Travel: Auschwitz-Birkenau. A haunting and poignant visit to Poland.

Six million Jews were butchered during the Nazi regime

1.5 million of those were children

1.1 million were murdered in Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps

The camp watchtower. For how many would a sunset like this have been their last view?

He was a well-dressed officer with shining boots who uttered eight simple short words, articulated well although quietly, and without any emotion. Eight words which determined whether you lived or died — “Men to the left, women to the right.” It was as simple, and callous as that.

Those words exemplify the utter futility and absurdity of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish race. It has been 74 years since the liberation of the death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau in January 1945,  where six million Jews were butchered mercilessly – including 1.5 million children.

My visit to Poland and Oswiecim, the town where the camps were located, and which translates in German as Auschwitz, was a very sobering one. The sun was splitting the skies but there was a pervading darkness, something indescribable, yet still palpable somehow — and I had absolutely no idea what it was.

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The infamous entry gate to Auschwitz.

To give the figures some context: before the war, 58 per cent of the population of Oswiecim were Jewish, today there are none. If we were to stand for a minutes silence in memory of all who were murdered we would be standing for two years! That puts into a sobering perspective the Nazi plan to rid Europe of the Jewish race. Auschwitz is actually two sites — Auschwitz One and Auschwitz Two, the latter also known as Birkenau — and was the location of the main killing site where the gas chambers and crematoria were located, as well as being the largest camp of the two.

Two of the last remaining crematoria ovens at Auschwitz.

Walking around the site, viewing people’s belongings, all looted by their captors forces you to confront these horrors head-on. The hairbrushes particularly resonated, after all, the glass case filled seven foot high with human hair was testimony as to why they wouldn’t have been needed. People, who were quite literally shaved off the last vestiges of human dignity.

The shoes, hundreds, mixed with an assortment of medical aids and false legs, all lying silently, yet screaming a message as loud and clear as any. Baby shoes cast aside, telling the tale of a life snuffed out far too early. And remember, this all took place less than one hundred years ago. The Holocaust Educational Trust, with whom I travelled as a guest, along with more than 200 senior pupils from across Scotland’s schools, aims to educate the youth of today in order that the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime may never be forgotten.

Some of the personal belongings looted from the camp inmates.

The truth is, seeing is so much stronger than hearing. You cannot fail to be moved by the visual stimuli on such a visit, which in some respects make the figures so much harder to comprehend.

Ignorance, prejudice and apathy led to 1.1 million Jews being murdered in Auschwitz from the total of 1.25 million held as prisoners between May 1942 and October 1944. It has been said, rightly so, that the Holocaust is one of the twentieth century’s defining events; murder on a mass scale which could never happen again — or could it? Darfur, Rwanda and the Balkans are all reminders that we still live in a time when values are constantly changing, cultures still cannot agree or even live in peace. Yet despite the horrors of the Nazi genocide and the fact it must never be allowed to happen again, there is ample evidence that anti-Semitism, religious hatred and political intolerance still exist to this day.

Without the world’s knowledge of what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camp could be mistaken for an ordinary military barracks.

For me, there were many poignant moments through the day, but the lasting memory I took away was watching the sun dip below the horizon as Mother Nature painted the sky with her remarkable palette of colours. And all the while I couldn’t stop thinking how many tortured souls had viewed the same tantalising scene, and for how many was it their last? While the Nazis had perfected their killing machine with the use of Zyklon B poison (cyanide) and gas chambers, slaughtering hundreds every hour, getting rid of the bodies was a much more difficult problem to overcome.

Empty Zyklon B tins (cyanide poison).

With the crematoria working at full capacity the use of open fire pits soon became commonplace. One survivor who arrived at Birkenau as a teenager, Kitty Hart-Moxon remembered: “The railway line petered out. We kept going until we were halted at another gate and a guardhouse. This was, in fact, the entrance to Auschwitz II or Birkenau, though at the time we knew nothing of the names or significance.”

The actual railway line which delivered prisoners to Auschwitz-Birkenau

“A dank chill caught at us. The whole area was shrouded in a clinging grey mist. But dawn was breaking, or was it really the dawn? A reddish glow through the mist was flickering in the weirdest way and there was a sickly, fatty, cloying smell. Mother and I glanced at each other, baffled. Who could be roasting meat, great quantities of it, at this hour of the morning?”

Kitty had just witnessed her first human funeral pyre!

Concentration camp survivor – Kitty Hart-Moxon

And these comments from her no better amplify the horror which faced those arriving at the death camps than any I can possibly write.

For further information, visit the official website here.

If you want more information about school educational trips, contact the Holocaust Educational Trust.

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