Birkenau, Birke-Never Again
Cities / Towns Visited: 50
Countries Visited: 15
Steps Taken Today: 21,998
Steps Taken Around the World: 1,776,497
Rising early, and throwing clothes on, we trekked to the train station. We were not leaving Krakow just yet, instead we were heading there to bid farewell to Wifey and Hubby, as they left to venture to the airport on their way to Paris to hook into their five week tour of Europe, which they had booked for the remainder of their honeymoon. After a tearful goodbye, and one last best friend hug for the year, and in the painful knowledge that I do not know for a fact when I will see their smiling faces once more, they were whisked away and we were left, once again, to our own devices. Thus we headed back to our Airbnb to put ourselves together properly and head out for the day.
Now, it must be said that travelling for such a long period of time we often loose track of which day it is, and with our calendar often fluid and changing with which attractions we are going to see on which day, mainly dependent on weather, accessibility, and timetabling, things sometimes get lost in our system. We had booked tickets a while ago to go on a tour out to Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, and thinking that it was booked for the next day, we figured we would just pop into the tour company’s office to make sure we were being picked up from there and not a different location when the time came. As luck would have it we had only been able to book a midday tour, as all of the early morning slots had been taken by the time we had gotten around to booking (although to be fair we had still booked several weeks ago), and popping into the office we soon realised that we had our dates mixed up and the tour was, in fact, today. Relieved we would not miss it, and thanking our lucky stars that we had awoken early to see them off, visited the office before visiting the attractions we had planned for the day, and even that we had been forced to book the later tour, we quickly rearranged our days schedule, and mentally prepared ourselves for the hard and painful sights we would be viewing in just a few short hours.
After a quick lunch, we met up with our tour group, and were soon on our way to this site of such haunting history. The bus ride included an hour long documentary about the camp, its construction, its purpose, and the atrocities the Nazi’s performed within the confines of all three of its compounds; Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II: Birkenau, and Auschwitz III: Monowitz. To say it was confronting and upsetting would not do it justice, and the fact that the entire documentary was made up of actual footage showing the appalling conditions within the camp, the emaciated and / or murdered bodies of its innocent prisoners, and the pride filled despicable men and women who held them captive, made it all the more hard to bare. It was a painful truth, and something we should all see; it was the kind of shock therapy our desensitised generation needs in order to understand the full extent of what occurred. As Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi wrote: ‘It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.’; a harrowing thought, especially considering the political climate of some countries at the moment.
Eventually we pulled up at our first stop, the Auschwitz I camp, and after a brief break we were soon heading in with our guide. As we passed through the gate with its remnants of electrified barb wire fencing, and considering the fact that we had previously visited the Sachenhausen concentration camp, the first thing that hit me was just how complete the sight still is. Whereas Sachenhausen, for the most part, is just the foundations of most of its former cell blocks, Auschwitz I still houses, fully in tact, the rows of two story brick buildings which inhumanely housed its victims. If you were to photoshop out the wire fencing, the watchtowers, and any other visible sign of captivity, the rows would look like nothing more than a simple street of suburban houses; well made, even attractive in the right light; and yet, as soon as you are taken inside it becomes clear that not everything is beautiful on the inside.
The first of the cell blocks we entered held an exhibition showing not only an urn with but a small portion of the ashes found of the lost, but countless photos and statistics of the poor souls who were held here, most of whom would not survive. The photos further hammered in the reality of where we were. Photos of Jews from all across Europe being evicted from their homes and standing in groups waiting to be sent to the camp; scared prisoners, young and old, being herded off cattle cars, separated into lines, and with a simple word from one evil man sent either to their death, or to forced labour until it resulted in their death; a woman who had begged to not be separated from her six children, walking unbeknownst to the gas chambers at Birkenau.
Upstairs the uncomfortable but necessary education continued, with a model showing the layout and usage of one of the two massive gas chamber and crematorium complexes out at Birkenau. Beside this, a case holding a small pile of the innocent looking pellets which stole the life and breath from millions on the grounds of these three camps; Zyklon B. Behind a glass wall sat a jumble of the tins which stored it, hidden from the public, and described as an insecticide to disguise its demonic intent, this seemingly small pile of tins had delivered death to tens of thousands. I was literally taken aback, never in my wildest dreams had I imagined being that close to something so sickening.
