Auschwitz-Birkenau

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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Travelling with anxiety: You’ve exceeded your baggage limit

First off, I would like to think that I don’t come across as a particularly anxious person. I think years of practice have helped me manage the feelings that come with this unfortunate affliction. That being said the people that know me well know I definitely have my moments. Anyone that knows the feeling knows that it can make everyday tasks seem daunting and anything more than that seem impossible. I’m not talking about the occasional jitters, I’m talking about the kind of anxiety that keeps you inside all day; that unshakeable sense of impending doom.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about anxiety is that it is necessarily “about” something. Sure, certain things can definitely trigger it but half the time it is the anxiety that comes first and the reason that comes last. The wave of dread can come over you at any time. You can be having a great time and feeling completely normal and then two minutes later you’ve convinced yourself without a doubt that the next breath you take is going to be your last. It’s irrational. It’s stupid. And as soon as the feelings inevitably pass you feel just as ridiculous as you have sounded to those around you for the last 10 minutes. The shitty thing is, the natural response for people around you during this time is the last thing you want to hear.

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“Calm down.” I understand people mean well but it’s the equivalent of telling a depressed person to “cheer up”. It’s said with the very best of intentions I’m sure but unfortunately at that particular time it feels like you’re on fire and someone has just thrown a cup of water in your face to ease the pain. The best you can hope for is a quiet and calm place to weather the storm.

For people that do have a predisposition towards anxiousness, things that are seen by most as enjoyable can be absolutely terrifying. Travel of course is included in this category. Before leaving for Europe I was going through a bit of an anxious rough patch; going through the motions day in and day out and feeling terrible about the most mundane tasks. Even when I had something to look forward to it would be drenched in bothersome feelings of doubt. I had forgotten what excitement without nervousness had felt like. My one way ticket to Europe has proved to be so much more than just that. I had no idea when planning my trip that this would also be my ticket to a more relaxed, bearable existence.

As I touched on briefly in my last post, there’s no two ways about it, travelling to a new place without the support and safety of home can unravel even those with the coolest demeanours. The unknown is an intimidating concept in theory and an even harsher reality to face at times. That being said, there are huge upsides. Of course, you get to experience new and amazing things, get out of your bubble and see things that you couldn’t have previously imagined would be so beautiful. But it also obliterates your previous threshold for stress. All those things that you thought were important and worth worrying about before? Irrelevant. The lens you view the world through is now different, you can’t quite put your finger on it but you feel it every day.

I’m not saying it’s easy. There’s been times where I have wanted to pack it all in and run for cover. And more often than I’d like to admit, in times of dire need I’ve had to turn to my trusty travel companion, Xanax. But deep down there’s some part of your brain, right at the back, (unfortunately sometimes it’s not so accessible when you need it) but it’s there telling you that everything is going to be okay.

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I think it’s safe to say that almost every single person has felt anxiety at some point in their lives even if they have not had to live with it on a day to day basis. Whether it’s because of some significant upcoming event, someone or something you don’t want to face or maybe you just had a big weekend.  But if you have been reading this and you could identify with any of what has been said so far then you might find the following to be a useful exercise.

Say “Fuck it.” The feelings aren’t going to go away by themselves so you might as well give yourself a reason to be anxious. Do something you wouldn’t normally dream of doing. Don’t just step outside your comfort zone, jump over that motherfucker, flip it upside-down. Redefine the shit out of it. Force yourself to do that thing that your previous reservations would have never allowed you to do and throw off the torturous shackles of fear and apprehension. You’ll live. And you certainly won’t regret it.

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