16 September – The World’s Biggest Cemetery
I normally consider this blog to be my chance to let people know what I get up to behind the scenes being a professional idiot. Basically, I don’t think you’d expect me to be posting about something as horrific as Auschwitz. But having visited the place today, I feel like I have to. Especially since our guide asked us to tell people what we saw.
Having studied the Second World War in some depth at school, a trip to Auschwitz seemed necessary considering we were staying in Krakow on our day off, so the AOTP team and I took our bus out of the city, through the now familiar flat and nondescript Polish countryside, to the world’s most horrific tourist destination.
Standing around in the car park waiting for your tour to begin you are aware that this is probably going to be pretty hard going, but I don’t think anything can prepare you for it.
You begin in “Auschwitz 1”. Originally Polish army barracks, they were taken over when the Nazis invaded and turned into a death camp, with the sarcastic motto “Work Is Liberating” wrought in iron above the gate. Polish journalists, members of undesirable political parties, farmers who had fertile land suitable for German settlers, and an increasing number of racial “undesirables” such as gypsies and Jews were stuffed into the barely heated buildings and subjected to a non stop onslaught of physical and verbal abuse. Looking at the hundreds of photos of victims that line the corridors with their registration and death date, the longest you could hope to tolerate it was a year and a half before either your body gave up or you were executed in a number of barbaric ways, often with other prisoners forced to watch.
In Auschwitz 1 we were shown the first operational gas chamber, gallows, firing squad walls and starvation and suffocation cells, along with a building that contains a “small” amount of prisoners’ belongings that were discovered when the camp was liberated by the Red Army (before the possessions could be passed on to war rationed Germans). I was prepared for the piles of shaved hair, shoes and glasses but, when I saw a cabinet of knitted baby clothes, a striped bobble hat caught my eye and the fact that it seemed to be knitted with such love completely overwhelmed me and I had to have a sit down outside.
I wasn’t sure if I could continue with the bus tour to the larger Auschwitz 2 (or Birkenau as it is also known), as we were already a couple of hours in and our guide’s softly spoken, matter of fact reeling off of the horrific facts around every corner meant that I wasn’t convinced I needed any more confirmation of just how horrible human beings can be to each other. But to ignore it seemed cowardly after all that the people who died here went through, so onto the bus we went.
Within a few short minutes we had arrived at the famous watchtower and railway tracks, and it was at that point that the sheer scale of the operation became apparent. I had no idea the second camp was so big. Either side of the tracks there are two fenced off areas covering kilometres, packed with poorly built brick dormitories and the foundations of wooden huts. These were just for the minority of people who were considered fit enough to work for a few weeks or months in the camp after the 3 day journey in cattle trucks. The rest were led down a long track to the gas chambers and immediately gassed. The commandant of the camp, Rudolph Hoss, confessed they executed at least 2.5 million people here, and seeing the size of the site you understand how this was all possible. The most terrifying thing is that they had barely got started. A third of the camp hadn’t even finished being built. You can see how the extermination of entire countries and races was their ultimate goal.
Like all the other tours we passed, barely a word was being said amongst our group as we struggled to comprehend it. I think the most unsettling thing is that you can see how it was all possible. A place like that is the logical conclusion if you allow fear and hatred of “other” people to colour your beliefs and opinions. Human beings have an instinct to label and categorise, but this desire for order, and a belief in one culture or race being superior to another, led to us behaving more savagely than any animal in history.
I knew all this, but I didn’t truly know it until I saw it. And if you have the chance, I recommend you see it too.