Disclaimer: This post contains some fairly graphic descriptions of events and sights that some readers may find disturbing. If you think you are likely to be offended or upset by such, my advice would be not to read further.
Recently, I went to the south of Poland with family. While we mostly spent our time in the beautiful city of Kraków and nearby Wieliczka and its salt mines, we also took a trip to the town of lesser-known town of Oświęcim. From what we saw from our coach window on the way into the town, aside from a quaint old market square, the town has very little to make it stand out. That is, besides its dark past. During the Second World War, when the town was annexed into the Third Reich, Oświęcim became known exclusively by its German (and decidedly more notorious) name – Auschwitz. Over the day that we were there, we were given a guided tour of two of the three main concentration camps around Oświęcim – KL Auschwitz I, and KL Auschwitz II – Birkenau.
On our way into Oświęcim on our coach, we were asked to watch a documentary featuring footage shot by Aleksandr Vorontsov (Александр Воронцов), a Soviet soldier who was among the first to arrive at the camp after liberation of the camp in 1945. The footage was… grisly, and certainly not easy to watch. It featured medical examinations of survivors of the camp, some of whom children, and some autopsy footage. The film can be found here, though I would recommend not watching if you are easily upset or of a nervous disposition – some of the footage is extremely graphic. We were then divided into groups based on languages and introduced to our guide, who was called Anna.
Anna walked us around the brick barrack blocks at KL Auschwitz I, stopping at various points to explain things that had happened there – and she was by no means skipping any of the details. I think it must take a special kind of person to work at a place like that… she was clearly passionate about showing the brutality of what went on there, and she had a gift for conjuring up images with her descriptions. We walked around the camp for about two and a half hour, going into various exhibits to see remaining belongings and even a mountain of human hair, that really brought home the extent of the atrocities that went on at the place.
One of the barracks had some pictures (mugshots might be more accurate, actually) of Jews who had been through the camp – most were from Poland, but some were from Hungary and the Czech Republic. One really stood out to me, a woman called Halina Borecka, prisoner number 32120, a Polish translator who was deported on the 29th of January 1943 and died on the 5th of March, just over a month later. She really stuck in my head because we share a profession, and I suppose that made it easier for me to empathise… it sounds strange, I know, but walking around there… it feels more like a grotesque film set than an actual place. It’s genuinely difficult to believe that some of the things that went on there were actually carried out by real human beings. The jews who arrived there had been told that they were being relocated, resettled, so there are suitcases with names and addresses lined up along the chamber containing more shoes than I’ve ever seen in my life. There are cabinets with artifacts that the Nazis didn’t deem useful enough or didn’t have time to send back to Germany for re-use or recycling, and what really struck me was that someone had packed their potato peeler. These people truly had no idea of the terrible fate that awaited them.
The enormity and sheer scale of the horrific actions carried out didn’t even really hit me until that afternoon when we visited the next camp, KL Auschwitz II – Birkenau, with the famous railway tracks and gatehouse. When you’re standing on that train platform (and it’s really just a stretch of gravel), you can see wooden barracks or chimney stacks (remnants from wooden barracks that the Nazis burnt down as Soviet troops drew nearer) stretching out almost as far as the eye can see. There are ruined gas chambers and crematoria, too, that we know from testimony from survivors of the Sonderkommando (German for ‘Special Unit’) were churning out plumes of sweet-smelling smoke day and night. The Sonderkommando were Jewish prisoners who were charged with the grisly task of going into gas chambers after the gas had been put through holes in the ceiling, its occupants were left to die and the room left to air, and removing valuables and even gold teeth from the murdered prisoners, and then transporting the bodies in special lifts to be disposed of in the crematoria. They were told to check every possible hiding place, and as the effects of the Zyklon-B gas often caused its victims’ jaws to clench shut, they were equipped with special forceps to prise open the mouths of the prisoners to check for gold teeth or fillings that would be sent back to Germany and melted down. It genuinely defies belief.
Although I definitely will not be repeating the experience, I have to admit that I’m glad I went, and would recommend it to anybody. I’m fascinated by this period of history, although it definitely isn’t a particularly happy one, and I was interested to find out more – though obviously, I got considerably more than I had bargained for. I think the existence of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum is vital, and I definitely think that people should visit if only to see it for themselves. After all, as it says on a wall in the first stop on the museum tour, which also happened to be the words with which Anna chose to end our tour, ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ For more information, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum has a very informative website which can be found here, which also has a series of panoramic images of the entire complex. All the pictures included in this blog post were taken by me on my visit, though it’s plain to see that I’m no photographer – they definitely don’t capture the essence of the place, that can only be experienced first hand. As always, thank you very much for reading all the way to the end, and I’ll see you all next month.