Posts By Country




September 5th, 2010 | Europe

Auschwitz…

Ready to take the tour that I had wanted to avoid...

I did not intend to visit the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau… In fact, I planned to avoid them, knowing that they would have an emotional effect on me that I did not want to experience at this stage of my life…

I did not need to be reminded of what we are capable of as a species… I had experienced enough of that in some small measure a long time ago…

Had seen all the footage of the genocide in Rwanda, met and spoke with victims of the massacres that had taken place there… Remembered how their stories had affected me then…

I was aware that Auschwitz was barely an hour’s drive east of Krakow, near the town of Oswiecim, and would forever be synonymous with the words “inhumanity”, “atrocities” and “death”…

During our walk through Krakow the night before, Wojciech and I had discussed my feelings about visiting this infamous place, and he told me about his own visit there, and that he did not believe that he would ever be able to set foot there again…

I’m not sure why I changed my mind about going… In the end I think I felt it necessary to honour the memory of those who died there, in the same way I had done at El Alamein, and had wanted to do in many other places but never got the chance or found the time to do…

In the mini bus we traveled on, a short introductory film clip was being shown on a drop down screen, and long before it had run its course, every person on the bus had been silenced by the images that flashed across that screen… When I saw one of the women wiping tears from her eyes, I felt my own begin to swim…

They would remain that way for the rest of the afternoon…

Barbed wire and electrified fences kept the prisoners from attempting to escape...

I have put off writing about my experiences at Auschwitz for a few days now, not only because I did not for a second think that my words would do any justice to what I saw and felt, but also because I had hoped to regain some form of emotional control, before I finally sat down to write the post that I know many people are expecting…

Each time I look at the hundreds of photos I took, a feeling of helplessness washes over me, taking me straight back to death camp… The vivid imagination that I have as part of my mental wiring, brings events and places alive in my mind, and during a visit to a place such as this, I cannot help but see the long lines of people waiting to be tortured, gassed and incinerated… It is like living in, and being part of a nightmare…

The worst possible kind of nightmare…

I have included photos I took of the various signs that have been erected on the grounds of Auschwitz and in the buildings we visited during our tour… They in part describe the madness that took place here, and the incomprehensible horror perpetrated on the prisoners it once housed…

At the entrance to the complex stands a sign that in part reads as follows:

“Throughout the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide and the Holocaust.

The German forces established the camp in 1940…The first people to be brought to Auschwitz as prisoners and murdered here were Poles. They were followed by Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies and deportees of many other nationalities.

In 1942, Auschwitz became the setting for the most massive murder campaign in history, when the Nazis put into operation their plan to destroy the entire Jewish population of Europe.

The great majority of Jews deported to Auschwitz- men, women and children, were sent immediately on arrival to death in the gas chambers of Birkenau…

When the SS realised that the end of the war was near, they attempted to destroy the evidence of their atrocities. They dismantled the gas chambers, crematoria, burned documents and evacuated all prisoners capable of walking, to the interior of Germany.

Those who were not evacuated were liberated by the Red Army on January 27th, 1945…”

And then in bold letters under the above:

PLEASE BEHAVE APPROPRIATELY, RESPECTING THE MEMORY OF THOSE WHO SUFFERED AND DIED HERE.

The grey skies and light rain that fell seemed in keeping with the sense of gloom that pervades the camps… We were given headphones and a battery operated control unit, linked to our guide, who spoke in low tones throughout the four hours of the tour, trying to relay information to us in a matter of fact way, but on occasion failing to do so, her voice cracking and trailing away into silence after imparting a particularly gruesome or chilling fact…

Statements such as this spelt the beginning of the end for many...

The seeds of the Holocaust were planted...

We passed through the main gates of the camp, above which the words “Arbeit macht Frei” (Work will make you free). This camp had a dual purpose. Not only was it a place where people were selected for extermination, but it was also a labour camp, where many prisoners of war and other people fit enough to work in the factories that the Germans established here, were sent to toil for up to ten hours a day…

Watchtowers guarded the perimeters of the camp. Dogs also patrolled between the lines of wire...

The history of the death camps established by the Nazis is well documented… Many of the facts about them were lost on me, my mind numbed by what I was seeing and imagining…

I recall only scattered bits of information our guide gave us, for the most part letting my eyes wander over the grounds, with their barbed wire fences and elevated watch towers…

Entry to Barracks No: 4, where the extermination methods used by the Nazis were explained...

The camps have been left as they were found in 1945, when the Russians liberated Poland, and marched into Krakow… The entire complex, covering many hectares, is today an open air museum…

The double-storeyed barracks that housed thousands of Jews, Gypsies, prisoners of war and any number of other people deemed to be dissidents, still stand, many of them converted into individual museums, each displaying the different facets of life in this camp…

Some of the exhibits and video clips are so graphic in their horror that children under the age of 14 are not permitted to view them…

We were shown how prisoners were processed, their belongings confiscated, and then sent to the small gas chamber on the premises… Birkenau, just a few kilometres away, was where mass extermination took place, in four massive gas chambers and their accompanying crematoria…

Here in the camp of Auschwitz itself, prisoners were murdered by firing squad in a small courtyard, or gassed and cremated in far smaller numbers than at Birkenau…

The Polish nation suffered under their German masters...

The despair on their faces is plain to see...

There are only a few hundred photographs taken of prisoners and the conditions they lived in, as many were destroyed to hide the evidence of what went on here, but those that are available have been enlarged and fill every room you enter… You can see the anguish and terror on the faces of those that are being led to their cells, or worse… The despair in the eyes of mothers being separated from their children…

Eyes that burnt holes through to my soul…

Women and children walk along the road to death...

