Since returning from my trip to Krakow, I find my mind often wanders to my time at the Auschwitz camp. It moved me in a way that I was not expecting, and stayed with me more vividly than I could have imagined.
The weather was cold and bleak as the taxi pulled up to the gates of Auschwitz – the sky a steely bullet grey. As we waited in line to go through the barriers, it struck me as strange that we were queuing to get into a place that so many people lost their lives trying to escape.
Walking into the camp, we were greeted by the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” gate – it was curious seeing it person, being so acquainted with it in photos. The gate was actually much smaller than I imagined. The atmosphere was quiet and heavy – there were trees all around, but not a single bird singing.
Wandering into the first building with no particular plan or agenda, we started to read an exhibit on Gusen which was a granite-mining labour camp in Austria. The boards laid out in front of us displayed the back-breaking labour in excruciating detail – photos of emaciated men struggling to carry giant blocks of stone up a flight of 186 steps (dubbed the staircase of death as many perished attempting them). The next room told us about the disgusting punishments meted out to the prisoners – sick people given experimental injections to the heart to euthanise them – men and women being strung up with their arms behind them like slabs of meat for hours at a time before being made to return to work… It went on and on. It horrified me that so much suffering and violence had been inflicted on these people at a camp that I hadn’t even heard of. I didn’t and still don’t understand how one human could look another in the eyes and decide to carry out such terrible things.
We then walked out of the building and over a gravel path in-between harsh barbed wire fences. A small grassy hill lay in front of us with an unassuming entrance. As we walked into the first dark, damp room, I looked for a display card detailing where we were but found nothing. Walking through to the next room, I realised with a sinking feeling in my stomach where we were. I recognised the scratch marks on the wall where desperate people tried to climb higher, searching for air. I saw the hatch in the ceiling where masked men poured toxic chemicals into the heaving lungs of innocent people. The very next room was filled with human-shaped furnaces – the sight of which turned my stomach, and I ran through the next room desperate for fresh air with tears streaming down my face. It was stupid, but I felt so sorry that the people who perished in that room saw such an ugly place with their final glances.
The next few buildings passed by in a blur – I remember the room filled with human hair, a room filled with kitchen utensils and a display of thousands of children’s shoes. I felt such sadness that no-one had bothered to pair them up – masses of shoes lying anonymously and alone; each one holding only half of its owner’s story.
Next was the notorious “death wall” between Blocks 10 and 11. This is where countless people were taken to be executed at gunpoint. The windows of the neighbouring buildings were boarded up so the prisoners could not see the atrocities carried out below, although they no-doubt heard everything. Inside Block 11 were custom-built torture cells – pitch black with only room to stand, along with the basement where the Nazis experimented their first use of Zykklon B.
As the winter light slowly faded, we took a bus to the nearby camp Birkenau. While an icy-cold wind whipped around my face, this is where the scale of the operation really hit me – the fields stretched out as far as the horizon, mounds of rubble every few hundred meters signifying the brick huts that the Nazis tried to destroy in efforts to erase their heinous crimes.
Eventually the time came to travel back to Krakow, and I was brought swiftly back to modern life with a cramped and noisy bus – left only with the knowledge that we must make sure that what I had witnessed can never be allowed to happen again.
Despite this trip being such a harrowing experience, I felt that it was a really important one to make. Of course, I had always been aware of the atrocities committed in these camps, but I had no real emotional connection to what happened until I saw it for myself. Would I go back? Absolutely not – but, am I glad I went? Yes. Auschwitz will forever stay in my mind as the reason to ensure we never lose sight of our humanity again.
Have you been to Auschwitz? What did you feel when you were there? I would love to hear about your experiences! Let me know in the comments section 🙂