“Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shall not be a bystander.” - Yehuda Bauer
Liberated in 1945 and one of Europe’s most visited sites,
Birkenau is a place everyone should witness at least once.
Gemma and I are devoted students of history. When we were chosen to attend this experience we felt it necessary, to not only show our respect to the victims of the Holocaust, but to ask ourselves: Is it possible to ever understand what Auschwitz really is?
The morning that we flew to Krakow was cold and dull. Somehow you can’t imagine going to a spot where millions were murdered on a sunny day. As much as we had researched what we were about to witness, nothing could really prepare you for something like that.
As soon as we got to the gates of Auschwitz One a feeling of numbness overwhelmed us. Auschwitz One is located near the village of Oświęcim. Auschwitz was occupied by the SS in 1940 and was where the first prisoners, mostly Polish and Soviet, were deported and killed. The camp looked like something out of a film. It was the size of a large village, almost as big as Thornhill. It has mostly been left untouched since Nazi occupation but green trees have been planted and some blocks have been adapted into a museum.
The rooms showing items belonging to the prisoners brought to Auschwitz were certainly one of the hardest things to stomach. When I was faced with thousands upon thousands of children’s shoes, some as tiny as newborn babies, an anger crept upon me. “How could anybody do this?” I kept asking myself as I looked at a single, unpaired shoe. A room full of hair, which at one time would have been an array of colours: brown, blonde, red, white, was now a matted grey. Despite that, on closer inspection you can see small braids, tight knots and even elegant waves. A room full of empty, worn-out suitcases with names and addresses etched on each. As I walked along the glass window, my eye would catch individual names and I wondered what happened to these people: if any survived, if they were ever reunited with their loved ones, if an undeserving fate came of them.
At Auschwitz II/Birkenau, we approached the gates that you would immediately associate with the site. This is the biggest camp, where millions of people died in the gas chambers and from inhuman living conditions. It held more than 90,000 prisoners at a time and more than 1.5 million people (90% Jewish) were murdered there. The sheer mass of the site was incomprehensible. We viewed where prisoners would sleep – all I could think about was how cattle would have lived in better conditions. As we walked parallel to the infamous train tracks we were told that women, men and children would be separated as they emerged from the fateful journey. I thought about my family, and in that moment I was more grateful than ever to have grown up in a safe environment, with fear and pain absent.
The two main gas chambers used at Birkenau were blown up by the Nazis when they retreated from the advancing Allied forces to destroy the evidence. To stand where so many people who were sentenced to death also stood was chilling. Nothing can describe the feeling.
The entire experience remains raw and harrowing for both of us. When we returned, we were faced with many tricky questions. “What was it like?” was a common one. I still have not composed an answer to this, apart from – you need to experience it first hand to understand how difficult it is to even start explaining it.