Unfortunately, my time in Warsaw, Poland was brief. I did not get the opportunity to go hiking in its beautiful terrain of granite rocky outcrops, fish on one of its icy still lakes, or sip bison grass flavoured vodka. I did however, witness a site that changed history, that shook the world to its very core, and that, was Auschwitz.
Auschwitz is a network of 3 camps created by the rise of the Nazis during the Third Reich in the Second World War. Each camp had its use; a concentration camp, a labour camp and over time, an extermination camp. Initially, the Nazi’s used Auschwitz as a concentration camp, a place to house political prisoners. However, as Hitler pressed a surging importance on the “final solution to the Jewish question”, millions of innocent Jewish people were sent on heaving transport trains to Auschwitz II-Birkenau to be murdered. At first, Jewish people were killed in mass shootings; however, to be more cost and time efficient, the Nazis tailor made gas chambers with the installed pesticide of Zyklon B, choking all with this poison who ventured in.
Those who did not die in the gas chambers, died of starvation, forced labour, infectious diseases and hideous medical experiments. Jewish people were not the only victims as Nazis seamlessly murdered Poles, Romani, Sinti, Soviet Prisoners of War, Jehovah’s Witness, homosexuals and thousands of people from diverse nationalities that did not fit into the specific Aryan image.
When Soviet Troops began to approach Auschwitz in January 1945, most of the population of the camp had been sent on a death march, hoping to eradicate the number of Jews even further, and erasing the witnesses of the horror. The camp was finally liberated on January 27th in 1945, now internationally known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, where we now reflect on all those that lost their lives in solidarity.
Since then, the sight has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Sight and a museum has been built, highlighting to all that visit, the full account of the atrocities committed here. Arriving in Auschwitz, immediately one begins to shudder with unease and a chill shivers up the spine. Stepping into its infamous gates-where history documents so many others stepped through to never come out again, is horrific. Barbed wire stands erect on each corner, rising high to the sky and curved over the edges. The sight is barren, empty and dank. Nature does not grow near and no bird song can be heard, all you hear are the footsteps of the people that have entered at the same time as you.
Walking in silence you can fully immerse yourself into what life, or even death, was like here. Banishing silly thoughts from my head, I thought of only those that suffered here whilst I tread the same path as they did, my shoes slipping in the waterlogged mud. Every menial thought that popped into my head, I reversed it onto where I was. I had shoes on, imagine most of the workers that was forced to work intensive and strict labour barefoot? In light cotton clothes? In freezing temperatures? With no solid meal in months? My despair sank even further and made me question how would I have survived? How did the survivors do so?
What you don’t realise when visiting Auschwitz is how terrifyingly big it is. Taken through one entrance, and spoken to about another, you realise each camp is miles apart. A journey around there is a long and laborious task. So how could workers wake up and tread that distance every day? To endure each agonizing pain over and over again on a concave abyss of a stomach suffering from all types of diseases?
We walk further. We reach the exact location where life or death was decided in one split instant. The fork road. Here, diabolical beings who referred to themselves as the “SS”, became God. They laid their own power, preying on innocent victims. Where families were separated, where life became a survival game and death became an inevitable happening. Here, Nazis picked the healthier looking members of arrivals to work in forced labour camps, whilst those too frail, were led to death. However, as time went on, there was only one path for all that flooded through the gates of Auschwitz.
We walked through bed rooms with no beds but planks of wood nailed on top of each other, a tower of planks squashed into the room, to fit as many people as possible. The room was freezing, with no doors and no insulation, it left no warmth and I needed no imagination to how impossible rest would have been to those that worked here. Toilets were holes in a long wooden plank, a larger hole underneath to act as a tank for the pits. Parts of the site were blown up, an attempt at hiding the obvious examples of torture and suffering Auschwitz has undertaken, however one still can paint a picture.
What I found difficult, was the sheer volume and amount of 1.1 million people dying within Auschwitz. It was overbearing, too many to even register. An important part of the site that allows this important recognition, is the Museum. Here, there are displays of human hair, shoes, kitchen utensils, uniform, and suitcases, with carefully written names and addresses written on each case if it were to be lost. This mortifying image of people’s personal belongings, even a child’s perfectly plaited hair that now fades grey, will haunt me forever. I just hope that the death and destruction of innocent people by those that participated, haunts them even more.
Walking around the museum, one is able to read personal accounts and testimonies of life in Auschwitz. Where visitors can see the millions of faces that were victims to Hitler’s bizarre and cruel dreams. Family portraits and pictures are on display, so visitors can pay respects to those that fell victim to the Nazi ambitions. But also, for visitors to remember, that these victims are not just victims, but people. People with their own lives, who had happy times before the rise of Hitler, and so we all, can remember their cherished moments, as well as the tragic ones together.