I never wanted to go to Auschwitz. There are lots of places I have always wanted to visit – Florence, Paris, Carcassonne, Egypt, the wreck of the Titanic – some of them I’ve been lucky enough to get to, but Auschwitz was never on the list. A friend of mine warned me before I went, ‘Be careful, because these places change you.’ I wish I’d taken her warning more seriously.
I wrote my first post about Birkenau a few days after I came back from Krakow, but it’s taken me more than two weeks to even start this post because even now I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not sure how long it will take me to publish it. I said in that last post that I didn’t feel an oppressive sadness from the site of Auschwitz ll, even though far more of the murders took place there, so I’m not sure why I had such an emotional reaction to Auschwitz itself.
The first thing you realise when you get there is that the infamous gate, with the words Arbeit Macht Frei (Work sets you free) above it, is, like Stonehenge, much smaller than you’d expect. It’s rather nondescript, but instantly recognisable. The whole site is much smaller than Birkenau and as you walk around the grounds you can almost feel the eyes of the guards that would have watched from the towers that surround the perimeter and hear the barking of the dogs that were left to run between the electrified barbed wire topped fences.
The first building I entered, Block 15, bore a sign outside that stated the exhibition showed the ‘Struggle of the Polish People’. We had visited a photographic exhibition the day before in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow with images of Auschwitz, abandoned cemeteries and now derelict buildings. I expected something similar. Actually, now I think about it, I’m not certain this was the first building I went in. The first showed images of survivors who had returned to Auschwitz in their later lives, positive images of defiance and courage, but the building I was now in had several connecting rooms, the images growing progressively more disturbing in each one. A photo of a distraught young girl kneeling by the side of her dead father, her hands held up to ask why, dead bodies lying in the street, dead children, lots of dead children – one of three children, all under five lying naked, side by side, one had his stomach torn open. I wondered, who stops to take a photo like this? Did they help the girl after or walk away?
In the next room – prisoners standing facing a wall with a Nazi firing squad lined up behind them, guns aimed and ready to fire. You realise you are witnessing the final seconds of someone’s life. In another, the photographer records some of the grotesque experiments that were carried out at the camp. I’m not going to go into details. I can’t. The images are etched into my brain, but there are no words to explain them. By this point I was already struggling to hold back tears and didn’t want to see anymore.
We all know what went on here. We’ve all seen images of the atrocities, films based on true events, newsreel even, but none of it prepares you for the photos on display. These photos put you in the position of the person who took them. You are seeing these acts through the eyes of someone who participated in evil and there is nothing you can do to stop it, except turn away or close your eyes. As I type this I am crying again.
I didn’t go upstairs, I couldn’t bear to see whatever was up there and turned to leave. I found out later that this was where the artefacts were displayed. Mountains of hair and shoes and other personal items of the dead. In my haste to get out I lost my bearings and started to panic, but I managed to retrace my steps and almost ran out of the building when I saw the open door to the outside.
I will never forget the aeons of sadness in the eyes of the two year old girl, one of triplets, who was experimented on by Mengele. Even now, weeks later, Auschwitz haunts our dreams.
Part of me thinks that Auschwitz should have been flattened, but then it would be forgotten and we should never do that. Part of me regrets that I didn’t see everything there, but there were buildings I simply could not enter. Strangely, it feels as though it is our duty to see and remember these things.
So, would I go back? Yes.
Do I want to go back? No!