Difficult to comprehend...

Over 45 000 pairs of shoes were discovered here, many belonging to young children...

There are exhibits of the many personal effects taken from the prisoners, and later found when the camp was liberated…

Suitcases labeled by their owners, who had hoped to get their belongings back after being processed by the guards...

More than 45 000 pairs of shoes, some clearly belonging to very small children; almost 2000 kgs of hair, shaved from the heads of women after they were gassed; a massive pile of combs and hairbrushes; tins of shoe polish from many countries; a huge collection of suitcases and bags which carried the few belongings the prisoners had brought with them, thousands of pairs of spectacles and prostheses; a room full of metal mugs, bowls and plates…

People with disabilities were deemed "unfit", and sent to the death camps...

Prisoners were duped to avoid widespread panic...

There is a room filled with human hair at Auschwitz...

When our group reached the area where methods of torture, including that of starvation, were exhibited, I began to feel a massive upwelling of sadness… I could no longer bear to look at the life-size images of the emaciated men, women and children that adorned the walls of the room…

I could not bring myself to photograph them… It didn’t seem right somehow…

A large pile of empty cans that once contained the pellets used in the gas chambers...

The section showing how Dr. Josef Mengele experimented on children, especially twins and triplets, in an attempt to find methods to improve and perpetuate the Aryan Race, were particularly chilling…

Children with blond hair and blue eyes were singled out for special experiments…

The picture of a young, stick-like girl, being injected by a man in a white coat, was more than I could take… I heard a roaring in my ears, and a cold unseen hand seemed to reach through my chest and squeeze my heart to a pulp…

The tears began running freely down my face and I did nothing to stop them… I turned away from the group and made my way outside… My vision blurred by my tears…

I stood with my back to a large tree at the entrance to the building my group was in, still listening to the guide’s explanations through my headphones, but glad that I could no longer see the images she must have been pointing to… Her explanations were enough to keep the glands in my eyes pumping…

She came out of the building well ahead of the group, looking right and left with a worried frown on her face, and then saw me standing across the road that separates the different barracks… She stopped on the top step, nodded her head at me and gave me a little smile…

Unspoken words of understanding passed between us, and I think if she had not been leading a group, she would have come over to put an arm around me… I smiled back at her through my tears and then turned away, avoiding the group for a few minutes after that, standing apart from them while I tried to compose myself…

The wall against which thousands were executed. It was made of compressed sawdust to absorb the bullets...

More than 90% of those that died in this particular camp, were Jews...

She led us to a small courtyard where prisoners were summarily shot for little or no reason at all…

On the ground in front of the wall lay wreaths and messages placed there by the public…

There were also a few wooden posts where people were tied with their arms strapped behind there backs as punishment for things as trivial as speaking to another prisoner…

We were shown where 12 Polish prisoners, accused of assisting three others to escape, were publicly hanged in front of the other prisoners, as a warning to them…

Our guide explains the events leading up to the simultaneous public hanging of 12 Polish prisoners...

In the background are the subterranean gas chambers of Auschwitz....

The ovens in which gassed prisoners were incinerated... Although they operated 24 hours a day, they could not keep pace with the volume of prisoners being executed...

The two remaining gas chambers at Auschwitz stand at the edge of the camp, only a few hundred metres from where the camp commandant and his wife and their children stayed…

The chambers could not cope with the vast number of prisoners being murdered there, and the much larger camp of Birkenau was built, with its four huge gas chambers and incinerators…

We were escorted through the chambers of Auschwitz, shown how the gas pellets were dropped from slots in the ceiling, where at a temperature of just 37° Celsius; they formed the poisonous gas that killed the hundreds of people crammed into the chambers, within just twenty minutes…

I was glad to be out in the open air again after seeing the ovens that the victims were cremated in… My senses were on overload, and I felt light-headed as we walked back through the main gates of the camp, to the waiting bus that would take us to Birkenau…

I chatted with two couples from England, whom I had met the day before at the Salt Mine… I think we were all trying to take our minds off the scenes we had been witness to over the past few hours…

Gone was the lighthearted chatter from yesterday… In its place, a sombre mood and silent reflection…

We made our way back through the main gates of Auschwitz...

People aren't listening to the advice of George Santayana...

GBWT 2010

6 comments to Auschwitz…

  • Vince Ricci

    I was in Dachau in Bavaria years ago as a young man incapable of comprehending nor appreciating what I saw. Speechless now after reading this, it all came back…

  • Mark Behr

    “Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risks of infection.”

    I do not know how we came to be so complacent, but I do know that we cannot allow it to happen again. Thank you for sharing. What is it that makes man so reluctant to learn from history ? Possibly we need to talk about it more openly and pray that we are never stripped so low of our humanity that we feel the need to do this to our fellow men again. Thank you.

  • Yo’ Vince…!! Yeah, I still can’t believe what I saw there… It will stay with me forever… Take care in Cartoon…!!

  • Charmz

    Knowing you so well, I felt your pain and can truly imagine how you must have battled to get through those four hours. Just reading about the millions of souls that suffered those terrible deaths had me in tears. Thanks for sharing, and lets pray that history never gets repeated.

  • Anette

    There, but for the grace of God, go I…. what an experience, life changing.. Take it in, learn from it, and let it make you stronger.
    Travel safely!

  • Kim

    Tears!!!! Why can’t we learn from our mistakes…..

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>