We left really early, around 6am. The sun was low in the sky and it was chilly, but we were all wide awake; apprehensive for what the day would bring. I had checked the route the week before to calculate the timings and I had come back with around 3 1/2 hours – one way.
Despite a few wrong turns, we eventually arrived at Auschwitz I. The car-park was really crowded with multi-national parties gathering outside the main entrance, some wearing specially made t-shirts and jumpers with slogans and Stars of David emblazoned across them, others wearing flags. We made our way to the entrance to try and find out how to get ourselves in and after a few garbled discussions with the ticket lady we had booked ourselves on the main tour, starting with a short film in the cinema. In my prep for heading to Poland and the potential for a visit to Auschwitz, I had read about this early part of the visit and knew that it was going to be tough. It was clear that the short film was a really difficult thing to watch, with many a person walking out of it and when it started I realised why – I also knew Mrs. would find it really tough going. Gareth whispered a few choice words to himself.
Once the film had finished, people collected themselves. We headed in to the entrance hall where it was now even busier. Not knowing where to go or what to do we stayed put and waited. Soon enough it was clear we had to head outside and start gathering in groups. People with plaques held high with the language the guide was speaking notified us of where to muster. At first we had filtered in to a group with a lady guide; she didn’t look that interested at all. We had been handed radio packs and headsets as we headed outside and all the guides were wearing microphones. I didn’t know how successful this radio chat thing would be, and if I would try and get through things myself. Before we got to that however we were transferred out of that group, which had swollen to a size far larger than the guide was willing to take, and were directed over towards a guide called Thomas.
After a few moments we were told to switch our radio packs to channel 2, and we set off on our journey. The clarity was astounding, it was like Thomas was speaking in stereo from millimetres away. He was a soft spoken Polish man; exceptionally eloquent. Quickly, I worked out the limits of Thomas’ transmission and used it effectively – dropping a short distance back to my own space. I wanted to have that bit of space to absorb what was being said and what I was seeing at my own pace, but also so that I wasn’t taking photographs in the group. I wanted to be respectful to Thomas and his guided words, but also found it easier to get photographs without anyone else in them if I dropped back slightly. I remained in sight of Thomas at all times and he was happy to let us stretch out a bit.
We soon passed through the entrance gate reading “Arbeit Macht Frei”, translated as Work Makes You Free. For some reason I always thought it meant Work Sets You Free. Our first stop was Block 11, the punishment and torture block. We walked around the top level, looking at all the framed portraits on the walls of but a fraction of the men and women brought through here. The documenting of prisoners ceased quickly due to the inability to keep up with the amount of people arriving. Downstairs was where the torture cells sat, with the dark, dank rooms all but closed off to the world, were it not for a tiny porthole in the door; the only source of light. These rooms were used to send people to die by suffocation and hunger, with a lit candle expending the oxygen quicker. At the very back of the basement was where the Standing Cells were located. These cupboard sized rooms had the primary task of punishing anyone who picked unauthorised apples or accidentally broke something. Thomas said that at some points up to 5 people were crammed in to these 900mm² brick cells, and many died within.
Between Blocks 10 and 11 was the wall, the place where thousands upon thousands were shot for bad behaviour; asking for more to eat or even just smiling. The rain began at this point and it was heavy, but it was so hot and humid that we dried off quickly.
We made our way over to Block 6 where the personal belongings were taken and registered. This is the block that contains the vast quantity of shoes, suitcases, toothbrushes and human hair. The reality of what we saw before us was all too powerful, my chest imploded and Mrs. was almost sick, so we made our way back out and in to a room with a few information boards. Outside the rain had stopped and the sun now beat down, hot. We took a moment to collect.
Thomas appeared again and gathered his group before continuing on to the end of the road, where Thomas pointed out the Camp Commandant’s house; a wooden frame in the garden of said house where he was eventually hanged; and what would have been a fairly inconspicuous brick building had it not been for an oddly sized chimney sticking out the top. This, Thomas said in his eloquent, soft voice, is where the mass execution began.
When we walked around to the entrance it was dense with people – it seemed every guide had brought their group to this point at the same time. A huge funnel of people all filtered through the small door frame, a very unsettling thing to see knowing what we were walking in to. When Thomas made his way towards the crowd we too followed on behind him, and upon entering the building we were faced with several people in horrific distress; one older lady was holding on to a door frame, her friend asking her if she could make it out but the lady protested – she needed to see it. Already shivering with apprehension, we made our way past through the next doorway and were then in a long, dark room illuminated by a few bare bulbs. At first the room was dark due to being in the glorious sunshine just moments earlier, but as our eyes adjusted the darkness subsided to reveal a wall of mottled brown. As we shuffled our way around I noticed that the walls were not mottled, but instead were covered in thousands of light, pencil-thin lines, which after a moment of reflection realised were nail marks. Looking at this wall, dense with the witness lines of utter desperation, I knew this sight would remain with me forever.
We quickly filed around and headed through another door where we were dwarfed by 2 furnaces; metal rails on the floor leading up to the furnace doors and people in the room very distressed. I didn’t stay very long and headed outside with Mrs close behind, the intensity of what we had just seen had sucked the air out of my lungs.
Outside it was still sunny and Gareth appeared shortly after. We stood in a small huddle, silently waiting for Thomas and the rest of our group.
After a short while we were making our way back to the entrance hall and Thomas told us that the tour would continue over at the next camp – Birkenau – and that there was a bus leaving in 15 minutes. We could either stay here and see more of Auschwitz I or we could head over to Birkenau, where the mass execution of millions took place.
