A reality check at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Oświęcim, Poland. October 15, 2012

5 Nov

WALKING single file inside the red brick barracks, hundreds of pairs of eyes inside hollowed out sockets stare listlessly through me. Makeup fails to hide the bruises on their faces. Men and women have shaved heads and all wear worn, shapeless, button-up garments.

These faces represent a fraction of the victims of Auschwitz death camp in the southern Polish city of Oświęcim. Some lived to see freedom after the camps’ liberation by Soviet troops at the beginning of 1945, but a glance at the type-written information under each prisoner photograph indicates that most did not.

It is estimated that between 1-1.5 million men, women and children were murdered at Auschwitz and at subsequent camps Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and Monowitz, during the largest genocide in history, by the Nazi party during World War II.

Exhaustion from overwork in appalling conditions, disease and systematic extermination by gas chamber, lethal injection, hanging or firing squad were the main, all horrific, causes of death.

We are but two of more than one million Polish native and international visitors to Auschwitz and Birkenau death camp memorials each year, or up to 8000 per day in high season, who pass through countless grey-walled museum rooms (formerly barracks inhabited by Jews, gypsies, gay people, prisoners of war – or anyone deemed to be a threat to the advancement of the Nazi party) filled with photographs, documents and artefacts that ensure Holocaust victims will forever be remembered and that the world will not avert its eyes to this type of atrocity again.

This photo is of the English language memorial at Birkenau camp.
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The Auschwitz trip is the sole reason for our visit to Poland. Though without any direct personal connection to either victims or perpetrators of the crimes committed there, we felt compelled, perhaps through upbringing or education, to visit. The high volume of visitors, even in low season, meant that we were ushered through the camp at speed with headsets connected to our English speaking guide, often squeezing past other visitors on the stairs or between display cabinets. Obviously this system is in place to cope with the masses, but the whole thing feels a little bit disrespectful.

There is an overload of information. We are shepherded through rooms containing photographs of nude, starved child victims of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele’s medical experiments, canisters of deadly Zyclon-B pellets and an entire room full of human hair, stolen from the heads of prisoners, with some woven into textile. Then there are the prosthetic arms and legs, shoes, glasses, suitcases and kitchenware taken from prisoners on their arrival at the camp. While most of these stolen belongings were soon redistributed by the Nazi party to German households, these recovered items, turned into displays – entire rooms bursting with items piled atop each other, give a glimpse into the process and scale of the Nazi attempt to strip Jewish people and other Germans of their identities in order to wipe them from existence.

A roomful of suitcases taken from Jewish prisoners on their arrival at Auschwitz.
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Before we make the three kilometre journey to Birkenau by bus, we pass over the ground where prisoners stood for up to 17 hours each day for roll call (another form of torture), underground to the 1 metre by 1 metre standing cells which would be crammed with up to four prisoners and finally we are through the camp’s crematorium, where furnaces burned the bodies of hundreds of human beings each day, murdered for no reason other than the way they were born.

Roll call was held here each day.
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A sign outside the crematorium requests silence from visitors, but while inside, an Asian tour group sails past, its’ guide chirping away to the group through his microphone. It leaves me and no doubt others, feeling uneasy.

Then, just inside the entrance to Birkenau, while we wait for our guide,an altercation ensues between another guide and a visitor who has lit and is smoking a cigarette. The man seems reluctant to put it out.

The central archway of the red-bricked entrance to Birkenau death camp resembles a huge, open mouth, ready to swallow and dispose of anything that passes through. The camp is split in two by a railway track that extends further than the eye can see. Barracks for women run along the left and the men’s buildings, mostly demolished, run the length of the track to the right. Anticipating defeat, Nazi officers tried to destroy any evidence of the genocide in late 1944 before themselves fleeing. Gas chambers and a crematorium lie as preserved rubble at the far end of the camp, near a later erection – a huge stone memorial to all whose lives were stolen.

The train track splits the massive camp in two.
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While we are there, an overseas group of Jewish people is holding a service by candlelight at the memorial.

Despite the atrocities that occurred there, the quality of light on the day we visited as well as the leafy-ness of the grounds – dewy grass and a gathering of pine trees, at Birkenau made it quite a beautiful place. This evokes such contradictory feelings – women were led naked and shot dead amongst the same trees.

Women were taken into these trees and shot. The pond in front was used to dispose of human ashes.
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A watch house stands out in front of rows of women’s barracks.
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The light is quickly fading and a red streaked sunset is beginning to develop as we are led through the women’s sanitary barracks. One building has troughs and taps running the length of it and the other houses ‘toilets,’ or about 150 holes cut into cold concrete, which had to accommodate tens of thousands of prisoners, who were admitted into the building only once a day for a few minutes.

This marks the end of our tour. The darkness is growing and we can see our breath in the air. I am happy to leave. While I felt the tour worthwhile, I couldn’t help but feel that this wasn’t quite the right way to pay respect to those who had suffered here.

I took photographs, as did almost everyone else, looking for the best camera angle along those history-steeped train tracks, justifying it by thinking – the more often people are reminded of this evil, the less likely it is to occur again in any form.
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But, as we speak, genocide is occurring in Darfur, Sudan, with the death toll in the hundreds of thousands. In the 90’s, during the Bosnia conflict, the Bosnian Serb forces were responsible for massacring the Bosniak people (Bosnian Muslims) and beginning an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats.

There are countless other examples, but much closer to home for me, in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly and systematically separated from their families under Government policy until 1969, in an attempt to ‘breed them out.’

So has the world really learned from the Holocaust and have I? Or, like one German woman who lived near the train track used to transport hundreds of thousands of screaming Jews to their death, do we cover our ears and sing loudly to block out the noise?

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One Response to “A reality check at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Oświęcim, Poland. October 15, 2012”

  1. alison wetton November 5, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

    Brought tears to my eyes and yes the evil is still going on all over the world.

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