The holocaust has always held great fascination to me. Part of that is due to my name being Hebrew, but the largest reason is just the incredulity of it. Although Holocaust deniers should be branded with a Star of David on their forehead for being such fucking idiots, you can kind of understand why they might go there. It’s the same as infinity or the concept of the big bang. It’s just too big to understand.
It was before last Christmas I dipped my toes into holocaust literature. Part of me wasn’t sure how right it was to do it; was I being a voyeur? But as soon as I started, I realised that some things are so sick, you could never elicit voyeuristic pleasure from them so I was instantly hooked. Along with many books, I consumed documentary after documentary on the subject, all to try and wrap my head around it and make just the tiniest bit of sense out of it. Of course, it was senseless, so that was an impossible task.
2018 has been my holocaust year. All I have read (save two books) has been about the holocaust. Whether it was personal accounts or more academic tomes, it has all but consumed me. There was just one thing left to do to complete this journey: start to visit the concentration camps.
There are many to choose from, but it made sense to start at the most infamous, Auschwitz-Birkenau. So, back in September, with trepidation, a trip was booked to Krakow with Auschwitz being the first destination.
I was worried. I had read the horror stories. I would see things in real life and join the dots in my mind the the accounts in the books. It would now come to life in a way I couldn’t imagine – would I be able to handle it?
The day came and we were first taken to the place where the old last stop was, between Auschwitz and Birkenau. There, sitting alone on a track directly opposite some houses, was one of the cattle cart transports. My heart leapt at the sight – this was my first encounter. I slowly walked around it, taking in the nooks and crannies, the beams of wood, the heavy iron on the doors, the pebbles placed by previous visitors. However, before I had too long to ponder, the tour guide wanted to take us to camp 1: Auschwitz.
The minibus pulls into a carpark. The carpark is filled with coaches and other minibuses. There are tourists everywhere. It certainly feels more like a theme park at this point than ground zero for horror. Soon, we met our guide for the tour itself, had receivers with crappy earpieces to listen with and then we were on our way.
Almost immediately, you are confronted with THAT sign: Arbeit Macht Frei / Works sets you free, surely one of the cruelest hoaxes in all of mankind. Like every other tourist there, I had to take my photo.
Next we passed the area where the welcoming band played. If you are unfamiliar with the traditions in camp, some of the prisoners who could play an instrument had to form an orchestra to jolly along the other prisoners to and from their work. It almost sounds idyllic, and maybe it would be if the majority weren’t worked to death.
Auschwitz was once an army barracks for the Polish forces. As such, it has a layout which feels almost street-like. Large brick buildings with tree lined-avenues. Innocuous, even. It is only when the guide starts taking you into these buildings that they come to life. This one here is where Mengele carried out his experiments on twins. This is the one where a kangaroo court sentenced people to immediate death for the slightest infraction. This is the one where prisoners were made to sleep on hay on concrete floors. This is the one where they carried out the very first gassings to determine how much Zyklon B was needed. All very grim.
Every building had photos and information about Auschwitz. Sometimes related to the use of that particular building, sometimes information only, just like other museums. There were several exhibits that are shocking to behold. The first is a room full of suitcases. Many of those deported to the camp were told that it was to “keep them safe”. At the beginning, all thought they were going somewhere relatively safe to work. Even as the war progressed and the rumours abound, few were prepared to really believe them. This is why each case has a name and address painted on it, so the poor owners could one day be reunited with their belongings. Of course, what really happened was that their belongings were instantly stolen and distributed throughout the Reich.
Another room is full of spectacles and monocles. Thousands of them. It a massive tangled pile, the wearers long forgotten, their ghosts lingering behind the glass.
Then there are the shoes. The indescribable amount of shoes. Scruffy shoes, posh shoes, court shoes, childrens shoes, baby shoes. Hundreds of thousands of pairs on display. You peer at them wondering about the wearer, what fate befell them.
Finally, the hair. When Auschwitz was libereated, the allies found several tonnes of hair in hessian sacks. Upon arrival, the women had their hair removed. The “barber” was instructed to do it in three swift cuts with oversized scissors. Precious locks tumbled around the naked women, desperately trying to hide their modesty. The pretence? De-lousing. The real reason? Human hair made great socks and matresses for the soldiers on the front line. Staring at a pair of plaited pigtails, I try and imagine the girl who wore them. It is heartbreaking.
