I’m home for the holidays this year, and thought I’d have a ‘holiday in my head’ by revisiting the photos, diaries and memories of my European travels in 2009. I present a look back at some of the cities and places that had an impact on me, but have not featured prominently on the blog before.
On the 26th of April 2009, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the time I made a passing reference to it on the blog meant to express the overwhelming nature of the experience. When it comes to the Holocaust some go the Lanzmann route and examine it exhaustingly in a 9 and a half hour documentary, but I went the other way. I had no words that day to express the experience.
For a long time I’d wanted to visit Auschwitz, the site emblematic of humanity at its most evil. I’ve always felt a strong connection to the Holocaust. I’ve studied it in high school and at university. I’ve read many books and seen many films. The Holocaust has always struck a chord deep inside me, tugging at my heartstrings. Why the Holocaust? Why not something more recent like the atrocities in Rwanda? After all, genocide is nothing new. I can only suggest it has something to do with the Holocaust being so well-documented. We have so many details at our disposal, that it allows us to truly put ourselves in the shoes of the victims and the perpetrators. To me that’s what makes it so frightening. There is a lot we can learn from that.
When I got to Auschwitz it was spring time, and it surprised me to see all the green grass, the leafy trees, and the flowers growing among the barbed-wire fences. I should have seen it coming. After all, spring was clear to see during the bus ride over from Kraków, but I had expected a barren, gravelly expanse similar to what awaited me at Dachau back in February. It just didn’t seem right. In the same way that you picture Russia as always covered in snow due to the conventions of film and pop culture, seeing Auschwitz at spring time gave it a surreal feeling.
The tour of the camp has two sections: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Both sites were largely destroyed by the SS in the last stages of the war, with Himmler ordering all evidence of the death camps burned before forcing the remaining prisoners on a death march back towards Germany. Auschwitz I has been completely rebuilt and now houses a museum.
The museum spans several buildings and gives a detailed history of the camp, the war and the Holocaust. The last few buildings of the museum contain artefacts from the time, and for me this was the most devastating part of the tour – even more so than the gas chambers. Looking behind the glass I saw the confiscated spoils of the dead; enormous pile of empty suitcases, reading glasses, wooden legs. Piles that stretched from the ground toward the ceiling, dwarfing me.
You could see the names printed on the suitcases, hundreds of names hastily scrawled as though it would help in finding them later, but there was no later. Perhaps most horrifying was the display of human hair, pictured below. The Nazis shaved the inmates and used the hair as cheap mattress stuffing or in blankets to help in the war effort. Human hair, I learned from the tour guide, greys with age regardless of whether it’s attached to a head or not. This room of hair had started out different colours but was now dull and grey and lifeless.
The second part of the tour took us a few kilometres down the road to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. This area had once housed hundreds and thousands of inmates, as well as the gas chambers and crematoria. This area has not been rebuilt, except for a handful of example buildings used to highlight the living conditions. Large bunk beds which would sleep five or six people per bunk; massive group lavatories which were filthy, smelly and prone to spreading disease (pictured below), and everywhere you look you see barbed wire and electric fences.
In many ways my experiences at Dachau stood in contrast to my day at Auschwitz. Wandering around the ruins of the German camp in the icy wind, alone, listening to an audio guide, was a dark and sobering experience which had reduced me to tears on more than one occasion. At Auschwitz in better weather, among people, and with an English-speaking tour guide was a much less lonesome experience. In spite of the horrible things I was reading and seeing, I didn’t feel the overwhelming sadness I had at Dachau. There were positive vibes in the air. At Birkenau I saw many small groups of Jewish teenagers who had come with teachers or coaches on a field trip. They wore the Star of David proudly and carried flags held high. It was a beautiful and uplifting sight to behold.
I highly recommend visiting Auschwitz, or any of the concentration camps if you are in Europe. Or if you’re in the US, you should go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, which does an amazing job that is on par with the Auschwitz Museum. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s certainly not your typical tourist destination, but it’s something we should all see and remember and never let happen again.