Visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was one of the most moving and harrowing experiences of my life to date. After driving through the Polish countryside during Autumn which happens to be one of the most amazing countries at this time of year it dawns on you that you are about to enter the very place where one of the biggest atrocities in history took place 70 short years ago. Needless to say there is a very sombre feel in the air for the duration of the bus ride.
On arrival you are greeted by the entrance to the Auschwitz camp which is a large gate that bears the banner “Arbeit macht frei” which ironically translates to “work will set you free”. You enter through the gates in the same manner as the abhorrent number of Jewish people that met their untimely demise there would have. The once electrified barbed wire fences are still standing at Auschwitz and some of the blocks where up to 1000 people were once forced to coexist are now museum-style exhibits dedicated to the preservation of the memory of what transpired there during 1940-1945.
It is hard to listen as you are taken through the brutal and disgustingly thought-out process. Jewish people were methodically taken from all over Europe to Auschwitz, from countries as far as Greece, France and parts of Scandinavia. They would be taken by train in large cattle cars not equipped with any facilities whatsoever for up to four days, some of them did not survive the journey.
Once they had arrived, the men were separated from the women and children. The men that were deemed fit to work for the Third Reich were placed into the Auschwitz camp. The walls of which are now thoroughly decorated with photographs of these men including any information known about them. Some men lasted only one night. Most were forced to work long gruelling days outdoors and those that arrived in the winter died significantly sooner as their thin uniforms were not enough to protect them from the snow and sub-zero temperatures. I found it hard not the think about, as a 23 year old male what would have happened to me if I was in their shoes. I most likely would have been put to work in the camp, and possibly even ended up with the task of taking bodies from the gas chambers to the crematorium which could have included friends and family. The Nazi logic was that if different people were responsible for each step on their despicable conveyor belt of death then there were no murders taking place.
The SS were very meticulous with how they kept (and eventually murdered) their “political prisoners”. They would mix prisoners with those that spoke different languages to avoid any potential uprisings. They promised to kill ten people for every person that tried to escape. They told each person to mark their luggage with their names so they could find them easily after their “showers”. They told men and women they would see each other soon. They did not separate mothers from their children, they simply sent them off together so as to avoid panic. They placed fake showerheads in the gas chambers to avoid any last minute suspicions. They took every disgusting precaution to make sure prisoners stayed calm until the very end.
The gas chambers and crematoria were the most difficult parts of the visit. Walking into the room where between 500-2000 people were led at a time with the promise of a shower only to be mass-murdered was a difficult experience to process. It was almost impossible not to feel the confusion, panic and subsequent struggle that took place in the room as SS soldiers dropped pellets of Zyklon B through small gaps in the roof. It’s hard not to be overcome with emotion as you walk through rooms that are filled with shoes, glasses and even tonnes of human hair from the victims as you walk past other visitors in silence, some with very understandable tears flowing.
I’m glad that Auschwitz-Birkenau exists in its current form and I am very glad I had the chance to visit. It’s an important piece of history and an example of the horrible things people have done and continue to do to each other. As stated on a large poster at the current site of this terrible piece of history, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again”. The visit has given me a glimpse into how truly lucky I, and all of those around me are. I feel so fortunate to lead the life that I do and I can now truly take solace in the normalcy of everyday life.