Memories of a visit to Auschwitz

Birkenau

This is National Hate Crime Week in the UK, and yesterday I attended an awareness session run by the local police force, with various guest speakers, including Eva Clarke, a Holocaust survivor.

Her parents were initially imprisoned in Terezin, then moved to Auschwitz and Eva was born as her mother arrived at Mauthausen in April 1945. Her father died on a death march away from Auschwitz just before the Russians arrived in January 1945. There were many incredible things in Eva’s story, many occasions when if just one thing had been different she wouldn’t have been here now to tell her tale.

I was very moved as Eva talked us through her life, and that of her parents before she was born, in part because I didn’t have to try hard to picture the things she was describing. In 2014 I was in Krakow on business and took the opportunity to extend my stay so I could go to Auschwitz, which is less than an hour away.  It’s not that I wanted to go, but I felt that I had to, that it was my duty to go and to pay my respects to all those who perished.

On the hour long drive to Auschwitz, we were shown a film of the history of the place, including footage from within the camp during the war and some which was taken after the Russians had liberated the site. Some of the film was very harrowing, suffice to say that I had to look away a number of times.

On arrival at the town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz in German), we were taken to Auschwitz I, which has the infamous wrought iron gates with Arbeit Macht Frei above them. Our tour took about an hour or so, and in that time we were guided round a number of the buildings there, including the site of the first test of Zyklon-B gas (on Russian prisoners) and the Black Wall in the courtyard between buildings 10 and 11 where people were shot. The effect of rooms full of discarded shoes, or suitcases, or hair, or glasses or prosthetic limbs etc is difficult to describe, save to say that most visitors were silent and lost in their thoughts.

The end of this part of the visit was marked by seeing the gallows at which the former camp commandant, Rudolf Höss was hanged in 1947, and by walking into the original gas chamber and past the two ovens which were used in the early part of the war.  I found being next to the ovens to be particularly hard and couldnt spend much time in that room.

We were then bussed about 10 minutes away to the Auschwitz II camp, known as Birkenau. On walking from the car park to the main gates, the sheer scale of the site is slowly revealed, with row upon row of identical wooden barracks inside a seemingly never ending fence. I have to confess to being very light headed and giddy as the enormity of the site struck me. After walking through the stone archway of the main building, where the railway tracks still run, the platforms where so many people were sorted into those who would die immediately and those who would live, albeit for a short while, came into view.

Our tour turned right and visited two of the barracks buildings, one containing the wooden bunks that the prisoners were crammed into, the other was the washroom: both were shocking in their scale, their lack of facilities, in their sheer cruelty – it must have been a living death.

We then made our way up to the platform, then further on to the edge of the forest where the four crematoria had been. These were blown up as the Russians neared the camps, so all that is left is rubble, but their size was not difficult to see.

The final part of the tour involved climbing the stairs to the room above the famous archway, which gave a 360 degree view of the camp and it’s surroundings.  The scale of the camp hits you once again, and in another macabre way: where most of the wooden barracks had been, all that remains is the chimney at either end. The wood was taken after the war to build shelter for all the people who remained in the area. The chimneys are a permanent and painful reminder of the fate of so many.

Eva reminded us that this wasn’t the last time genocide was practiced in the world. You only have to think of Cambodia, Uganda, Serbia, Rwanda, Myanmar, Syria – and there are others. I want the world to be different, and I want to do what I can to stop these attrocities happening again.