During my visit to Krakow, it felt absolutely necessary to visit the concentration camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Lots of associated phrases spring to my mind on hearing those titles. They are not only concentration camps, but locations of torture, destruction, and evil. Homes of war, scenes of suffering, sites of mass murder, historical viewing points, Holocaust memorials, images of Hell, memoirs of an absolute nightmare. I’ve always been horrified by the disturbing tales of the Holocaust, but actually standing on the grounds of the concentration camps made it far more real.
My experience began at Auschwitz I with the iconic German sign that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei”, cruelly translating into English as “Work Makes You Free”. It was originally intended to mislead prisoners into believing that their strenuous efforts in the camps would take them to a better place… perhaps a paradise. Of course that was a lie. But the even crueller element here is that there was actually truth in the phrase, when you think more deeply about it. In a sense, their work did make them “free” in terms of releasing their spirits from the Hell that they endured at the camps, ultimately in the form of death. Sadly as the world knows, it’s an understatement to say that the process of those deaths were nothing less than brutal and utterly inhumane.
There are so many words to sum up how I felt as I walked around both sites and learned about the true, horrific details of the evil events that took place there. I was moved, yet horrified and disgusted. I felt physically sick, angry, saddened, upset, bewildered. Despite my previous knowledge of the era, I found myself to be honestly shocked and I even verged on relentless disbelief in terms of the atrocities that occurred. If I had to pick one word to sum up my overall experience, it would be ‘haunting’. Because that is how I felt as I walked around… haunted. As though I was walking over the graves of millions of souls without bodies. As though there were tons of ghosts in the air without voices or words to explain what had happened to them. So many lives that had been robbed without mercy.
The sun shone at Auschwitz I but there was no happiness. There were birds flying but they didn’t sing. It was eerie and strange. I felt full of emotion yet motionless at the same time. Like nothing else I’ve experienced and the hardest to explain. I saw the sinks where the prisoners washed before they were stripped and shot dead. I saw the suitcases they carried as they boarded the trains prior to this, genuinely believing that they were destined for a better life instead of the brutal deaths that were really awaiting them. I saw the artefacts they took with them – all precious possessions of theirs that would be heartbreakingly never required again. Items that made them human and individual people as opposed to one in a million that died. I also saw the blood splattered clothes of innocent babies that were executed for no good reason. And most hard hitting of all, I stood inside the gas chambers where the majority of those victims went to die. It all got too much and I cried at several points. Firstly when I saw photos of the victims – real faces of the real people that had Hell etched in their futures, without being aware at the time that the picture had been taken. Their faces were accompanied by their names, their dates of birth, the date on which they arrived at the camp and finally the date on which they died there. Their occupations were also on there. There were teachers, doctors, students – all aligned by a more specific identity of completely innocent victims.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau was no less emotional. We arrived at the start of the train line that the world knows so well from all of the documentaries and war movies. We walked through the arch and followed the train track via the long straight. We arrived at ‘the’ platform where our tour guide explained was exactly where the selection process took place. In more explicit terms, this was exactly where a doctor assessed each individual victim of Auschwitz as to whether they were “fit to work” in the torturous conditions at the camps or alternatively worthy of only an immediate, undignified death within the gas chambers. Again my eyes welled up. I imagined my own fate and that of my family, had we been placed in that position. Instead I stood there with a life ahead of me. It was far too real and so hard hitting. I saw the line they travelled down, I saw the carts they travelled in, and I saw photographs of the selection process – thousands of people being hauled up towards the gas chambers. An eerie walk that I made myself, thinking about those victims and how they would have felt the entire way. There was a memorial that detailed the same message in four different languages, “to the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. Here lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace”. Finally, I saw the barracks that we have all seen in the war movies and the bunk beds that thousands of people woke up on, wondering if that day would in fact be their last. The entire experience of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau was incredible, in ways that are hard to sum up. I decided to write this post because I had so many thoughts running around my mind after the experience and I knew that I would struggle to explain it all when asked. So to summarise, I would advise you to go and see such an important part of modern history for yourself, to learn the facts of what happened and to really open your heart to it like I did. Yes it’s hard hitting, but it is an experience you will never forget and it will make you appreciate your life for the gift that it is.