The personal belongings are the most wrenching, however, I remained composed. This was mainly because the tours move so fast through the buildings to avoid congestion, you never really get a chance to ponder for more than a few seconds. Only when you walk the length of a very long corridor aligned with the photographs of the victims; their names, the arrival date, the too-soon death date, do things really start to sink in. Some look harrowed. Some confused. Some scared. Some bewildered.
We pass other places of note. Hoess’ luxury villa. The scaffolding opposite on which he was eventually hanged for war crimes. The sealed off execution wall where regular shootings took place after the kangaroo court. Scaffolding designed to hold multiple prisoners at once, for all to see. The electric fencing all around. The guard towers.
And then it is in front of you. Almost without realising, you are about to enter the gas chamber itself. A dark, concrete room, lit by holes in the ceiling from which Zyklon B would have poured in. Your eyes adjust and you look around and it is then that you notice it. Scratch marks on the walls, high up near the ceiling. The chambers were standing room only but, when the gas came in, those inside tried for the door. Hundreds of them clambering on eachothers’ naked bodies to find a way out. The instinct for survival greater than any logic or reason. After 20 minutes, once all were exterminated and the doors opened, the bodies were all piled on top of eachother near the door; a tangled mess of limbs.
From there, they were dragged to the crematoria ovens. They were efficient. A large lady, a skinny man and a small child could all go in at once, the fat from the lady keeping the flames alight until all were ash floating away through the chimney.
It stays with you.
From there we went to Birkenau (Auschwtiz II), a couple of miles away. If you don’t know, Auschwitz was comprised of three large and three small camps. Auschwitz I is the one I was just talking about, Auschwtitz II is the one with the tracks leading to it (see below). The others were a mixture of camps and factories. Only I & II had crematoria.
Once you follow the tracks through the imposing entrance, you begin to get a grasp on the scale of this second camp. Auschwitz I is quite small; II is vast. It was still under construction when liberated, so you can see an end to the women’s side of the camp. The men’s, however, just disappears off to the horizon. It looks like it never ends. Horse sheds were used to house the prisoners, hundreds per building. A building designed to hold a few horses. They slept in bunks, sometimes six to a bunk with one matress per bunk. Dystentry was rife, so you really wanted to be on that top bunk.
This is also the camp where the selections were made. The trains pulled in after horrifying journeys which will have taken anything from days to months – with no sanitation, little (if any) food or water. Why feed those condemned to die? Those still alive were separated; women and children one side, men on the other. In turn, they approached a smart, handsome man who glanced at them and flicked his glove, left or right. Left went straight to the crematoria (mothers, children, the elderly, the weak), the others were forced labour. Whole train loads of people – thousands – could be “processed” within an hour.
Only one of the crematoria remains here, number 4 which was blown up during a revolt. It lays exactly as it did. The story of the revolt itself is incredible, and worth investigating for yourself. Needless to say, very few of those involved in it survived.
Due to the sheer scale, it takes a while to get around Birkenau. I don’t think the guide showed us all of it, but it would be a long time before I go back. This is because I want to visit all of the remaining that I can. Since Auschwitz, I have visited Teresin in the Czech Republic. Next year will be a trip to Warsaw to see the ghetto and, from there, to Treblinka and Majdanek. Belsen, Dachau, Sobibor, Ravensbruk are all on the list.
I am glad I went. It has made everything I have read – and continue to read – come alive. It has had more of an effect on me since returning, as the experience has sunk in. It was an important journey to make and one I feel everyone should take. There is a slogan on the wall there, “Those that do not reflect on the past are doomed to repeat it” (or very similar). In this time, with the far right on the rise and selfeshness at an all time high, idiocracy rewarded with Presidency and a country retreating from it’s nearest neighbours, it seems even more important.
Eleven million people lost their lives in extermination camps, six million of them Jews. So many of them didn’t get a chance at life. They were born at the wrong time in the wrong place in history. We fortunate ones that enjoy freedom, owe it to these poor souls whose lives were extinguished in such horrific and, frankly, inventive ways. We owe it to them to pay our respects and to pause our lives just for a moment, to ponder theirs.
(I have posted a gallery from this trip on my Facebook page. If you’re my friend on there, you can view it here.)