I have re-written the introduction to this post a hundred times over and with every new sentence it doesn't feel like the correct one. Why should it be? I'm writing about a place where millions of people were murdered. Where millions of humans were brought, with hopes and dreams of starting a new life but instead were met with an immeasurable amount of sorrow, grief, pain and torture.
Auschwitz was established in Poland in 1941 and the first inmates were Soviet prisoners of war, where around 10,000 men were imprisoned. Most died of hunger, being over worked or SS brutality, others were gassed or shot and those who refused to work were stripped naked and forced out into the snow where they were doused with water which caused many to freeze to death. Within 5 months 9,000 men had died, -that equates to 51 deaths a day. The remaining few were transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in preparation for the new wave of prisoners.
Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Poles and Soviet prisoners of war accounted for most of the prisoners and deaths which occurred at Auschwitz, along with a range of Soviet, Czech, Yugoslav, French, German and Austrian civilians.
Most prisoners were transported to Auschwitz via train. Once off the train they would be separated into one of two groups; to suffer or to die. It doesn't matter what gender you were; if you were too young, too old or too sick to work you would be sent to the gas chambers. Mothers with children were a huge problem for the SS as both would refuse to let each other go under any circumstance, so both Mother and child would usually be sentenced to death together to prevent any sort of commotion while groups were being separated.
Once the chosen victims were about to enter the showers they were told to strip naked and leave their clothing in piles outside the door. They were led with such hope even up until their final moments that they tied their shoes together and folded their clothes in neat piles in order not to lose them among the hundreds of other items which had been put down.
Twins were picked out of the crowds especially; Dr. Mengele, aka the 'Angel of Death' had a fascination with twins and would conduct gruesome experiments which included injecting their eyes with certain chemicals to fabricate the 'Aryan look', autopsies would be performed on twins in order to see how certain diseases had affected different organs; with one twin being purposely killed to compare their seemingly healthy body to that of their siblings' who had died after having different diseases injected into their body, which included typhus and tuberculosis to name a few.
It is impossible to determine the exact number of victims at Auschwitz during World War II as many prisoners were never registered and a lot of evidential documents were destroyed by the SS towards the end of WWII, but historians believe that over 1 million people died or were killed. During World War II Heinrich Himmler instructed for all mass graves to be opened and for all corpses to be burnt and ashes scattered, so to make it impossible to calculate how many victims had passed through the gas chambers or murdered by SS troops.
Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops on 27th January 1945, but unfortunately the torture for prisoners didn't end there as 56,000-58,000 prisoners were sent on a death march towards another Nazi camp in Poland before the Soviets had arrived, around 7,000 prisoners were left at Auschwitz when it was liberated. The last of the Nazi camps were liberated in May 1945.
My Experience Visiting Auschwitz
We were on our 12th day of our 13 day Contiki tour when we arrived into Oswiecim, a small city just outside of Krakow, to visit the Nazi camp, Auschwitz. We all knew this was going to be the toughest experience on our tour so far, but I don't think any of us knew how hard it was really going to be.
Stepping under the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign suspended above the main gate was a surreal feeling, having seen this sign a thousand times before in books, online and during many school sessions. Walking the same footsteps as hundreds of thousands prisoners did nearly 80 years ago I tried to imagine the feeling they would have experienced, but my emotional state would have been minimal in comparison.
Having travelled for two and a half months prior to visiting Poland, I knew very well what it was like to be surrounded by hundreds of tourists in a confined space where you couldn't hear even your own thoughts. Surrounded by around 100 other people I would have expected there to be chatter, loud footsteps, sneezing, music and anything else to drown out silence but at Auschwitz the only thing I could hear was the slight crunch of footsteps on the gravel and wind whistling between the bordering trees. No voices, nothing.
Throughout the camp there are black information posts donning pictures and paragraphs about the hell that went on between these barbed wire fences. It wasn't until we were lead towards block 11 that I stopped to read one, it talked about a doctor who would experiment primarily on females and their reproductive organs; Dr Wirth would experiment in sterilising women by removing their ovaries through surgery or radiation, then without their consent he would photograph womens cervixes and amputate them, sending the cervix to Berlin for study.