We moved along to the next cell block, and if I wasn’t prepared for the Zyklon B, I was even less prepared for the contents of this innocuous looking building. For those of you somehow unaware, when the prisoners arrived they were stripped of all of their personal belongings, and told they would have them returned once they had been showered and shaved. This was of course utter bullshit and thus their suitcases, so innocently marked with their name and date of birth were snatched away, their contents stored in guarded warehouses, later ironically named by the inmates ‘Canada’, as they saw this far away place as a safe haven where life was good and free. Many of the inmates were forced to carry out their forced labour in these warehouses, sorting the belongings and separating our anything of value that could be sent back to Germany and used by the Reich. It wasn’t just their bags of belongings though, that were taken from them, upon their admission they were shaved bald, they hair being kept and sent back to the Reich to be used as insulation stuffing in clothes and bedding; and their cloths and shoes were taken away to be resold to provide money for the Reich, and to fund the military during the war. Even on their death they had what little they had been allowed to keep stripped from them; glasses from the visually impaired, gold teeth from those poor souls endowed with them, and even the prosthetics, walking aids, and wheelchairs from the disabled (a sight which was the hardest for me to bare, as it was obvious that they would have been the first to be sent to their deaths). Now, words are words, and a picture may say a thousand of them, but when you are standing in a cell block, only one thin sheet of glass away from massive piles of the stolen belongings of murdered innocents, when your eyes scan the seemingly endless pile of their mountains of shoes; when you are faced with a whole room of hair, or a pile of glasses; when the prosthetic arms and legs sit haphazardly in a mound; when you read the names on the suitcases of those who had their dignity and life stolen, there are no words that can explain the feeling this brings about. It is a hollow; an empty void which opens in your soul and drains the light from the room; it makes you cold with fear but white hot with rage all at the same time; it is heartbreaking. Words would not do it dignity, and these photos will not do it justice, but please take a moment to view them and remember, so that we may never allow it to happen again.
The next cell block was left simply, with the rooms showing how they had been when they were in use. The sleeping conditions had improved over time but only in the way you upgrade from pandemonium to chaos; they went from straw strewn across the floor as if it were a sty, to sacks filled with straw which offered barely any more comfort, and then when there was literally not enough room for the floor to accommodate another body, they changed to bunk beds which, much like Sachenhausen, involved squeezing 2–3 to each bed of the three high bunks. The bathrooms offered the same amount of privacy and comfort as those of other concentration camps, that amount of course being none with communal rooms of toilets, and trough sinks only equipped with cold water and no soap. The hallway of this cell block was lined left and right with the mugshots of just a small portion of the millions of prisoners who were kept and killed at the Auschwitz camps. These haunting black and white photos putting faces to the horror stories.
On the way to our next stop we passed by cell block 10. Although it sounds just as inconspicuous as any of the others, this one housed some of the most shocking acts of the holocaust; the medical experiments. Where twins, children, and sick or ‘expendable’ prisoners were subjected to the most inhumane treatments by ‘Dr. Death’ himself, Joseph Mengele. Doctor of course should be used loosely in this circumstance as no self respecting doctor could even bare to watch, let alone participate in experiments which purposely infected patients with incurable illnesses, or cut open twins and tried sewing them together. Yes, the experiments carried out by the Nazi’s led to us learning a lot of what we now know about treating frostbite, and certain diseases like hepatitis, but that does not excuse anything they did; not even close. Their actions were unethical, immoral, and down right abborhent. I hope so very much that they lived with the ghosts of their ‘patients’ haunting their every hour awake and asleep.
