“Dawn came on us like a betrayer; it seemed as though the new sun rose as an ally of our enemies to assist in our destruction.” Primo Levi – “Survival in Auschwitz”
In 2006 I visited Krakow in Poland and went on a bus trip to the notorious Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.
After breakfast in the hotel we had a baffling incident about whether we had booked a tour or not; actually it turned out that we hadn’t but luckily there was a tour guide in the reception who did her best to make things as confusing as possible before taking our money and escorting us to the tour bus that was waiting patiently around the corner. The cost of the full day excursion was one hundred and twenty zlotys each (about £24) and that seemed like good value to me. She charged us the full adult price but issued us with half price student tickets, which I didn’t notice until later and was probably her way of making a little for herself.
The bus made several more pick ups and then headed out west into the suburbs and finally the countryside for the one hour journey first through a mixture of affluent looking houses and poorer working class districts, then farmland and finally dense deciduous woodland with trees standing proud all stripped naked of leaves and waiting for winter to arrive.
Actually the journey deteriorated into a bit of an ordeal! I don’t think that the driver had noticed that the weather was unseasonably warm for December and the strong sun pierced the coach windows into a vehicle with the heating set to maximum. The combination became quite uncomfortable and the heat and the motion sent Kim into a deep sleep and she missed most of the video that was showing about the history of the concentration camp. Everyone was struggling to take off their heavy outdoor coats and I think the tour guide fell asleep too because once when the driver was negotiating a particularly sharp roundabout she fell out of her seat and tumbled into the stairwell of the bus. Luckily she was uninjured and we carried on.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at Auschwitz and I confess to being a little apprehensive at the beginning of the tour especially when a cold wind seemed to blow across our faces at the very moment we passed through the infamous gates of the camp; or perhaps I just imagined it? There is a story that no birds fly across the camp but I did see a solitary crow passing by so I presumed that this was indeed just a bit of folklore. I didn’t see any more however.
It wasn’t quite what I expected to see, instead of the wooden barracks that I had imagined these were three storey brick buildings that looked quite comfortable and this didn’t seem wholly consistent with the truth of the horrors that took place here. One million, six hundred thousand people killed as part of the Nazi’s ‘final solution’ including one million Jews, seventy-five thousand Poles and twenty-five thousand gypsies!
Just imagine that! – Actually I think it is impossible to imagine that.
When the camp was at its most ruthlessly efficient they slaughtered four hundred and fifty-eight thousand Hungarian Jews in just three months. Just three months! That is slightly over five thousand people a day! I knew this of course but what I didn’t know is that the monsters actually sold them train tickets to get here.
Amongst the exhibits were empty Zyclon B canisters, the gas used to murder the prisoners, seven tonnes of human hair from an estimated one hundred and fifty thousand people and part of a grim recycling operation to process it into army uniforms; spectacles, pots and pans, suitcases with return addresses optimistically scrawled on them for identification and most moving of all a display of children’s clothes and possessions. The owners of these personal belongings all died at the hands of the Nazi’s, the most hateful people that Europe has ever produced.
Usually when I am travelling I like to see sunshine and today the sun shone brightly but this seemed to be somewhat inappropriate, it occurred to me that this was a place where the sun should never shine again so that no one ever forgets the enormity of the crime. We saw the death wall where an unknown number of people were murdered and the prison cells that were positively medieval in their cruelty; the starvation cell, the suffocation cell and the standing in a very confined space with others cell; and there was a display of photographs of the prisoners which in each case showed the dates of admission and of death, on average only three short months.
Finally we passed through the first gas chamber and crematorium where seven hundred people at a time were gassed to death and this was a horrible place, grey, grim and cold.
For me the most shocking thought it that all of this took place less than ten years before I was born and my thoughts at this time were how lucky I have been to live a happy life. I was bought up on tales of the war told to me by my father, but these were always gallant tales about impossibly brave paratroopers and square jawed commandos, about fearless desert rats and valiant fighter pilots, about courageous heroes and stiff upper lips, about medals and honours; I am certain that he never really understood what the war was like in Eastern Europe.
After a short break we went to the adjacent Birkenau that was a much bigger second camp where people lived in wooden barracks and where most of the killing took place. This was much more like what I had been expecting and so much more familiar to the films we have all seen. This place was stark and ugly and we saw the platform where selection took place – work camp and a slow lingering death or an immediate bullet and a release from misery, and looming over all of this was the watchtower that kept guard over this entire evil place.
The Tragedy wasn’t just about Auschwitz of course and recent research has identified that the network of camps and ghettos set up by the Nazis to conduct the Holocaust and persecute millions of victims across Europe was far larger and systematic than previously believed. Researchers conducting the bleak work of chronicling all the forced labour sites, ghettos and detention facilities run by Hitler’s regime alongside such centres of imprisonment, oppression and industrialised murder such as Auschwitz have now catalogued more than 42,500 institutions used for persecution and death.
The journey back was a time for personal reflection and the coach was eerily quiet as I am sure each visitor tried to make sense of what they had seen. I am not certain I was able to do that but it was a place I wanted to visit and I’m glad that I did.
May God bring peace to world, really sad story make me cry
Thanks for reading and the comment.
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That is a place that I want to visit but also do not want to visit.
That was exactly how I thought about it. In the final analysis I considered it essential if only to try and understand something about humanity, or the lack of it. I guess as time goes by it is my difficult to understand the psyche of the Nazis. I am going to Warsaw next month, that will be another lesson!
I feel my gut churning just reading your eloquent post Andrew. I can barely imagine how it would feel to visit let alone the actual horrors that went on there.
I was nervous, but it is presented very well. I would say that it reminds rather than shocks. Well worth a visit!
Thanks Andrew. Good to know you would recommend it. So important that we don’t forget these atrocities even if remembering makes one feel nauseated at the unimaginable horror. 😦
If you ever go to Krakow then you should go to this place. Although we associate it mostly with the holocaust it is more than that. An international place which means different things to different people. I was surprised – I think you would be too.
I appreciate that Andrew. Really helpful to know more about it. Thank you so much.
It is an interesting statistic that almost as many people now visit Auschwitz every year as visitors/pilgrims as were murdered there during the life of the camp.
Hopefully all filled with respect. A very interesting stat Andrew.
This must have been one of the saddest places on earth to visit, Andrew. May we never forget what happened there, or condone man’s inhumanity to man today or in the future.
As I said, it was presented very well, sad but not overwhelming!
I visited by public transport in 2004. There was a mandatory video and tour, but I spent much of my time alone, which I think was a mistake. It took me several days to recover from the experience. I could feel evil practically rising from the ground.
I think it is important to visit Auschwitz, but having done so, and having read a lot of literature on the Nazis, including contemporary diaries, I have decided I really don’t need to visit any more camps or museums.
I think once is enough!
A true blight on humanities history.
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