Auschwitz – September 9th, 2009.
Auschwitz. The name itself is seared into the forefront of pretty much every history student or anyone with any knowledge of WWII. Its a grim place. Everyones seen the photos. It was home to 2 of the National Socialist Party (Nazi) death camps. Well 2 of the most famous ones at that.
It was here that about 1.5 million Jewish, Homosexuals, Roma’s, and degenerates were sent to for a) mass extermination or b) hard labour and suffering (which mostly lead to death). It is a place of torment and a reminder to the rest of the world of the recent brutal history of this world.
And it is exactly where I am heading today. I make my way to the bus stop, grab a drink and some food for the ride and grab a ticket on the next bus out to Auschwitz. The trip out isn’t too bad, a fairly annoying trip in a small mini bus that keeps making stops at a variety of small towns on the way.
We get to the place and there is a flock of people around, I meet a fellow solo traveller on the bus, Jules, and we plan on going around together.
The good news is that Auschwitz is free. The bad news is that during summer from 9am to 3pm you cannot enter Auschwitz I unless you are on a tour. Its only about 5 pounds so we take it. It turns out that it was probably a good choice.
We head to this theatre, where they show an archived film of when the camp was liberated by the soviets. The images at times are somewhat shocking and disturbing. I still vividly remember a mother and child ravished by starvation standing in front of a building littered with decaying corpses. Heavy stuff. Not to mention footage of mass graves, sick and unnourished people.
The tour starts after the film at the famous gate that says Arbeit Macht Frei which translates to “work makes you free”. We are in Auschwitz I. Its small and eerie despite the people around. All the buildings are in tact and its pretty moving.
We head into a building (all the buildings house at least 1000 people). A lot of the buildings have exhibitions in them. The one we go into now shows us about the extermination process. Its quite ghastly to know how easy it was to be sentenced to the “shower” rooms. And not to mention the sheer numbers that were exterminated. Its ridiculous.
We head into another building, and this is quite a shocking building. We were walking in as students were walking out and pretty much all were crying. This was the building where all the plunder the nazis kept off the jew’s was kept. There is one room full of suitcases, another full of combs and hairbrushes, clothes, glasses, and shoes you name it that kept it. The guide told a story of how he was bringing around some people who were at Auschwitz and one of the guys saw his suitcase. Pretty remarkable. The most shocking room in this building was the room that had hair in it. Yeah, the Nazi’s even took their hair to make money they turned the hair into anything they could from rugs to bags anything. But seeing a bunch of human hair is quite disturbing.
We then head down to the prison. There was a guy during the camp times called Maximillion, who gave his own life, he took the punishment for another prisoner and was put in here. He lasted 2 weeks in here, starving before the nazi’s got fed up and shot him. This building also housed the court rooms – where most people where sentenced to death without fair trial and taken out the back to meet their demise.
The most shocking is seeing the standing cells. These were 3ft x 3ft and you actually had to crawl into them to get to them and than share with 4 other people. Tough. We then head out into the middle courtyard, this is where the death wall is. Its where prisoners were executed by gunfire. You can see the bulletholes.
Our next stop takes us to the only surviving gas chamber in Auschwitz – the nazi’s tried to destroy all evidence before the soviets liberated it. This gas chamber is rather small, it can only hold about 300 people at a time. And it was because of this inadaquecy that they closed down Auschwitz I and moved to Birkenau (known as Auschwitz II) because they had built 2 gas chambers that could hold 1000 people per hour. You do the maths.
Its quite horrifying the ease at which this was all done as well. Its quite sick knowing that this happened and that in some parts of the world it still goes on.
We get a break before heading down the road to Birkenau. The first thing you notice about Birkenau is the sheer size of it. It hits you immediately at how sparse it is. It is about 340 hectares. And the one thing that makes it seem big is that there is a lack of buildings – as I said previously the Nazi’s tried to burn everything to save their own backsides.
We walk through the Death Gates (if you’ve seen Schindlers list you know what I’m talking about) and head along the tracks to the checkpoint. This is where the trains came in, the inmates were lined up males on one side, and males on the other. And one guy stood at the front, inspected you and basically pointed his thumb to the left or to the right. As simple as that. To the left meant you could work, to the right meant you were having a “shower” and impending death.
There is an eeriness that is greater here than at Auschwitz I. Its incredible being here, but I didn’t think the severity of the place would hit so hard.
We go visit a Birkenau house where inmates lived. Their living quarters were quite harsh. At least 5 people sleeping in a bunk. Nuts.
The tour ends at the back of the campsite. We see the memorial to the victims and a small dam where the Nazi’s poured the ashes into. The massive gas chamber is huge – much bigger than the one at auschwitz. They first strip you naked, give you some soap and towells (remember they were told shower chambers) and once in it took a little over 20-30 minutes. Then to the crematorium. Its really frightening the efficiency they had.
As bad and horrific at what happened here last century I am grateful to have had such an oppoturnity to do so. It not only opened my eyes more to the history but made me realise how short life can be at times. It is an experience, a very moving experience.
We head to Auschwitz I and then run in thongs to our bus – we just make it. Thank god. I sleep all the way to Krakow.
I meet up with Anita and we go to a CS meeting in a pub near the centre of town. I grab a feed first as Im starving (good old hole in the wall kebab) and then a few beers at the meeting. Before calling it a night.