It’s October 1944.
Yet another engine, pulling 150 wooden carriages, pulls into Auschwitz II-Birkenau in what used to be known as, and is now called again, Oświęcim, Poland.
Inside, thousands of Jewish people from across Europe are packed in too closely to sit down. They have been standing for days – no food had passed their lips, no water had quenched their thirst, with only a single bucket as a toilet. The people inside are starving, dehydrated and freezing.
The doors are forced open, revealing the most light they have seen for days. Squinting, panting, men, women, children and elderly are shoved and pushed into the cold, with calls of ‘Raus!’ (Get out!), ringi
ng in their ears. Many people didn’t even understand German, but all felt they had been sent somewhere dreadful.
Men and women, children and the elderly were separated into long lines, then individually viewed for selection. To move left meant death, to move right – life.
Women with children, babies, the weak and the ill, were sent immediately to their deaths. These people were promised a shower, and believing that they would finally get clean, were stripped naked and sent all together into shower rooms. These showers would never clean their dirty skin, or soothe their aching bones. Cyclone B gas, a pesticide, was sent through holes in the roof – killing around 1,500 Jews inside, within 20 minutes.
Those who walked right were stripped naked and shaved of all hair on their body. Next, numbers replacing the prisoners’ names were tattooed onto their skin, usually their forearm. After a very brief, real, shower, Jews were dressed in striped pyjamas which did nothing to protect them from the cold of winter.
They were forced to live in wooden barracks that were almost as exposed as sleeping in the snow; gaps in the roof and foundations meant wind swept right through. 10 people slept horizontally on three-layered bunk beds without mattresses, usually only having space to sleep on their sides. Prisoners were given measly portions of food, and only allowed to use the ‘sanitary barracks’, which were anything but sanitary, twice a day for a few short minutes. They were forced to work for upwards of 15 hours a day, without rest or water. If a Jew did a single thing wrong, they were shot on sight. It was very common to wake up next to a dead body – death by starvation, disease or even freezing was rife.
On January 27th 1945, 2 years after its opening, Soviet soldiers liberated prisones of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where about 1.1 million innocent Jews were murdered.
Wednesday 7th February 2018.
4 A Level History students, including myself, woke up at 3am to fly to Poland.
Cold, tired and hungry, we made the trip to Krakow airport, then the hour bus journey to Oświęcim. Here, we stood at the site of the Great Synagogue, right where it had once stood. It was blown up by the Nazis in May 1943.
Oświęcim had once been home to 10,000 Jews, but now, not a single Jew lives there. The town that the Nazi’s renamed ‘Auschwitz’ is quiet, and proves as a painful reminder of the suffering millions encountered during WW2.
In Auschwitz-I, a tour guide led us through the grid-like paths to brick barracks, once used by German military to defend their country, which become home to thousands of prisoners: Jews, Roma Gypsies, homosexuals and many more.
Inside these barracks, we saw the belongings that Jewish prisoners had brought with them. When they were transported, soon-to-be-prisoners were told to bring essentials, as they were just being ‘relocated’. These items signify how many people were subjected to the inhumane treatment, and ultimately were sent to their deaths.
Perhaps the most powerful was a room filled to the ceiling with shoes. Every pair represents a life lost.
The only gas chamber to survive WW2 is in Auschwitz-I, and although it was very much a temporary, quickly-built structure, which was a great deal smaller than its counterparts at Auschwitz-II, it was devastating.
Fake showerheads hung from empty pipes, grates in the ceiling mark the entrance for the gases that suffocated those hoping for a shower, and scratch marks from desperate prisoners, struggling for their lives, litter the walls.
From here, we moved on to the much, much larger site, Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Created to facilitate the organised, mechanised killing of over a million, the vast majority of prisoners held here were Jewish.
The scale of Birkenau cannot be over-stated. You can stand at that famous entrance gate, and look left and not see the end of the rows and rows of barracks, and look right and not see an end either.
After exploring the disgusting barracks that housed literally thousands of Jews, we went to the ‘Sauna’. This building contained a series of rooms that formed a chain: stripping, shaving, showering, dressing. In the final chamber, a wall has been constructed showing photographs from albums that Jewish families had brought to Auschwitz, genuinely believing that they were being ‘relocated’.
Finally, after an emotionally and physically exhausting day, we took part in a ceremonial placing of candles on the memorial built between the two largest gas chambers, which were blown up by the Nazi leaders shortly before the Soviets arrived.
This visit to Auschwitz has affected me a great deal. When you learn about the Holocaust in school, you only see numbers. But at the site, you see photographs, glasses, suitcases with hand-painted names
, and everything suddenly seems very real.
I have learnt a lot from Auschwitz, and it has brought about many more questions in my head, but my most poignant thought – where was the humanity?
6 million innocent people – mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, children, parents – died simply for being born into a faith. We cannot change the past, but we must never forget.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana.