Saturday, August 21, 2010

Surviving Auschwitz

I’m sitting here, trying to find the words to describe our visit to Auschwitz and I’m struggling. Maybe it’s because I’m still processing the experience and still can’t get my head around what I actually saw. Maybe there are no words that suffice the suffering and extermination of so many innocent people. The night before, I couldn’t sleep because the images I had already seen were flashing through my mind. I had heard from a couple of people that visiting Auschwitz is one of the hardest things they’ve ever had to do and from others that ‘you will never be the same’. I guess I was mentally preparing, which was obviously futile because you can never really prepare for something like this.

To give you a very incomprehensive background… Auschwitz, located in Oswiecim outside of Krakow, Poland, has become a major symbol of the Holocaust. Approximately 1.1 million completely innocent people were systematically murdered in the gas chambers of this camp, 90% of them Jews. Most people arriving by train never actually entered the camp, but just crossed it on their way to the gas chambers after being selected for extermination based on their inability to work. The minority, chosen for slave labour became registered prisoners with shaved heads in striped uniforms. They were stripped of everything, including their personal identities, which were replaced with a numbered tattoo on their arm or chest. They lived in the most inhumane conditions and worked a minimum of 11 hours per day and consuming the smallest of food rations. Many people died of starvation, exhaustion or disease from poor living conditions. High electric barbed wire fences surrounding the camp were guarded by SS soldiers armed with machine guns or rifles. Prisoners were beaten or shot dead for the most trivial behaviours such as looking at an SS guard the wrong way or refusing to work due to exhaustion. A regular ‘selection’ process was also conducted to send any ‘unproductive’ prisoners to the gas chambers and to also make way for new comers.

On the day of our visit, the sky was clear and the sun shone brightly, which did feel a bit strange considering the ‘darkness’ and evil of this place. We walked through the arched entrance which read ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, meaning ‘work makes you free’. My stomach churned thinking about the irony of those words and how the people entering these gates were deceived into thinking they were in transit, which was obviously not the case. The grounds didn’t look much unlike a high security prison, but the difference was that most of these prisoners were ordinary civilians like you and me, people with good professions and high moral values. To think that whole families were tortured and murdered in this place was just mind-boggling.

The entrance to Auschwitz I

Inside the grounds, Auschwitz I

Our guide led us into several blocks where we saw heartbreaking images of horror, of human faces with such sadness and fear rampant in their eyes. Tears filled mine when we walked into the room displaying images of children suffering from starvation and clothes of tiny babies who had been murdered in the gas chambers. In the following room, we saw hundreds of suitcases piled to the ceiling, each displaying the name, date of birth and address of the owner. We learned that families were told to record these details on the suitcases so they could be easily returned after their relocation – one of the many deceptions used to ensure the people never knew their fate. Also displayed were 45,000+ pairs of shoes including an area dedicated to children’s shoes and 2 tonnes of human hair. I wish we had more time to spend in these rooms to reflect on the items and their owners, instead of being rushed off by our tour guide. All I could focus on was the innocence of the people and the human potential that was so brutally stolen. Although viewing these items was disturbing, we felt a bit detached as well and I think the magnitude of it all definitely needed that extra time. We were also surrounded by herds of other tourists and often had to shuffle through the crowd just to get any glimpse of the images which probably detracted from the impact.

The suitcases

The 45,000+ shoes

2 Tonnes of human hair

It was an eerie feeling to walk into the only gas chamber left standing, knowing thousands of people met their death in that very room. We were utterly horrified to learn that the gas caused death by suffocation and took about 20 minutes. The bodies, including every opening, were then searched for anything valuable, which was then extracted. Simply nauseating. What was hard to accept was how any human being could carry out these atrocious tasks on another human being. It was the epitome of evil.

The only gas chamber still standing

One of the crematoriums

Over the years, the camp was expanded, with over 40 subcamps. We also visited the second major camp - Auschwitz Birkenau, the one depicted in most of the Holocast films including Schindler’s List. A huge 400 acre field with train tracks lining the centre, through the famous brick arch. Here we saw the appalling conditions in which the prisoners lived….bunk beds lining the horse stables with concrete floors where up to 10 people slept and where some often died from suffocation. The toilet block featured holes in concrete where prisoners were only allowed to enter twice per day and were beaten while in the process if they didn’t hurry. It was here that we heard about the prisoner’s courage and determination to survive, to support each other and to smuggle in necessary items to stay alive. We saw some art work painted by a survivor which depicted some men returning from a days work and some were carrying others. A very powerful image of the endurance of the human spirit. Our guide recommended a book with a title that inspired me instantly…it’s called ‘Hope is the Last to Die’, one woman’s personal journey of surviving the camp and how she maintained her belief in human goodness. One that I would definitely like to read.

Auschwitz II, Birkenau

One of the 'horse stables' where the prisoner's slept, Aushwitz Birkenau

For our final part of the tour, we walked in the footsteps of the victims from the time they disembarked from the train and were selected for extermination, to the moment they stood waiting in front of the gas chambers. All I could do was be silent and try to imagine what these people may have felt, most of who had no idea they were walking to their deaths. As we stood in front of the remains of the gas chambers (they had been demolished by the SS as the war was ending in an attempt to hid the evidence), I felt completely numb, emotionless even, which is extremely unlike me! I suspect, that it may have just been my brain’s way of coping with something so achingly painful and this whole experience will take a while to process.I will conclude this post with a series of questions asked by someone on our tour which instigated a very confronting response from the guide… “Didn’t anyone know this was happening and what about the smell coming from the camp? Why didn’t anyone do anything?” The response: “Suffering continues in our world and people still get caught up in their own lives with their small problems”. A slap in the face and very well said! Something to think about.


Linley said...

You feel so sad coming here, it's something you wish time could go back and stop from happening.
The day we were there it was drizzling rain and cold which gave us a horrible picture of what those poor people went through.
You have really good photo's exactly as it is.

Anonymous said...

Not one of us did anything about the concentration camps in Bosnia (rape camps for girls as young as 3 and all) not long no, no one has learnt. The ravaged wars across Africa where thousands of babies die daily while we are worried about more important things such as our jobs, mortgage, education, and bitterness for something bad happening in our cushy Western lives. Suffering just like the Jews in Aushwitz is happening right now and we are the ones with choices to make it stop but many of us choose not to part with one single $ to do this.

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