Out of the six million-plus men, women and children – mainly Jews – that were murdered during the holocaust, an estimated one and half million of them were killed in Auschwitz. After travelling to the two camps an hour drive from Kraków, Poland, Hamish Kilburn reports on his experience…
I’ve been dreading this moment of having to recall my time in Poland. I usually feel better, lighter, liberated after completing an article. Trying to recall and explain the eerie atmosphere at Auschwitz, though, feels heavy on my mind and it is one of the hardest journalistic tasks I have faced yet. But it’s right to remember. In a place where innocent people were sent to die, painfully, with no mercy shown from their murderers, we must remember how this atrocity occurred so that history will never have to repeat itself.
The night before my flight I couldn’t sleep. I was busy preparing myself to embark on an experience that I knew would shock, chill and affect the way I felt about World War Two (WW2) and quite possibly the world we live in today. The truth? I don’t think anything could have prepared me for what came next.
Until this trip, I was under the impression that WW2 concentration camps were a place where Jews and homosexuals were sent to die after being prisoned until there was no more space for them. This is horrifying enough, but the fact that many were experimented on, humiliated and physically abused leaves an eerie shudder down my spine. I thought it would be hard to contemplate the sheer amount of people that were murdered here, but honestly it’s not. The morning is cold, we drive through Polish villages, crossing rivers and streams and all too quickly reality hits as the train tracks run parallel to our coach and we turn into the first of two concentration camps, Auschwitz one.
Upon arrival, and when making first impressions of the place, I was surprisingly underwhelmed. It looked like old military buildings. But as you walk to the front gate the words ‘work makes your free’ is scripted on the gates in German. It is the ultimate, ignominious irony and I couldn’t help but imagine being in a prisoner’s shoes walking in and up to the point where the guard would select the fate of each human being after being hurled out of the train carriages. There’s a deliberately placed square in the centre. Here is where the onsite doctor/guard would decide who the workers would be. Those ordered to the left would now be sent to death. Whether that be lined up in a firing squad, hung or most documented, less expensive and most effective way to wipe out 800 lives at a time, the gas chambers. The victims ordered to the right would suffer the lesser of two evils. They would be worked to near death, barely surviving enough to feel the painful deterioration of their body due to lack of food, poor living conditions and hard labour. The guide tells me that, on average, women would enter weighing 75kg. After suffering within the barbed-wired fences, they would be killed weighing just 20kg. For each individual, it was only a matter of time before they were murdered. It’s a lot to take in among a place where hope was lost for so many talents, characters and lives and trust me, I am writing this through wet eyes. Free will was stripped away and victims were obliged to wear striped tops and trousers. I considered myself prepared as I embarked on this journey but in reality, one cannot prepare for death on such a devastating and enormous scale.
The museum is impactful and shocking but put the place into perspective. For example, 40,000 pairs of shoes are on display. So, too, is the two tons of human hair that was stripped from the victims upon arrival. A long corridor featuring profile photographs of victims are lined up each with two dates. One documenting when they arrived at the camp, the other when they were murdered. I can’t help but imagine how these civilians lived their lives before this moment in history.
Further along, block 10. Women were often experimented on here. Many were killed to have autopsies performed on them. Others were tortured but all suffered the same fate as their neighbours. Nothing is more inhuman than a block dedicated to torture, cruelty, painful punishment and death. Block 11 is just horrific. Men and women who had committed crimes on site were again sent to die. But the methods consisted of starvation cells and it was here in 1941 where the Nazis first experimented with death via crystalline hydrogen cyanide gas.
My first tear of the trip fell when we walked around a new addition to the museum, which documented what life was like for Jews before the holocaust. It was the children playing in the streets and seeing happy families together that did it for me.
Soon our time at Auschwitz one was over but not until we walked in the only remaining gas chamber in the camp. It didn’t hit me at the time. Even after seeing the scratched walls and standing in what I consider now a coward’s murder weapon. It’s an empty dark room. 800 people at a time, that’s more people than I know. To put this into perspective, that would be like my Twitter followers, Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections being wiped out in 15 – 20 of the most painful minutes imaginable. Select prisoners were then forced to burn the bodies, one at a time, to dispose of each corpse. Like I said, I couldn’t comprehend this at the time but it has haunted my viewpoint on WW2 history since returning home.
It was intense but that was only the half of it. Just a few kilometres down the road is where the scale of the holocaust is felt most. Auschwitz Birkenau – the second camp – is almost 20 times bigger in size than Auschwitz one. We stood at the top of the watchtower. As far as the eye can see, chimneys, ruins and the train track that indicates the route to more gas chambers.
Is it wrong to say that it was peaceful when walking around the camp? I had heard that people refer to this place as a holy land, I can see why. The weather was beautiful, the trees picturesque. Even knowing that it was here where children, women, men (old and young), waited until the gas chambers were prepped for their murders. Most of whom were unaware of their tragic fate that would soon follow. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A herd of deer charged past us. It was an extraordinary moment in such a derelict place. The unmatched scene was shared among the whole group – so, too, was the look of astonishment on our faces.
A few pieces of land on the site – along with the stories they hold – remain encrypted in my memory. One of which being the plot where a group of victims revolted against the Nazis and burnt down one of the gas chambers. If you’re thinking that the Liberation followed you would be right, but not before the tragic murders of the ones responsible for the fire and the ones found guilty of helping them, which came days before the holocaust came to an end. Much of the evidence was destroyed at Auschwitz Birkenau by the Nazis themselves who continued to murder their victims right up until they physically had to hand over their plans.
“In the early days, many Jews paid for their train tickets,” said the guide. “Once they had arrived – and before being sent to the gas chambers – some were even forced to write post cards to their loved ones back at home.” It is the inhuman acts like these, to deliberately mislead victims to their death that shocked me most on this trip. In the years that followed, as the Nazi government grew stronger, so did the propaganda. It developed to the point where it was illegal for Jews to live among other civilians. Men, women and children were arrested and sent away; the majority would arrive at Auschwitz.
Deep at the back of the site stands the building where the minority – who were not sent directly to the gas chambers – would go to collect their uniform and be given their new identity. Auschwitz is the only concentration camp that actually tattooed numbers onto the victims’ left arm. The first few rooms where this happened are now bare and surprisingly small. It leads through to a room that is full of names, personal photographs and stories explaining, in depth, how the holocaust changed their family trees focusing on individuals of the ones who survived. Apparently, all these memoirs came from one suitcase. I didn’t want to leave until I had read every last word and seen every last photograph. Here, each family was different but all shared the same harrowing common denominator of loved ones torn apart by abuse and murder.
By the time it was time to leave, I felt physically and mentally exhausted. Giving me what little closure I could find, I read the plaque that was beneath the fitting statue, which stands next to the gas chambers. It reads, “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.” And with that I lit a candle, placed it cautiously on the rail track and walked towards the gates.
If you are a sixth form or university student interested in visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau, please contact the Trust at firstname.lastname@example.org to check for available subsidised spaces on upcoming trips.