A decade ago, I was happily travelling down through Poland when I stopped at Krakow for a few days, and somehow decided to visit the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps nearby.
I hadn’t especially thought it through – I was in full-time travelling mode, and full-time travellers crave all kinds of new experiences, good or bad.
But I confess (and I warn you, in case you want to stop reading this post right now) that I had bad nightmares for weeks after it and still today, eleven years later, I feel distressed to look through these pictures or write about it. (And I also feel a little bit of what right do I have to write about it, sitting here with jazz music playing and a piece of chocolate cake – so utterly privileged to have found a so-far good place in world history for myself). However, despite all of that, I am glad I visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps and if you are curious, you can read on. I’ll forgive you if you prefer not to.
Arbeit macht frei – entering Auschwitz
Clearly back then work did not make you free at all.
My journal from the time notes that my outing to Auschwitz took place on a bright sunny summery day, and how inappropriate that was. I semi-reluctantly joined a tour, as tours were “strongly recommended” (in fact for a while I thought it was compulsory to join; in retrospect I would recommend it too). After being shown a short documentary from just after the end of the war, we were taken out to the grounds and the “Arbeit Macht Frei” entrance was the first thing we were shown. It only got worse from there.
An almost aside: in a reminder of just how low the human race can sink, we were given warnings by the guide that pickpockets were rife in the more crowded buildings at Auschwitz. And in fact someone in a group behind us did have their wallet taken. Can you imagine what someone is thinking when they consider that targeting tourists at a concentration camp is a clever way to grab some cash?
Sunshine over Birkenau
That damn sunshine continued. My mood, and that of everyone in the tour group with me, was much better suited to a grey, damp day. It’s probably the quietest I’ve ever heard a group of people remain for so many hours – the bus ride for the three kilometres to Birkenau from Auschwitz was silent.
Birkenau looked familiar after seeing the film of Schindler’s List. Familiarity didn’t make it any less confronting though. Many of the buildings had been destroyed by the Nazis as they left, apparently, but there was still more than enough to indicate the vastness of the place. It is worth remembering that at least 1.1 million people were killed in these camps, and perhaps over 1.5 million. Over a million – isn’t that absolute insanity?
My photographs remind me of many of the Birkenau details that I’ve blocked out in my mind (and I won’t share the bad ones). We went to the site of two crematoriums which were linked to the gas chambers. The guide told us that close by were beautiful flower beds, giving the prisoners the false impression that this building was a good one. In the change rooms, where prisoners were made to undress, they were apparently particularly told to remember the peg number where they hung their clothes so they could get them back after their shower. It is incredible to me that cruelty seems to have no boundaries.
Should you visit Auschwitz-Birkenau?
Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.
And this is the main reason I am glad I went. Somehow I feel it is important to hear that cry of despair. Somehow I think it’s important that although I believe people are all basically good, there are circumstances which can change them.
Last week my husband and I watched a documentary called Hitler’s Children which showed some of the descendants of Nazis like Himmler and Goering and how much they struggle with knowing what their ancestors did. It seemed to me extraordinarily unfair to be judged on something your grandfather or great-uncle did (before you were even born) but these people had very genuine struggles and very sad stories to tell. In fact, this film is what got me thinking about my visit Auschwitz and Birkenau all over again. But my husband very firmly said he would never want to go there. A quick poll on Twitter confirmed for me that people do indeed generally fall into two quite decisive camps of wanting to go, or definitely not wanting to go. I am glad I went but unless my son needed company to go there, I wouldn’t go again.
Should you go? It’s a very personal choice, but you can certainly learn an awful lot by spending a few hours there. It’s very distressing but it’s the sad reality of what happened there. And it definitely is a good “warning to humanity”.