January 27, 2011 4 Comments
On this day in 1945 the hell that is Auschwitz- Birkenau camp was liberated by the Soviet Army and we remember all those who lost their lives during the Holocaust and other genocides and those who managed to survive.
I visited the two camps that make up Auschwitz this summer. My mum and I make a trip together every year, our ‘adventures’ as she calls them. We’ve been to Egypt, Canada, Russia and most of Europe but she’s always wanted to visit Auschwitz. I wasn’t too sure but we booked a few days in Krakow and booked our day there.
The visit was respectful. At the gates your guide reminds you that this is a memorial site and that we are to speak in quiet voices. There are no gift shops or restaurants and no one speaks loudly or laughs.
The first part of the visit was to Auschwitz 1. We walked through the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work sets you free) gates and entered a corridor lined with photographs of women. The Nazis kept immaculate records and photos and these women stare into the camera lens, heads brutally shaved, eyes haunted with what has gone before and what is to come. The dates of their entry to the camp and their deaths are neatly typed below their faces. Some lasted for a year or two, some for a week or two but all died in this corner of rural Poland and who knows what they may have suffered. Every now and then a photo would be garlanded with flowers and you know that there are relatives and friends who remember.
I thought I had a fair idea of the brutalities of the concentration camps but I struggled to take in the actual horrors of the huge gallows where prisoners were hanged in front of the whole camp, the tiny dark room where large groups were forced to stand all day and all night and the starvation cells where the door was locked for ever.
A few kilometres away is Auschwitz 2, purpose built for large numbers who lived- if it can be called that- in prefabricated wooden stable blocks, compel with stalls and iron rings for tethering horses. You may have seen Auschwitz 2 in Schindler’s List. It’s the one where the train passes through the camp and their occupants are pulled blinking into the sun to be chosen for life or death.
Our guide showed us a photograph of a terrified old man stepping off the train. A Nazi doctor points to the right. ‘Imagine,’ said our guide, ‘that you are that old man.’ He then pointed to the ruins of the gas chambers which the Nazis blew up before fleeing at the end of the war. ‘Those four hundred metres is all that is left of your life.’ We walked down to the chambers trying but failing to imagine our last few moments.
Touchingly, a large group of Israeli students were visiting the camps. Every now and then they’d sit on the grass and quietly pray. They then pulled out large Israeli flags and walked the length of the railway tracks, heads bowed.
I had nightmares for weeks after the visit but it’s a small price to pay. I’m glad I went and the images will stay with me always and will help me remember.
For more information visit the HMD website.