams began to die. Dreams of a new home. Dreams of a new life. Dreams of meeting children and grandchildren yet to be born.
Why you should visit Auschwitz
After liberation, the original intent was to raze Auschwitz to the ground and, along with it, the evil that had resided there. However, yielding to overwhelming pressure from its freed prisoners, this decision was reversed. Instead, it has been preserved as a memorial to those who perished there.
The first tour groups were taken around Auschwitz in 1947. Their guides were former prisoners.
But Auschwitz is not only a place to remember and honour the victims of the Nazis’ genocide. Its buildings silently stand as witnesses to the atrocities that took place there between 1941 and 1944, a warning to humans not to repeat the horrors of the past. However, more recent genocides suggest that humankind is not fully capable of learning these lessons.
I have seen the statistics and visited the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. I have read more than one book on and the subject, seen more than one film. But it wasn’t until I visited Auschwitz that I could fully appreciate and understand the scale of these atrocities. Somehow it made the horror of the Holocaust more real, more visceral.
Ultimately, a visit to Auschwitz is a profoundly moving experience. Documentary images of those who perished stare out at you, frozen at that moment in time. Their collected belongings – pots and pans, suitcases, footwear, combs and brushes, tins of hair pomade – declare their belief that they were moving to a different life.
However, the most moving moment came right at the end of my visit. As we were exiting Auschwitz II – Birkenau, we passed a group of young Israeli visitors. To the haunting strains of John Williams’ theme from the film Schindler’s List, they wordlessly entered the camp, arms wrapped around each other in collective grief and solidarity.
Not for the first time that day, I fought back tears.