Before I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau I read Keats’s poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci from which the line ‘and no birds sing’ is taken and wondered if it was true what people say – that birds avoid the site of this former Nazi run concentration camp and will not sing there.
It isn’t true!
Sunday the 18th of June 2017 was a blistering hot day and as we walked through the entrance gate of Birkenau (Auschwitz ll) we were struck by the enormous, sprawling size of the place. Of course it had to be big to house the hundreds of thousands of prisoners that were sent there during the years of World War ll, but nothing prepares you for the sight. On either side of the road that runs the length of the camp are row upon row of small brick built buildings situated in grassy meadows surrounded by barbed wire fences and overlooked by guard towers. As I pushed my partner’s wheelchair along the rough and bumpy road (let’s face it, these places weren’t meant to be disabled friendly) I stopped to listen. It was eerily quiet, but in the oppressive stillness the chirrup of a single bird could be heard as it skimmed the air above the wildflowers, feeding on the buzzing insects as it flitted back and forth.
We followed the single rail track towards the crematoriums that had been destroyed by the German’s as they’d left the camp in an attempt to hide the evidence of the atrocities they’d committed there. These buildings have been left where they collapsed, the twisted metal and shape of the ovens still visible. On either side two oblong pools mark the place where the ashes of cremated prisoners were dumped. They seem far too small for the purpose and I wonder how deep the pools are. As I stare into the depths the turquoise flash of a dragonfly catches the sunlight.
I left my partner at the memorial, the path into the woods is too narrow for a wheelchair, and agreed to meet him back at the road. Here, nearest to the site of such horror, the trees are filled with the cacophony of birdsong.
I expected to feel the echoes of sadness from Birkenau’s past, but instead it felt empty. There are no lingering ghosts here. The feeling of sadness comes from those who wander its ruins remembering and honouring those who suffered within its confines. It’s a sobering place, but I’m comforted by the thought that those who experienced this place all those years ago are not trapped here and have gone to their rest.
Auschwitz l, however, had a very different effect on me.