So. Here am I. Back again to take on the April A-Z Challenge for a second year. I have pretty much been absent from this wonderful blogging community since last year’s challenge, and while I will explain that absence and what I’ve been up to at a later date, this post is all about the first day of the challenge and we are kicking it off with A … and a rather sombre A it is … Auschwitz.
In August last year I did some travelling around Europe on a G Adventures tour. A big reason for choosing the particular tour I did was because it included a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. I have wanted to visit that place for many years, I studied it’s morbid and tragic history as part of my Masters degree – which had a heavy focus on genocide. I’m sure many of you will be familiar with the name, but for those that aren’t, Auschwitz-Birkenau is one of the many concentration camps set up and run by Nazi Germany. Extermination camp would be a very appropriate description too – as walking around the site you simply cannot escape the horror of the genocide that took place here.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is located about an hours drive away from the city of Krakow. We made the journey out there on a rainy morning, arriving firstly at the main camp of Auschwitz I. You see, this camp was so large it eventually grew to encompass three large camps (Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau and Auschwitz III – Monowitz) along with approximate 40-odd sub-camps. Auschwitz I housed on average 15,000 people. Auschwitz-Birkenau housed approximately 90,000 people. The site of Auschwitz I was originally a Polish barracks before the war but it was commandeered by the Nazis firstly as a prison camp for Poles but progressively to include more and more Jews, Gypsies, Political prisoners, criminals and pretty much anyone else deemed unacceptable. It was a major part of the Nazi’s Final Solution to eradicate the Jewish population.
For most people, it’s the photographs of the railway lines running through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau that will be most familiar. That particular site is the largest of the three and there are still many of the cramped dormitory buildings where Jews and others were kept. Dirt floors, stone walls, tiers of wooden benches three high which were used as sleeping areas – cramming a dozen or so people together without space to move. As you can imagine, disease would be rampant. But of the sites, it’s Auschwitz I that has most left it’s mark on me. Grabbing a set of headphones and following my local guide through the site – we walk through the entry gate, the words Arbeit Macht Frei (Works Sets You Free) etched on its front. The barbed wire fences surrounding us, we walk through the rows of buildings, each building now telling a different part of the story. We start with the history lesson … maps of the sites, photographs of the Jewish people being shepherded off the cattle trains that brought them to this place, copies of the meticulous records of the Nazi overseers. Then the horror begins … piles of suitcases, still bearing the handwritten names of their owners, who had no idea the fate that awaited them. Piles of pots and pans and cups. A mountain of empty Zyklon B containers, the poison that was used to gas these people to death. And then the room full of human hair. An entire wall of this one room covered floor to ceiling with the hair that was shaved from the victims in the days prior to their extermination. The really horrific thing? This sea of hair is only 5 days worth. The last 5 days of the camp.
We venture from there passed buildings where medical experimentation was carried out, into other buildings that were used as a prison within the prison … the personal effects of the Nazi staff still adorn their rooms. It’s like it only happened yesterday, so well preserved is this museum to the Holocaust. Our tour ended where the lives of so many of the 1.1 million people exterminated in Auschwitz did … the gas chamber. I just don’t have the words to describe what walking into that chamber was like … stepping into the darkness, running my hand along the cold walls so as not to trip on the uneven floors. And then that thought … how many hands touched this wall as I now am? How many clawing for air as the gas works it’s way into their lungs? Bodies piling upon bodies trying to reach that small window of light in the ceiling. Stepping out of the gas chamber, into a room containing the furnaces used to burn the dead, and then out into the fresh air … into what was now clear blue sky and a beautiful day. It was an experience that can’t be forgotten. Nor should it be. You see, this place, Auschwitz, is not just a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It is so much more than that. The lesson today is not about Jews or Nazis. This place is a reminder to us all that these horrors, this evil us humans perpetrate against each other, can happen anywhere, at any time. And we must guard against repeating it.
This post makes up part of my contribution for the A to Z Challenge for April 2017
Click Here for a link to all my 2017 challenge posts.
And if you’d like to revisit my 2016 Challenge post for “A”, here’s the link: Snapshot – Angkor Thom