This was Auschwitz...February 13, 2011
My head lay perfectly in the crook between the seat and the window, angled so I could look out to Poland but close my drifting eyes if they wished. "It'll be freezing," we were told, "wear lots of layers." so we did. The hoodie under my coat peeked out the top, soft against my neck. My hat covered my ears, echoing the sound of voices on the coach and acting a pillow. But the skies were clear blue and the sun set high, boasting warmth on my face. My eyes caved and I slept.
It was too hot, if you believe it, for a hoodie, scarf, hat and gloves. Left on the coach as we walked towards our first stop, a Jewish cemetery just outside Oświęcim, Auschwitz to you and I. It was beautiful, the weather, and the cold breeze now touched my skin and played with my hair, but shadows fell as we passed the gate into the cemetery. The gate is usually locked during the day, but was opened especially for us, as it was constantly vandalised by antisemitists. It didn't look like a cemetery. Parts of gravestones were scattered on the ground, you couldn't tell what was plain rock and what was gravestone. Lining the walls were more broken parts, no home and no identity. We were told that after the war ended the Jews returned to Oświęcim and found the cemetery destroyed. Graves dug up and gravestones used for pavements outside. That was the first act carried out by Nazis when they invaded the town, they paved the streets with the Jews and marched over them, bystanders none the wiser that this was soon to become literal. But when the surviving Jews returned to this site, they attempted with all their heart to fix the sight before them. They dug up the gravestones from the streets and stood them back in the cemetery, but not in the right places. The graves didn't match the stones but at least there was order, somewhere for people to visit and remember.
Train track. Rusted and surrounded by grass. That was the first time I felt goosebumps and shivers up my spine, as we pulled in to Auschwitz I. It carried on up the road towards Birkenau, Auschwitz II, our later stop. "Here we go.." I heard my friend Kiera say as we left the coach and collected headsets from our tour guide. We were alone now, in our minds, just us and the tour guide. Other sounds buffeted away by the headset. Silence for 2 hours. Walking out from the reception into the 'museum' and I recognised the sight. The colour of the buildings, the shapes and the high electric fence that surrounded every part of the camp. It was doubled with a concrete wall behind it, providing no chance of escape or contact.
The sign. "Work Brings Freedom." It's not the original, that's preserved, but a copy was real enough. It was hard to imagine when we walked under it what prisoners must have felt doing exactly the same nearly 70 years ago, not knowing the future, but we knew the past.
This first camp seemed small. Not much space inbetween buildings, it looked like some sort of village. The blocks, as these buildings were called, were filled with belongings. Real belongings...
Photos too, some photos taking during the war in the camps themselves, the film found after liberation, but some taken after when the Jews (and other minorities) were saved and were being treated. I couldn't take photos of those photos. They were skeletons, every bone visible and skin enveloping them, hugging them. No muscle. Blank faces. The worst photos, if you can put them in order, were those of twins who were photographed and then experimented on. Children, not adults. These children were too just mere structures, standing there with their siblings, their last moments of life captured before they were murdered and experimented on.
Not all prisoners were killed in gas chambers. Illness and exhaustion claimed lives too, but some were shot against this wall. The windows were blocked out with wood so no-one saw what was happening but you could hear the shots of course. Some were hung by the arms here..
dislocated before they died. Some workers had to roll the ground with this..
We went into a gas chamber before we left Auschwitz I. Genuine. A stone low ceiling block with square holes in the top for the cyanide. The soldiers who had dustings of compassion left within them told the victims to stand as close to these holes as possible, so they'd die first with minimal pain and no last images of people dying around them. 20 minutes it took, for 2000 people to die. Loud working noises drowned out the screams in that 20 minutes before silence. Then the bodies were cremated in the ovens in the chambers.
If you tried to escape then 10 of your friends would die. That was the rule. But there was one story told that amazed me.. A group of men had been working all day and one collapsed, but no-one noticed. When they were counted on their return to the camp the soldiers found one missing so killed the rest of the men. The lone man came around that night, out of the camp with no-one to catch him. He could run and escape, tell everyone the truth about the camps. But he didn't. He ran all the way back to the camp to save his friends..
We followed the train track to Birkenau, Auchwitz II. The sun was setting and the sky was no longer the clear blue, though the mood was. We had to go up the main watchtower first. Then it hit. You couldn't take the view in. The train track ran right down the middle, far down where you couldn't see the end. To the left was land, to the right was land. Just land. Empty space. Electric fences. Chimneys. Some sheds/huts I don't even know what they're called. How could they stand here and watch these normal people work to their death? Families split up? Children taken to their death along the railway to the gas chambers. Millions of them. How could they watch that?
