Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why I'm glad I visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps

A decade ago, I was happily travelling down through Poland when I stopped at Krakow for a few days, and somehow decided to visit the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps nearby.

I hadn't especially thought it through - I was in full-time travelling mode, and full-time travellers crave all kinds of new experiences, good or bad.

But I confess (and I warn you, in case you want to stop reading this post right now) that I had bad nightmares for weeks after it and still today, eleven years later, I feel distressed to look through these pictures or write about it. (And I also feel a little bit of what right do I have to write about it, sitting here with jazz music playing and a piece of chocolate cake - so utterly privileged to have found a so-far good place in world history for myself). However, despite all of that, I am glad I visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps and if you are curious, you can read on. I'll forgive you if you prefer not to.

Arbeit macht frei - entering Auschwitz

Clearly back then work did not make you free at all.


My journal from the time notes that my outing to Auschwitz took place on a bright sunny summery day, and how inappropriate that was. I semi-reluctantly joined a tour, as tours were "strongly recommended" (in fact for a while I thought it was compulsory to join; in retrospect I would recommend it too). After being shown a short documentary from just after the end of the war, we were taken out to the grounds and the "Arbeit Macht Frei" entrance was the first thing we were shown. It only got worse from there.

Suitcases left by those entering the Auschwitz camp

The Auschwitz camp has much in the way of exhibits and displays set up to educate visitors about the reality of life in the concentration camps and to explain some of the shocking experimentation that took place there. All of it is awful, but for me the most awful part was the rooms in what they referred to as the "extermination" exhibit. Each room had been filled with belongings of the exterminated prisoners. A room full of shoes, a room full of hairbrushes, a room full of suitcases. There were others that are too distressing for me to write about. Seeing the crematorium here at Auschwitz was also something I don't want to think about for too long.

An almost aside: in a reminder of just how low the human race can sink, we were given warnings by the guide that pickpockets were rife in the more crowded buildings at Auschwitz. And in fact someone in a group behind us did have their wallet taken. Can you imagine what someone is thinking when they consider that targeting tourists at a concentration camp is a clever way to grab some cash?

Sunshine over Birkenau

That damn sunshine continued. My mood, and that of everyone in the tour group with me, was much better suited to a grey, damp day. It's probably the quietest I've ever heard a group of people remain for so many hours - the bus ride for the three kilometres to Birkenau from Auschwitz was silent.

End of the train line and entrance to Birkenau 
Birkenau looked familiar after seeing the film of Schindler's List. Familiarity didn't make it any less confronting though. Many of the buildings had been destroyed by the Nazis as they left, apparently, but there was still more than enough to indicate the vastness of the place. It is worth remembering that at least 1.1 million people were killed in these camps, and perhaps over 1.5 million. Over a million - isn't that absolute insanity?


Fences at Birkenau concentration camp
My photographs remind me of many of the Birkenau details that I've blocked out in my mind (and I won't share the bad ones). We went to the site of two crematoriums which were linked to the gas chambers. The guide told us that close by were beautiful flower beds, giving the prisoners the false impression that this building was a good one. In the change rooms, where prisoners were made to undress, they were apparently particularly told to remember the peg number where they hung their clothes so they could get them back after their shower. It is incredible to me that cruelty seems to have no boundaries.

Should you visit Auschwitz-Birkenau?


Memorial inscription for Auschwitz-Birkenau 

As the plaque says:
"Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity."
And this is the main reason I am glad I went. Somehow I feel it is important to hear that cry of despair. Somehow I think it's important that although I believe people are all basically good, there are circumstances which can change them. 

Last week my husband and I watched a documentary called Hitler's Children which showed some of the descendants of Nazis like Himmler and Goering and how much they struggle with knowing what their ancestors did. It seemed to me extraordinarily unfair to be judged on something your grandfather or great-uncle did (before you were even born) but these people had very genuine struggles and very sad stories to tell. In fact, this film is what got me thinking about my visit Auschwitz and Birkenau all over again. But my husband very firmly said he would never want to go there. A quick poll on Twitter confirmed for me that people do indeed generally fall into two quite decisive camps of wanting to go, or definitely not wanting to go. I am glad I went but unless my son needed company to go there, I wouldn't go again.

Should you go? It's a very personal choice, but you can certainly learn an awful lot by spending a few hours there. It's very distressing but it's the sad reality of what happened there. And it definitely is a good "warning to humanity".




13 comments:

  1. I haven't visited Poland, but I visited the Dachau concentration camp in Germany and I'm glad I did it.
    It's awful though to be reminded of the atrocities committed at the time. Unfortunately some governments or individuals are still committing them!!

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    1. I agree Sami - it's awful to be reminded, but necessary.

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  2. You said that you were reminded of things your mind had blocked away - great reminder, that we should not forget many of the things that have happened in the past.

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    1. So true Katja - I hadn't even realised but my own experience probably mirrors it, doesn't it - the mind is so "clever" to block out the thoughts that are too distressing but it is absolutely important to remember them.

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  3. A very thought provoking journey I bet.. it's a hard one but I think it's good to ponder on things that we'd rather forget. Many a life lesson to be learned. Okay that's enough philosophy for today...

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    1. Very thought-provoking indeed but yes you're totally right - better to ponder than forget.

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  4. Thanks for the post Amanda, I saw the documentary Hitlers Children a few months ago. Just frightening that world, I don't know that it's that different today though xx Rae

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    1. You're right Rae - sometimes there are things that make me wonder if we learnt anything at all.

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  5. What a different experience, I have often thought whether I should visit or not. it is such a horrible reminder of Europe's past, but also important to remember and understand what happened. Thank you for sharing your experience!

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    1. It really was a different experience to most of my other travels. I think it's well worth the visit though.

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  6. Amanda,

    This is such a well-written post. You told it with grace, and it is a hard story to tell. It is just unbelievable.

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    1. Thanks so much Leigh. It was hard to write, as well.

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  7. Disturbing but sadly a fact of life!

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