Visiting Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) will leave a definite mark on your heart and soul.
Witnessing first hand the history of man kinds evil will be unfathomable.
Attempting to make any sense from this atrocity will be impossible.
As we passed under the replica of the sign ” Arbeit Macht Frei” of the entrance gate, it felt like we were entering another dimension, one I knew I would never understand.
The tour guide led us from block to block detailing the horrors that happened in Auschwitz, the extermination of more than 1.1 million men, women and children. Exhibits include original sketches for gas chambers, tins of Zyklon B used for extermination and inmate mugshots. As you are herded from block to block your brain swims with the facts being relayed and it is only when I stop in front of a display of over 7 tons of human hair that my brain plays catch up.
The scale of these horrors come crashing down on me.
Displays of mountainous piles of glasses, of shaving kits, of suitcases and of shoes, including children’s shoes render me senseless. The sheer depravity immediately brings tears to my eyes. I have always known the statistics of the Nazi horrors but reading about it is completely different to being here. Seeing these displays brings everything into sharp perspective and it is truly staggering to comprehend on any level.
Back outside, the history continues with a detailed account of adults and children arriving at the camp in cattle trucks, where they were stripped of all possessions. I can’t even allow myself to consider the fear they must have felt, as the tour has moved on to seeing the living conditions endured by the prisoners. At the “Wall of Death”, now a flower adorned memorial, we pause and reflect on the thousands of prisoners whose lives ended here and I say a silent prayer to the same God that Pope Benedict XVI prayed to during his visit in 2006 as I desperately try and make sense of this evil.
Block 11 known as the Death Block is claustrophobic in the extreme and here, prisoners served time in tiny standing cells as they starved to death. One such man was a polish priest, father Maximilian Kolbe, who offered his own life so another could be spared.
This block was also the site of unimaginable horrors as the Nazis conducted experiments on prisoners, especially twins.
We are taken into the remaining gas chamber, whose furnaces burnt corpses daily. I am left staggered by people taking photos inside the furnace …… WHY???
And then the tour is coming to an end, but not before we are shown the family home of the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss, hidden behind a fence and finally the gallows where this monster met his fate.
Back in the minibus we make our way to the second camp, Birkenau which is quiet and void of visitors. It feels strangely symbolic as we follow the railway track which brought unsuspecting prisoners to the camp, as the temperature is minus 10 degrees, a sharp wind is blowing and there is a smattering of snow on the ground.
Opened in March 1942 it is estimated that 90% of the victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp died here. Arriving with their luggage they were soon processed into groups with the vast majority going straight to the gas chamber, on the premise of having a shower. Most of this part of the tour is outside and in the freezing cold temperature I feel quite numb, both physically and mentally.
On the journey back to the hotel, we are all quiet, lost in our own thoughts.
I am left with two main reflections.
How is it possible for a human being to be capable of such inhumanity and evil?
What makes it possible for a person living such a nightmare to want to survive? The sheer will to want to still live is staggering.
But what I feel mostly is profound sadness. Sadness for the horrors these people had to endure, for the loss of every single life and for the mental struggle the survivors had for the rest of their lives after they were physically freed from the camps.
Have you visited Auschwitz and how did the visit affect you?
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