Yesterday I visited a place where humanity once died for a period of time. A place where people were starved to death. A place where people were beaten to pulp; tortured. A place where people were medically experimented on. A place where people were stood in front of walls to be shot. A place where people were systematically exterminated.
That name has become synonymous with evil.
Auschwitz is in Poland. My tour guide was a Polish woman, perhaps in her fifties. What immediately struck me was how much passion, or perhaps disdain or disgust are better words, was detectable in her voice whenever she spoke of the persecution of her people – the Poles. Many Poles were taken to, and died within the barbed wire surrounding Auschwitz. Throughout the tour, whenever she spoke of the plight of Poles during the war, there was extra conviction behind her words. Raw emotion seeping in. She seemed unable to suppress this emotion. Though I honestly don’t know whether she tried.
One such moment was at the very start of the tour, while still standing outside the gates of Auschwitz.
But first, some brief history: at the start of WW2 Poland was invaded by Germany in the West, and the Soviet Union in the East. The Soviet Union and Germany entered into an agreement to split the lands of Poland between them.
Our tour guide spoke of the lack of support received at this time from allies – namely, the British and the French. Our tour guides’ words [which I have paraphrased]:
“We [Poles] have always been ally of British and French. Always. When we were invaded by the Germans, they did not come to help. If they come, German army was still weak, and they would have won. But they did not come. We have always been ally. Always. But they did nothing to help Poles.”
The bitterness behind her words was palpable. It is clear that the wounds left by the war in Europe have not yet scarred over. Perhaps they have only reached the stage of scabbing… a small bump, and the wound may once again be exposed.
Entering into the camp, I expected to feel more, well something I guess. Walking through the gates with the banner that reads “Arbeit macht frei”, a German phrase meaning “work sets you free”, I didn’t feel much at all. It seemed a peaceful place. The weather was nice. Sun beat down onto my shoulders. Tour guides and tourists wandered around with their headsets on listening to their respective tour guides. Nothing was particularly alarming about any of it.
We were taken through various buildings, where we were educated regarding the operations of the camp.
Jewish people throughout Europe were herded into trains. They were told that they were going somewhere to work. That they would be given jobs where they were taken. They were told to pack a certain amount: 25kg for those living in the East; 50kg for those living in the West. They were packed onto train carriages. Very little room in each carriage. No toilets. Many died on this journey. The journey from Greece was the farthest, and took 9 days. Many died on this particular route. They had no idea of what awaited them at the end of the train tracks. I can only imagine they thought it an impossibility that it could be worse than the ride itself. I imagine they couldn’t wait to get off those cramped trains, away from the dead, the sick, and the human excrement.
Once the train arrived at Auschwitz, these people did not know where they were. They were not told. They were told to leave their belongings. Told to line up in two lines. Men to the right. Women and children to the left. Instructions shouted in German. Families were separated. Babies taken from their mothers. And then began the “selection” process. An SS officer looked at each person, and pointed them in a direction: to the right, or to the left.
Women, children, the disabled and the elderly were pointed to the left. Those who appeared capable of working (mostly fit men, nurses) were pointed to the right. Those pointed to the left were told they were going to showers to de-lice. After spending days cramped on a filthy train without washing, I imagine they may have been delighted to hear this.
They were taken to a gas chamber. The first room of the chamber was set up to look like a changing room. I cannot see any reason why these people would suspect they were being deceived. Why would they? And even if they were told the truth, would they have believed it?
They were told to strip naked. The SS told people to remember where they had put their belongings and their clothes. They told people to put their family’s things together so they would be easy to find after they had showered. This was said to avoid causing panic… the SS wanted these people to enter the gas chamber willingly. And that is what these people did. Once everyone was inside the chamber, the doors to the chamber were shut and locked. Poison was administered from the top of the chamber. Within 20 minutes, everyone inside was dead.
Thinking about the deception these people suffered hurt me. I love to play games. Deception is a key part of being great at games. Withholding crucial information in order to get someone else to play into your hands. The games that were played here by the SS were… well… yeah. No words.
At the second camp, the site where two gas chambers operated, and the majority of Jewish people that died in the Holocaust were exterminated, I was nearly moved to tears. A thirty-meter wide monument was erected between the ruins of two gas chambers (which were blown up by the retreating Nazis to hide their crimes). Placed in the middle of the monument was a large circular flower reef.
The tour guide ended the tour with a particularly moving speech [I paraphrase]:
“You are free. You are free. Free. You are free. You have a home. You have a family. And you are free. Think about this.
It is important that we remember.
We must help each other. Ask not what you can gain from this person. Ask what you can offer this person.”
A true offer, to me, is one that is made without expectation of reward or gain. It could be, as our guide mentioned, something as simple as a smile. And that is something we’re all capable of offering.
Some other notes and observations from the tour:
- Signs throughout the camp refer to “the SS”. I did not ask, but I imagine this to be very intentional, careful not to attribute responsibility to the Germans as a people for the atrocities that occurred.
- There were pictures throughout the camp of: people boarding trains; people in lines with their belongings; people getting off trains etc. There were no pictures of dead bodies; no pictures of people in prison outfits.
- People’s things were on display: suitcases marked with names, hair brushes, shoe polish, shoes upon shoes upon shoes, pots, pans, and most disturbingly, mountains of human hair.
- A plaque hung on one of the walls reading “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana.
- Initially the Germans took photos of prisoners admitted to Auschwitz for record keeping purposes. However, these photos proved too costly and so were stopped after a time. A life seen as not even worthy of a photograph.
I’m grateful I was free to get on a bus and leave that place, but I will never forget it.