Stepping into the adjacent block, we found ourselves in the isolation block; a prison within a prison. This building housed inmates who the Nazi’s wanted to punish. They were placed in pitch black standing cells where it was impossible to sit or lie down to sleep, and they were then forced to work all day, then go back to their sleepless closet until they broke or died. This is the building where they were interrogated for information they didn’t have before being taken outside and shot. In the basement sits more dark cells, where they were kept without light or food with the express purpose of starving to death. As if conditions were not unfair enough, if anyone tried to escape, or succeeded, someone from their cell block was randomly selected to die by this fate, in some sick ‘Saw’ like deterrent method. One of the cells houses a tribute to the priest Maximilian Kolbe, who sacrificed himself in the place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Polish Sergeant and one of these random selections, choosing to suffer in his place. He survived three weeks in this cell; an unprecedented length of time, after which his captors became impatient and shot him. The only comforting part of this story is that the man who’s place he took managed to survive, and went on to live to be 93.
Stepping out the side door of the building we found ourselves faced with the firing wall. Located in a closed courtyard, flanked by the paneled up windows of the medical block so the two atrocities could not see each other, stands the wall, now dotted with a few bunches of flowers and candles. We stood in silence for moment, sparing a thought for all those who fell to this tyranny, while a priest from another group said a quiet prayer. The air was still and solemn.
Finally we made our way out of the main prison, walking down the central path, and past the roll call area where more than a few inmates had been hanged in front of their fellow prisoners, as some ridiculous fear tactic. One day even saw ten at once losing their lives to the watchful eyes of their helpless brothers. Our tour was not complete yet, just outside the gate we stopped at the small piece of justice meated out to Rudolf Höss, the twisted first commandant in charge of the building and running of this death camp; the gallows on which he was hung, facing his crimes, although I’m sure he still had no remorse in his cold, dead eyes.
It was at this point we were led to the hardest door I ever had to step through; the one which leads into the gas chamber. This innocuous concrete room, devoid of light, save for a few weak globes, and the trickle from those heinous hatches in the roof from which rained in the poison which would steal the lives of so many innocent. It was not just cold in temperature but this emotionally charged space has the ability to drain the warmth from your heart in an instant. I shivered, both mentally and physically. A few more steps found us in the next room, faced with the cremation ovens which would serve to try and hide the actions of evil people. A horrific job which was forced on the most unfortunate of captives. Imprisoned men who were kept separately so that they could not forewarn their fellow sufferers of their incoming fate, men who burnt the bodies, often of friends and family, and had to live with the ghosts; people with kind hearts forced to do heartless tasks; the Sonderkommando.
Walking back to the bus with heavy hearts and heavy steps, we boarded knowing that there was one more place we had to see in order to truly understand; Auschwitz II: Birkenau. After a short trip we stepped off the bus and headed towards the guard house of the entrance. From a distance it looks like any other entrance building, but as you draw closer the extent of everything hits you. Most of Birkenau was destroyed, as the Nazi’s tried to cover their tracks as they retreated when they realised they would lose the war, but the twin chimney stacks from every single now absent cell block still stands. As you look into the distantce on either side they seem to go on forever, row after row, column after column, they stick up like headstones for those who had huddled around them for warmth all those years go. Around each chimney had been kept hundreds of inmates. The blocks seem endless but you could have filled the all of the blocks 10 times over and still not have accounted for the millions who lost their lived on these grounds. You will never understand the magnitude until you see it for yourself, and I beseech you to go.
As you reach the gate you realise that the arch is not, in fact, for foot traffic, but has train tracks running through it, a fast and direct way to funnel in the condemned; its so blatantly conspicuous that it’s appalling. The fact they could be so unashamed of their actions that they would run a line right to their front door and into the heart of their atrocities really just explains how right they believed they were in their evil. Walking down the path which splits the camp in two, we edged the tracks until we reached one of the old cattle cars the prisoners had been delivered in. Crammed in like sardines, and denied food and water, many died on route in the heat and squalid conditions, especially those trucked in from far off places. Those who survived this were herded out and separated on this very path. Those destined for the cell blocks sent to the right, the rest directed to head down the path to the left towards the trees, and told some cock and bull story about being taken to different accommodation. As we headed solemnly down that left path I wondered how many of these poor souls believed the lie, how many believed that their group of the most vulnerable would really be going anywhere other than to their death; children, pregnant women, disabled, and elderly. Families split by the wave of a monster’s hand. Husbands, fathers, and brothers watching their wives, daughters, and sisters being taken to cell blocks on the other side of the compound or lead down that fateful path, never to see them again, and with no chance to say goodbye. I wondered how many mothers tried to hide their fear as they comforted their children one last time, telling them white lies to soothe them.
