Sickening, numbing and chilling are a few words to describe my day touring Auschwitz. This post contains a detailed description of true and traumatic events. I did not to take images on the day, out of respect. The images in the post were before entering the camp.
My second day in Krakow was my main reason for my trip to Poland. A tour of Auschwitz concentration camp. On every holiday, I like to do something big, something that brings me back to reality. Something that reminds me of why I get to travel to places and why I get to live as I do. This trip it would be to Auschwitz.
This visit has been the most surreal, heartbreaking and numbing experiences to date. Hearing about it in school and reading it in books is one thing. Being on location is something else.
There are two sections to the Auschwitz concentration camp and my tour with Cracow Tours took me to both.
Arriving at Auschwitz did not feel like any other place I have been to. There was no chatter or hustle and bustle. There were whispers and people gathered waiting patiently. When we got past security there was a silence that fell, nobody wanting to speak. As we entered our guide stopped us in our tracks. He proceeded to give a detailed overview of what happened when concentration camp victims arrived.
The separation and the decisions. It was the moment where one person, decided if a human will die or, live a life of torture. A life that had an impending death date inside Auschwitz. As you enter you pass under an arch with “work sets you free” written. There is a boom gate that stays up and a once functioning train track that you cross over. This train track connects with the second section of the camp.
Entering was a strange feeling. It was quite, a type of quite that you are certain would not have always been present. The only person to speak was our guide. His words were not words that you associate with going to camp. These are the kind of words that make your stomach sink, turn and make you feel ill.
Each building we entered featured new information, new images, documents and/or items. Each room cold and stale. Lifeless and miserable, the way it would have been when they were being “lived” in.
On display are the remaining items and copies of documents. Kept from the last few years that Auschwitz was running. The documents from earlier years are burnt and destroyed. On arrival, items were taken from their owners and sold. Anything found after liberation that was not burnt and destroyed or sold got used as evidence. Evidence of the crimes committed here in Auschwitz.
The images you see during the tour are the kind that breaks your heart into millions of pieces and stay with you. These are haunting images of terrible acts. You can see sadness and confusion on the faces of women, men and children. The images taken are from 1943 and on wards. The photographs had been taken by insiders and informants. The photos began to be taken when it was realised how criminal this camp was. The same for many other camps. Each photograph was the product of someone who risked their life for proof. The images became invaluable proof of crimes and documenting history. And bringing justice for those murdered.
Registration forms are among the most common of the documents on display. These are the forms of women, men and children. Humans who, at the time were considered racially undesirable. Human beings who most likely did not make it out. The forms show names, age’s, nationalities, gender, date of birth and place of birth. None of those things matters though, in the right-hand corner was a stamp, a series of numbers. That person’s new identity. To be tattoo onto their body and to be treated as a number.
My body went rigid and filled with anger while reading names of those now deceased from such cruelty and heinous acts. Forced to forget who they are and where they from. Their lives treated like nothing.
Walking through the camp all the buildings multiple stories, in a perfect line, all the same size, all and all the same colour. The trees are the only bright colour in the camp, standing tall and lining the centre gravelled road. These are roads where sad, exhausted, scared souls roamed.
We entered a couple buildings on the tour where photographs are forbidden. The first building was of items on display; items owned by innocent people. Had liberation not happened, these pieces would have been sold and the money used to fund the war. Piles of hairbrushes, cosmetics, glasses, kitchen items and pray shawls on display. Thousands of pairs of shoes, among them tiny children shoes. Shoes worn to come to this treacherous place. Another display case filled with two tonnes of hair. Hair cut off on arrival that would later be used to make different materials. A huge pile of emptied suitcases, with names and address printed on the front. These names became identification and Proof. Proof of barbaric activities and identification for those who had been at Auschwitz.
Another building showcased the horrid living conditions. Bathrooms that allowed for no privacy. Beds made hessian bags filled with hay, no blankets or pillows in a cold room on the floor. In the earlier days of camp, hay was the only thing separating frail bodies from the cold floor. The rooms have been set up as it would have been in the times of camp function. As we walked past the room and bathroom displays, there are photos on the walls. The face of victims.
Their sad sunken faces in their striped uniforms with different badges sewn on. Although not visible in the photos these badges are coloured. Coloured to separate each person by sexuality and nationality; a letter to show where they came from. P for Poland, F for France, G for Germany etc. The all to well known yellow Jewish star can be seen in the photographs too.
Underneath the photo; number, date of birth, date of arrival and date of death printed. This was a system used upon arrival that did not last long. People were dying to fast to keep track and becoming unrecognisable from their photo. The head shots created proof of criminal activity. These deluded people knew what they are did was wrong and publishable, so, out with this system, in with a new. After this a simple registration form was the only documentation of prisoners, only they forgot to rid the photos.
Visiting the prison cells, had me disgusted and horrified. These small, dark, concrete cells were not used as punishment for criminal activity. More scare tactics and brainwashing. These cells were better known as, starvation cells. The cells and methods used as punishment for decent, reasonable human acts. Helping someone at work, giving a friend or family member a piece of their bread, even showing slight resistance. On one of the doors, you can see original carvings that were made by prisoners. As you move deeper into the building you go into the basement and enter a room where a new type of gas was tested. This gas would be later used in the chambers. These testing rooms are smaller than toilet cubicles and made to fit four at a time. Sometimes left up to 12 hours in the small confines. I could feel my claustrophobia kicking in only thinking about it.
