For most the talk of Auschwitz conjures up fear, death and disgust. It is always a place we hear about but not a place one would want to visit on holiday. I was able to visit Auswitz and Birkenau when en route to a Youth congress. For me, it was more shocking than how it is portrayed in documentaries and films.
Auschwitz was the work camp. It housed between 13,000 to 16,000 prisoners , once reaching a maximum of 20,000.The concept of this much evil housed in such a relatively small acreage was something I had anticipated to be tangible especially having heard others speak of the place as having an unnatural stillness – even the wildlife seemingly in mourning. I shockingly found the opposite to be the case. Auschwitz for me held a very creepy beauty.
Above the entry gates to Auschwitz is written the ironic phrase “Arbeit macht frie”, meaning “work brings freedom”. It was by these gates that an orchestra would be playing morning and evening, accompanying the workers as they left and returned from their jobs. A pleasant idea until you realise the workers (slaves) were often so weak caused by the intense labour inflicted on them daily, resulting in many deaths, not to mention those slaves who were murdered for no reason. Those in the orchestra would have to wait in suspense to see if their friends and family were alive, or became a corpse which would be left as an example to the rest under those very gates.
The camp itself is situated in a fairly quiet but beautiful area of Poland. It has a very orderly layout, consisting of many large, identically built beautiful red brick buildings surrounded by grass, trees, directly linked with smart gravel pathways. This description alongside a well taken photo really wouldn’t seem amiss in the window of an estate agent or in a holiday camp catalogue. In hindsight I suppose this layout was a rather cunning ploy to encourage a falsely positive propaganda campaign used during the war to cover up the actual atrocities that took place within.
Birkenau situated 3km from Auschwitz, was the death camp. It housed as many as 100,000 prisoners at the height of Hitler’s reign. It was this sheer magnitude which I found most shocking and still to this moment almost impossible to comprehend. The practical and physical organisation of the place was such that panic wasn’t caused and people didn’t necessarily suspect what it was designed for.
Shockingly some prisoners arrived into the camp under their own free will. They were encouraged to buy their own train tickets and pack one suitcase each with their possessions (many anticipated being able to return to their homes after a short while being in the camp).
The physical layout would not have been as beautiful as its partner camp Auschwitz. Sanitation was unbelievably poor, only one lavatory for each building which housed as many as 700 prisoners at any one time (67 of these buildings existed), the stench was unbearable. Plus they had a serious rat infestation. It is only thanks to the fact that half the buildings have been knocked down leaving only their hearths visible that I was able to see the sheer magnitude of the Birkenau estate – 425 acres of evil!
To sum up how I truly felt during the visit can’t really be expressed through words. It is more of a felt emotion that one needs to experience, it is a onetime experience only. I invite you to feel this for yourself and remember all those who suffered through no fault of their own. May their souls rest in peace.