Finally we reached the end and were faced with a memorial for those who died. Plaque after plaque showing the same ode but in the languages of all of those lost. On either side, suddenly that model from Auschwitz wasn’t just a model anymore and we stood between the mangled remains of the two gassing compounds. The attempt to destroy them by use of explosives serving only to create a ruin perfectly reflective of the actions they housed.
On our way back to the gate we were led into one of the few blocks which remain in tact; one which housed the female inmates. Entering, it was instantly clear that Birkenau was designed for nothing more than death. Dirt made up the floors, and crude wooden three tiered bunks lined both walls and the centre. The small chimney housing a tiny fireplace which would have been basically useless at heating this crude, uninsulated prison. Those unfortunate to be forced to sleep on the bottom bunk, on the ground, in the dirt, were more likely to die in the cold, damp, and filth, than those who managed to scramble up to the slightly warmer and cleaner top beds. Each bunk cramming in so many that they would have only been able to sleep straight and on their sides. It was at this moment I began to wonder if the sleeping arrangements would have resulted in a free for all, every woman for herself mentality, or if these sisters in pain would have worked together to offer the best conditions to those who were suffering the most. Would this inhumane situation force them to become inhumane themselves, or would it have made them bond over a common enemy and work together for the group; was it one for all, or all for one?
Trudging back to the bus, I can confidently say that I was emotionally spent. As an empath my heart was thoroughtly stretched and torn; crumpled and cut up. I was exhausted but filled with the same rage which had filled me at Sachenhausen. On the way home we stopped to eat, pork ribs and steak sat enticingly on the plates, and although it offered sustenance it was as if the pain had drained any flavour or enjoyment from the meal.
I tumbled into bed and fell asleep in the darkness that I had been shrouded in this day. As I drifted off I thought about the quote by Edmund Burke, ‘ The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’, but the things that happened in Auschwitz and all of the other concentration camps proves this to be incorrect. These walls held good men and women who fought as hard as they could against this evil, outside the walls lived good men and women who raised their voices about what was happening, to a world that was deaf to their pleas until it affected their own people. The problem is, you see, good people don’t see violence and murder as the answer, whereas evil believes violence and murder are the only answers. Good people will raise their voices before they raise a gun, but you can’t fight bullets with words. Good people see everyone as individual but equal, they see the world as one big ‘we’; whereas evil sees everyone as different and their own kind as superior, they see everything as ‘us verses them’.
Good could not beat evil in this fight because evil did not fight fair, only in the good banding together and fighting the murder of the innocent with the murder of soldiers were they able to stop the atrocities; but it was too little to late. Six million people were slaughtered by a party who’s entire angle of convincing the naive masses it was the right thing to do, was fear mongering. We know it, we learn about it, we are appalled and convince ourselves it could never happen again, and yet it keeps happening. Genocide has been happening since time immemorial and continues to this day; 25 years ago Serbians murdered thousands of Muslim Bosnians in Srebrenica during the Yugoslav wars; just the other year it came to light that there are concentration camps in Chechnya that are actively murdering homosexual men. We convince ourselves it’s not the same because it’s not on the same scale and it’s not in first world countries, but Donald Trump is sitting there in one of the world’s most powerful countries spewing the same kind of hate that Hitler did, picking out minorities, and telling the masses they pose a threat to their physical and financial safety. We know its happened before and we’re watching it happen again. So what can we do? We fight, we raise our voices before they raise their guns; we fight their hatred and fear with love and education; we choose diplomacy and justice, because it does not shed blood to do so. We stop saying never again, and start acting, because if you bother to open your eyes you’ll see that ‘again’ is already happening.