Leaving the prison we entered into the execution area; hangings, shootings and torture. The torture that would break bones. That would see someone unfit for work, giving them a reason to be sent to the gas chamber. Throughout the prison and in the execution area it was complete silence, not even a word from the guide. This is out of respect to those who suffered in this area.
The prison was at the opposite end of the camp to the gas chamber. Far away from where any main activity happened. The reason for this was to minimise the chances of witnesses. Overlooking the execution area was the “hospital”. All the windows had been boarded up and no one could see out, but also, nobody could see in. We didn’t enter the hospital but did get a rundown of the horrific tests run on Jewish women and children within those walls. Not seeing the rooms was okay with me. I was thankful not to see where such cruelty had taken place.
Our last stop in the first section was the gas chamber. On our walk down from the prison, we walked through the centre of all the buildings, down the main road you could say. Past the tall trees, passing lanes that lead off to dead ends. As you look down each lane you see thick pieces of once live barbed wire, used not only stop escapes but what prisoners used to commit suicide. The view was then cut off by a brick wall. The wall is the same dirty brown as the buildings also high enough to stop anyone from seeing inside.
On the walk down, the only thing that could be heard was the sound of our feet on the dirt and gravel. Everyone in time and the occasional words of our guide in our earpieces. On the walk we passed the posts where public executions (hangings) took place. We were standing in the same place people were forced to watch.
Before seeing the chamber, we stopped at the place where justice was served. The hanging post of the terrorist who ran and created Auschwitz. Whose name I will not mention, whose name should never be spoken or known. His death happened a few hundred metres from his home, where he raised his children and lived with his wife. It was only fitting he die on the grounds where he was responsible for the murder of many.
The gas chambers interior had been redone to preserve the building itself. Regardless of the walls being redone, you can see they have tried to keep authenticity to its look. You can imagine what the original walls would have looked like, the scratch marks that would have been made and the screams the walls would have heard. Standing in the chamber was a moment I wanted to remember and at the same time, it was a place I couldn’t wait to get out of. As I stood there my chest felt heavy like it was caving in. A lump formed in my throat and my mind was empty, I had no words to describe my thoughts or feelings at that moment. This was a common feeling much of the tour.
When you leave the chamber you enter one of the many crematories in Auschwitz. You can only image the smell that must have filled this building. Both rooms large and concrete, but only one, the crematorium has a window. People from neighbouring towns claim they could smell the bodies being cremated. After cremation happened the ashes were sold off as fertilisers. Of course with a lack of description so nobody knew what their product was a mixture of.
After the first camp tour was completed we went over to the second. The two were connected by a train line. The train line was made a few years after the opening of the second section. This became like an overflow camp and train line was a means for efficiency. Transportation of prisoners, mostly Jewish and Gypsies. When you enter, you stand where the platforms once were. With hundreds of “houses” to your left and to your right. All in a perfect line, all the same colour, all the same size. Both sides surrounded by barbed wire. The tour started with us walking down the centre following the train line to the gas chambers. These chambers had been destroyed only days before liberation.
As we walked down we saw the “housing” for Jewish females and children to our left and gypsies to the right. There are no trees lining path and no colour other than the grass that has since grown. The walk down is roughly one km long. During this trek the wind howled; cold, loud and picking up dust as it came gushing through. The wind howling and the sound of gravel crunching beneath our feet was again the only noise. We had no headphones and speaker in this part of the tour to listen to the guide, we had to huddle around when the information was given. While the wind blew, I thought of how strong and loud it was, then, as I looked around remembering where I am. I thought of the sounds that once would have howled through here. Louder and filled with agony and at all hours.
Once we reached the end of the line, we saw the memorial that has been built between two of the crumbled chambers. After taking in our surrounds and hearing the painful truths that took place in this part of the camp. We saw inside one of the women and children buildings. Untouched and as it was. The building resembles a barn. Which I guess is fitting of how animal-like and dehumanising they were treated. Inside is lined with three tired bunk beds, slates of wood that were slept on and dirt floor embedded with stone. Each tier supposed to sleep, six people. Sleeping arrangements decided amongst the women. The top bunk being the ideal position; out of the way of any bodily fluids that may exit the body during the night. The room has no bathroom and slept more than 200 plus women each night.
When we finished the tour I was in a vortex of emotions. Anger, confusion, sadness, hurt, empathy and emptiness. While feeling so many emotions I was also numb. It wasn’t until the journey back to Krakow from Auschwitz, that I processed my thoughts and emotions.
It sickens me to think about how a person could see another life as so invaluable. To see them only as a number. To hear all through school the events that took place is awful and shocking but to then walk it and see where it took place is surreal. For any person contemplating a visit, although confronting and emotional you can not, not go. It is the kind of experience that puts life in perspective and truth, meaning and feelings into the words that have been put in textbooks and spoken about for years.
Our guide ended the Auschwitz concentration camp tour with something that has not left my mind and I think it’s important add;
“Do not leave today demonising a certain race or country. This is not a situation of race killing race, or religion killing religion. Not everyone believed in the reasons of war that was happening. This was human murdering human because of one’s belief. There is no separation in the world, only lack of knowledge and respect”