Visiting humanity’s darkest place

When other kids were reading Harry Potter, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and Twilight in school, I was reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Diary of Anne Frank and Hana’s Suitcase. I was fascinated by history and wanted to learn about it as much as possible. No other event appalled or intrigued me as much as WWII and the Holocaust. Not something every child would read about but something I felt was important to learn and remember.

When I planned my trip to Poland going to Auschwitz-Birkenau was a must visit; to be able to understand it more than all of the books I’ve read put together. Even though I knew the place would be much different to what it was in 1945 I knew that to see it and to feel it would also be much different than reading about it.

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It was a big day mentally and emotionally. The first thing you see is the infamous iron gates with the words “work will set you free” at the top. We followed the road through the gates and towards the buildings that were home to millions of people through the years of the war. Each building was dedicated to a group of people held at the camp, for example Polish Jews, Gypsies, Soviet citizens etc. We spent hours reading through the information and staring into the faces of all the people that had passed through the gates and never left. It was so disturbing to see the fear and the anxiety in people’s faces, even to the point where you could see their lip was trembling with the fear of their future as the photo was taken.

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We stepped into a courtyard which has the reconstructed firing wall used to execute thousands of people. We went down stairs to where the prison cells were and where countless medical experiments were conducted on prisoners. You could see where women were held before they were made infertile. You could see rooms where experiments were done on babies to see if they could change the colour of their eyes and that instead left them blind.

However, the most sickening and spine shivering place was the gas chamber and crematorium. It didn’t matter how much I’d read about it or seen documentaries on it, it didn’t matter how much information I’d read that day alone, to actually stand in that room where millions were murdered was surreal. I can’t even explain it. I felt the shivers down my spine.

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We moved on to Birkenau or Auschwitz II which was much bigger. Again we passed the iconic gates where the train tracks pass through heading straight to the back of the camp where the gas chambers were. All you can see as you stand on one side of the barbed wire fence is a field full of chimneys. That is all that is left from most of the buildings, just the chimneys. A couple of buildings have been reinforced and we were able to go in to see how the prisoners were kept. Wooden bunks from the floor up covered every inch of the room.

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Heading towards the forest at the back we saw the rubble left from the crematorium and gas chambers that the Nazis blew up upon evacuating the camp. But the end of the railway line is enough to demonstrate that this was the grave for millions of people that had been murdered here.

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How do you feel after going to a place like that? To see the places of mass murder and feel the coldness and eeriness of the place? It was draining but it made you think a lot, mostly about how incredibly inhuman it was and how important it is that it never happens again. When Scotty posed the question, what was the most disturbing or haunting thing you saw today? At first we said the gas chamber but then we came up with different photos, stories or drawings that we’d seen. The stories of the people that suffered for no reason. And that’s the important reason to visit, to remember the people that lost their lives in the most cruel and inhuman ways possible.

 

*post adapted from my trip here in June 2015 and previous site elishasbigtrip.wordpress.com