Survivors say the smell of burning meat wafted through you as soon as you entered the camp. They wondered how they got so much meat because of rationing. And why were they cooking so late at night? Humans.
The sheds held 700 people, and rats and lice. Diseases and stenches. Dead bodies. The bunks were angled so more could fit in. 5 in one bed. The strongest on the top to be away from the ill. They often collapsed killing others underneath. By law (ha) they had to have heating, so heaters were built but fuel wasn't given, that was up to the prisoners to find it. We saw the 'toilets' too. It was better to work in there because you had unlimited use and were in the middle of the black market. Bread was the currency and you'd trade it for new clothes or soft shoes, taken from the dead. Each prisoner had a bowl and if you lost your bowl you lost your life. You used it for food and a toilet. You couldn't clean it out. Doesn't need to be said does it?
I wonder what they thought when they looked up at the sky. Who was there? These planes flew over, but they didn't stop, nor did they bomb. Did they world know what was happening? Were they oblivious? The world was being dehumanised.
"Hand in hand we followed the crowd. An SS non-commissioned officer came to meet us, a truncheon in his hand. He gave the order: 'Men to the left! Women to the right!' Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother. I had not had time to think, but already I felt the pressure of my father's hand: we were alone. For a part second I glimpsed at my mother and my sisters moving away to the right...I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister's fair hair, as though to protect her, while I walked on with my father and other men. And I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever. I went on walking. My father held onto my hand..."
We heard that as we stood in exactly the same place where it took place. Where the train stopped. Where families were parted. Where death began. Where this happened...
"I saw old people, ill people, people so weak that they were almost dead, come tumbling out of wagons when the doors were opened. Then I saw a baby being born as its mother was pushed out onto the ground. An SS guard grabbed the baby, cut the cord and threw it unceremoniously on to one side, like so much rubbish."
Camps were split into their minority groups, including gypsies. The gypsies were experimented on, watched closely with fascination as if they were an alien species. There was one little gypsy boy who danced, and Mengele who carried out the experiments took a liking to him. He kept him and had him dance on command. But soon the Nazis had the gypsy camp liquidated, all were going to be mass murdered the gas chambers. The children given toys to calm them so to not look suspicious to the rest of the camp. What would happen to this little boy? Would he save him? Mengele took the little boy in hand and pushed him in the gas chamber himself.
All the gas chambers in Birkenau have collapsed. They're larger than at Auschwitz I, they had changing rooms where people were given pegs for their shoes to hang them up and keep together for when they returned after their shower. Some got changed in the forest behind the chambers, they didn't know they were about to be murdered. Children ran around the forest playing, women sunbathed. There was an uprising at one point, soldiers were burned alive in the ovens and chambers set alight. One moment of success.
Our last part of the tour was into the registry buildings, where people were taken on arrival to be chosen, registered, shaved, unclothed and decontaminated. All dignity stripped. All humanity lost. All identities forgotten and replaced with numbers tattooed on their arms. For babies, tattooed on their legs. We weren't allowed to tread on the concrete floor, glass was placed around the sides for us to walk on, but we could only look at floor. It's where thousands slept while their fate was being decided.
We were let go in the last room. Let go to do our own thinking. It was a large room full of Jewish photos, genuine Jewish photos found amongst belongings, found outside gas chambers and found in suitcases. No identity. No one knows who they are. But we found their identity within the photos, we saw these photos and looked into their eyes and knew them. This was the hardest room. The hardest part of the day. But the time when you realised how individual these people were, with their own individual stories. Stories that cannot be told.
It was pitch black when we stepped outside, and so so cold. We made our way to a memorial at the end of the train track, where we were part of a ceremony conducted by the Rabbi. I cannot describe the feeling during that 20 minutes. The moon was directly above us, we were all huddled together for warmth, all 200 of us, clutching at each other and paper with prayers on. One line stuck with me. "It's not what you see, it's what you can't see." The land was empty and silent. But it was full. We just couldn't see it.
We lit candles when the ceremony was over and could place them anywhere we wanted on the way back. I placed mine at the end of the train track, and walked back along the track itself. People lined their candles along it, lighting it up in the darkness. It was still silent. Still bitterly cold and our feet ached, our stomachs rumbled. Feelings they felt nearly 70 years ago, but worse. Deadly worse. The track went on, the gate came into view. An open gate. We were leaving this place, back to warmth, food, care, love. Our families were waiting for us. We'd be home soon. They wouldn't.