I have never burst into tears as fast as I did then.
Having lost my group through the river coming from my eyes and not being able to read the rest of the information I turned to find one of my friends grabbing me and giving me a much needed hug. Shit. I knew Auschwitz would get to me, but not this fast and not this hard.
Continuing through block 11 we saw face after face, row after row of male and female mugshots of the prisoners of Auschwitz. All bald, all in striped pyjamas, all dead in the eyes. Beneath their photos were their names, their profession, their deportation and death date. Some endured a couple of years in the camp, others survived for only a couple of months after arrival either dying from starvation, torture or execution.
We headed downstairs where prisoners were tortured and held in small dark rooms only just big enough to fit a crouching adult. Other larger isolation and starvation rooms sat with their door opens, the doors which showed countless scratch marks where wood had been chipped away from prisoners trying to claw their way out of the hell they were living in.
My eyes were only just drying up when we stepped outside into the yard to see the 'death wall'. Anyone condemned to the death wall were forced to strip naked in block 11 and led out in pairs to stand in front of a stone wall, where they were then shot in the back of the head at close range with a small-calibre rifle. The bodies were then loaded onto a truck by other prisoners and were taken to the crematorium. There are very little records for the amount of deaths that occurred in this particular spot, as many prisoners who died here were not recorded.
The wall was lined with flowers and wreaths to commemorate the prisoners shot by the Nazis', although extremely colourful themselves it made the silence of the narrow and long courtyard fall even harder.
Block 5 was one of our next stops which our tour guide warned us about. Stepping up the narrow staircases we entered a room with multiple large glass display cases fitted into the walls. One of which is filled with nothing but the hair which was forcefully cut from the heads of every prisoner that entered Auschwitz, some of which were still tied in plaits and pony tails. The hair has somewhat deteriorated over the years becoming matted and all turning into the same shade of dark grey.
Another painful sight was walking a corridor which encased thousands upon thousands of shoes, most of them being dark conservative style footwear fit for people with professions, families and a life to lead. The next number of glass lined walls just showed the immense hope that these families and individuals bought to Auschwitz, they were lead to believe that they were being bought here to start a new life safe from the war that was going on around them; a casing which showed various colourful pots, pans, plates and jugs which were bought with them on the train. These items would have been the last on anyone's mind if they knew they were going to be imprisoned and starved.
The gas chamber was our last stop at Auschwitz before we headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. After being advised not to speak when inside we filed in one by one and walked slowly and silently around the concrete chamber, I looked down towards my feet and at the dirt ground below thinking about the thousands of naked bodies which have fallen in the exact spot I was standing in.
The feeling of visiting Auschwitz is indescribable. I can say it's a truly awful place but those words mean little in comparison to the feeling of standing between the multi storied blocks surrounded by barbed wire fences and listening to nothing but silence while at the same time surrounded by hundreds of other visitors. Unless you have walked the path thousands of others have into the gas chamber, unless you have seen the preserved claw marks on the back of doors or stood within centimetres of the canisters which contained the toxic Zyklon B, you will never absolutely understand how a place like Auschwitz feels.
Our Contiki group was a group full of the most lively, fun, charismatic and crazy people from all corners of the earth, but once we all piled on to that bus none of us knew how to start a conversation. What was an appropriate thing to say to someone after visiting a Nazi death camp? Needless to say our Contiki group were amazing in the way that everyone was supportive and comforting when the visit got a bit too much for some people, we all stuck together and no one disrespected either memorial sites. As unfortunately there were other visitors that thought it was a good idea to take selfies outside the gates with the camp in the background, or take pictures within the camp of items which we were specifically told not to take pictures of, and some even went as far as sitting on the very same train tracks which lead people to their death, just to get that Instagram shot.
If anyone is planning a European trip in their lifetime, time needs to be taken to remember the lives lost at any of these death or concentration camps, or any war memorial site, as forgetting or refusing to learn about these horrible crimes against humanity is a crime within itself.