Auschwitz is a stark contrast to beautiful Krakow, its closest major tourism city. A network of concentration, labour and extermination camps operated in Poland by Nazi forces during the Second World War, a visit to Auschwitz plays a huge role in ensuring that the atrocities committed there, as well as in other camps, are never forgotten.
It ensures that the pain and suffering of those forced into the camps at the hands of the Nazis is never forgotten. It enables people to pay their respects to the souls tortured, and exterminated, here. And, it helps to not only educate people about the past, but also educate for the future. A visit to Auschwitz will never be a fun outing. It will, however, provide an emotional, yet interesting, visit that will be remembered forever.
Shudder at the sight of the infamous motto, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” displayed above an otherwise incongruous metal gate. Feel revulsion at the propaganda in the meaning of those words – literally, work makes free – knowing in retrospect that no matter how hard an inmate worked, they were never going to be freed.
Feel a stirring sadness when looking inside the barracks that housed the prisoners. See the rows of wooden bunk-beds, hear how each bed was shared by multiple occupants, and be told exactly how living conditions were for inmates. It is hard to envisage the true extent of the terrible conditions that existed within these buildings.
The outside of the buildings are unremarkable in themselves, and give nothing away about the history behind them. But the high barbed wire fences and numerous sentry posts around the perimeters of the camps gives a snapshot into its sinister past.
I was particularly horrified visiting Block 11 – the medical experimentation block. This, for me, was one of the most disturbing places in the camps. I had been previously unaware of the nature and extent of experimentation that had been conducted. Learning about the cruel, sadistic, and mainly pointless experiments done on living people affirmed to me how depraved life in the camps was.
Not content with working people to the bone then killing them with lethal gasses, inmates also ran the risk of being chosen as human guinea pigs. It was with gruesome fascination mixed with sheer disgust to my core that I learnt about doctors like the “Angel of Death,” whose particular interests lay in identical twins and dwarfs.
Stare at a small goods wagon, used for deporting prisoners, knowing how many people were crammed into its stuffy interior. I am not generally claustrophobic, but the thought of being forced into such a wagon with so many others, struggling for air and space, did set my heart racing. See the railway track used to transport people into the camps like cattle.
Stand in the gas chambers and see the shower head type fixtures used to disperse the deadly gas. See the crematoria where bodies were burned like piles of trash. Oddly, I was somewhat detached when seeing these.
I expected to feel over-whelming sorrow; instead I felt almost a morbid curiosity mixed with a sense of disbelief. Maybe basic human preservation skills kicked in, perhaps a fundamental need to disassociate myself from what I know to have happened there, an unwillingness to let myself think too deeply, or maybe I was simply drained from previous feelings of revulsion. Whatever the cause, they were strange and unanticipated feelings.
A museum shows many personal items found at the camps. For example, one display houses suitcases and trunks that were carefully carted by people on their way to the camp, many with name labels still attached. Seeing the hand-written names really personalises what would otherwise be just luggage. Hundreds of pairs of eye-glasses, many twisted and broken, are contained in another display case.
For me, the most sickening display was a large collection of human hair which was shorn from new arrivals at the camp. The sight of this was positively stomach-churning. Not because the displays are offensive or distasteful. But rather because seeing something that was part of a real live human being, realising that it was stripped from them along with their dignity, and then casually discarded, really brings home the horrors that occurred in the camps to real people, just like me.
Authentic prisoner clothing can be seen, the infamous blue and white striped suits, most of it tattered and grubby. This further personalised the captives in my eyes, as I tried, and failed, to imagine the daily horrors of the people who lived within these clothes. Items left behind by the perpetrators of the horrifying acts are also displayed, including helmets bearing the fearsome SS insignia, gas canisters and instruments used to punish and degrade prisoners.
The camps are open year round, except for Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Easter Sunday. A visit can easily be arranged from Krakow.
Have you visited a sickening site of human cruelty and suffering? How did you feel – were you surprised by your feelings at all? And, do you have any thoughts on why people should chose to visit such places and remember?