As we walked back out towards the car park, a toilet stop was suggested and everyone agreed. Gareth said a few “Fucking Hells” and then we were on the bus to Birkenau. After a few minutes we arrived at the gatehouse. On the way down in the car I had mentioned to Gareth that when I was reading about what to expect on our visit, the first camp was big but the second camp was a lot bigger. Gareth had opined as we walked around Auschwitz I that he couldn’t imagine anything bigger than this. When we made our way through the gate of Birkenau he was overcome with the magnitude of what was in front of him.
We started our walk around Birkenau by heading through the archway and straight ahead alongside the railway track, stopping half-way up in a small group around Thomas. Without the headsets it was a bit harder to hear him, so for the beginning of the visit I kept close. Once everyone had accumulated around him he began explaining the railway carriage behind us; how it was donated by a Swedish family who had restored a replica of the very carriages that millions were carried in.
Thomas then explained the huts, the construction of which was facilitated by the demolition of houses and industrial buildings around Oswiciem. These huts were built initially to house the female prisoners but were quickly expanded to include the elderly and children. Building materials began to dwindle so horse sheds were transported to Birkenau as make-shift prisons. As we stood there listening to Thomas, I wondered how many people would have been held within these huts at any one time, thinking to myself that at most 100 people could physically fit in to these small huts. Thomas, in his quiet way, explained that at the peak of the camp’s population the huts, the same size as a small chicken coop, held 800-1000 people.
We continued along the railway line, which by now had stretched so far away from the archway and the arriving people, as to become almost peaceful; only the birds and the wind served as accompaniment. Looking back along the tracks I took a quick photograph. It struck me again just how vast this site is.
Thomas continued, explaining that here at the end of the line would have been 2 crematoriums, unfathomable in size, which were destroyed upon the camps liberation. Thomas shared a poignant thought; that we should be treating this whole place as if we were walking on the graves of those who lost their life here, as in all reality we were. Ashes from these 2 incinerators were used as fertiliser for the ground.
In the here and now however, the end of the line is now the site of a large granite memorial, where they hold remembrance events each year to commemorate the millions of people who lost their lives.
Walking onward we arrived at a half-demolished structure; the roof caved in, hardly any walls left, rubble everywhere. This was the remains of one of the crematoriums. Thomas explained how, come the peak of the camps operation, the SS had so many prisoners arriving by train each day that they stopped leading them in the huts for processing, instead directing them from the train carriages to the crematoriums, where they were gassed and killed immediately. In an effort to keep this mass-murder discreet, they brought the prisoner trains in at night, so the labour prisoners in the huts couldn’t see the smoke from the chimneys.
Around the back of the half-demolished building was a pond, where frogs hopped and dragonflies buzzed. This pond was filled with most of the ashes created from both crematoriums. 4 granite stones marked the place where millions of souls rested.
A short walk from the pond we arrived at the first of the brick sheds. The peaceful environment jarred with the reality of what happened here. We made our way in to one of the sheds where Thomas was already speaking to the group. At any one time there would be at least 20 people on each wooden shelf, the space of a single bed. Thomas explained that the bottom “bunk”, a slab of concrete basically, would have housed the same number of people. With the level of dysentery in each hut, it caused huge issues; falling down through each bunk each day. In winter this liquid would freeze, making the bottom bunk an ice shelf. It’s impossible to comprehend.
By this point Mrs and Gareth had made their way back down to the railway track. I spent a few moments alone, looking around the lush green grass peppered with daisies and dandelions. I tried to imagine what it would have been like back then, at this very time of the year. Struggling to even muster a thought, I began my walk back to meet up with the group, who by now had congregated back around Thomas. We made our way to the guardhouse, but as we were walking alongside the railway track it started to rain quite heavy. The group quickly made their way in to one of the wooden sheds for shelter, which at the time was used as the makeshift latrine for the camp. Running down the middle of the hut, almost entirely the length of it in fact, was a concrete plinth with lots of holes in the top. The use of a toilet was a luxury afforded to the prisoners at only one time during the day – outwith this time you had no choice but to hold it in or not. Thomas mentioned how many people would pass through here each day and how children would often hide within the concrete cavity to escape their tormentors.
We scaled the stairs of the guardhouse, leading to the control tower; the elevated position affording a first full picture of the extents of Birkenau. A small graphic below the window explained the expansion plans for this camp, the scale of which was many times what we saw before us. If this camp had reached its potential, hundreds of millions would have perished within these boundary fences.
With that final stop, our time with Thomas had drawn to an end. He wished us well and asked us to visit the bookshop. A thunderstorm had brewed and was discharging a few miles away, adding an extra level of gravity to the already crushing emotion. A short, silent trip back in the bus and we were back at Auschwitz. We went to the toilet once more and headed back to the car.
The journey home was reflective, Mrs sleeping and thinking mostly; Gareth and I chatting about anything and everything. By the time we got back to the house we were all shattered, and the return of the hire car was an extra hassle I really didn’t need. By the time Gareth and I got back from the airport it was almost 1am.
A gruelling day, emotionally and physically. It was one of the most important experiences I will ever have in my life. My family and everyone I encounter will benefit from the influence visiting a place of such importance like Auschwitz engraves. Immeasurable, senseless loss of life. It changes the way you look at the world, how humans can do such depraved things to other humans. I would like to think that the time when this was a reality is long gone. I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe I am naive.