We set out early in nervous anticipation for the day ahead – Auschwitz. I thought I knew how I’d deal with the experience, but nothing can prepare you for what you see and hear at the holocaust’s biggest Nazi death camp.
It’s compulsory to go on a tour when you arrive after 10am. Our tour guide spoke decent Engish but with quite a strong accent – so sometimes it was difficult to understand. There was around 30 in our group, so it did take a while to get around the museum and at times I did feel a little herded.
Auschwitz I is where the main museum is housed. You enter through the main gate where the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ message is visible. This in itself is rather surreal.
It’s very difficult to know how to feel or to react to the things you see and to what the guide tells you. Still now as I’m writing this I’m struggling to put into words the combination of shock, anger and sadness you feel at being free to walk around the place where so many people were forced to suffer extreme hardship. It’s beyond comprehension.
You’re taken around the camp and into some of the very well preserved buildings. In such a large group it does take a while and it’s sometimes difficult to see things and fully come to terms with where you are – I suggest visiting on a weekday, as even in October it was rather busy. There is a lot of information to take in, and most of it you’ll already know if you’ve studied or have an interest in the holocaust. But there’s something different to being told stories and understanding the facts and figures when you’re actually walking around the place where the events happened – it makes it even more meaningful.
The most harrowing rooms are of course those with the belongings of a small percentage of the people who died at Auschwitz. Mountains of shoes, suitcases, walking aids… and then there’s the hair. It’s difficult to describe what goes through your mind – and even though you know its coming, its also completely unexpected. It’s the only room where you can’t take pictures – and for good reason. There’s mounds of it, and when you see little clumps of very blond hair, it just hits you that it came from a fellow human being. In another cabinet there’s some examples of the items that were made from the hair – it’s absolutely disgusting.
You’re also taken through the prison block – there are all kinds of different rooms for housing those who did little wrong. Starvation cells and standing cells are to name but a few – both in complete darkness. Next to this block is the yard where the shootings took place. The original wall where the inmates stood has been removed, and in its place there is a kind of memorial where people place flowers.
We are also shown the place where the commander of the camp, Rudolph Höss, was hanged after being caught after the war. The house where he and his family lived in luxury is right next to the camp, they were waited upon by prisoners and lived amongst items stolen from them.
We walked through the old crematorium on Auschwitz I – I just stood for a few minutes and looked around after the group had left. It was eery in every possible way. People had come in here thinking they were being given a shower. You could see the fake shower heads in the ceiling and the holes where they dropped the gas. It was quite a small room – hence why they decided to expand to Birkenau – but thousands must’ve died in there. We were then shown 2 replicas of the furnaces – they have been rebuilt but the metal parts are original. There’s a little trough which the body would’ve been put on and then pushed in to burn. The whole experience was incredibly freaky. Our guide told us a story about a 16 year old girl who was discovered alive after the gas had been dropped – she regained consciousness but they gave her a lethal injection. Maybe others like her survived but were burned alive… How horrible.
Quite a few of the buildings house small exhibitions. I tried to look at a few of these after the tour but there is simply too much information, and after spending almost 4 hours at the camp, you start to feel pretty drained.
After Auschwitz I we were taken by shuttle bus to Auschwitz Birkenau, which is about 3 km away. This place is absolutely massive. The railway tracks run through the middle of the camp and we traced the steps of those selected for immediate death – as they were lead unknowingly towards the gas chambers. We went inside a wooden bunker that housed approximately 600-700 men, and was originally intended for use by horses. It was a hot day, despite it being October, so you could imagine what it must’ve been like in the height of summer – it would’ve been boiling hot and the smell would’ve been unbearable.
The toilet and washroom hut was also horrific. There were 2 cement blocks with round holes on both sides and very close to each other. The guide said that because there were so many prisoners in the camp – approximately 90,000 – one would’ve had just a few seconds to relieve yourself, and this would’ve been whilst sitting very close to another. There was no clean water and no place to wash. The Jews were being humiliated in every possible way.
The women’s side of the camp was made up of brick huts – so more of these buildings were original. Around 6 or 7 women would’ve shared one bunk, and these were in layers of 3. The women on the bottom bunk would have been lying on the mud floor, and therefore were prone to dying much quicker than the men. There were 2 small fireplaces in the hut, but with little ventilation and fuel these would’ve been pretty unusable.
We were shown the ruins of the crematoriums and gas chambers – the Nazi’s had tried to destroy these when they knew they were going to be discovered. The ruined buildings have been left as was.
Birkenau is incredibly different to Auschwitz I, it’s much larger and way more spread out. Many lived in close proximity, and many more died. I would’ve liked to have spent some time walking around and soaking up the terrible history of the place. But it had become too much for one day, and also too hot. It’s an incredibly shocking place, and I’m still struggling to get my head around the atrocities that were committed there. It’s simply too difficult to get the true meaning of this place across, and my words really don’t do it justice. I suggest you visit and see it for yourself. Then you’ll understand.