Visiting a war memorial or a genocide museum is never going to be easy. Death is a difficult topic to deal with in most circumstances; it’s more difficult still to be confronted with the cruelty of our past, the evil that we as human beings have been capable of.
It was with great unease and nervousness that I set out for Auschwitz, this trepidation I had only experienced once before: in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. “You must go and see,” my Khmer guide, who is a friend till this day, said. “We have to see and know what we have done so we will not do it again.”
An appropriately gloomy day introduces the signature gates of Auschwitz I, the original camp. Arbeit Macht Freit – Work will set you free. As ominous and shiver inducing as it would have been on even the brightest of days, its foreboding message contrasts the sky as you stand beneath it, and imagine thousands of people marching under the arch.
Even as a visitor, a student of history, a traveller or a grudging child dragged along on a family excursion, the next few hours will be suffocating, awful and painfully difficult. You steel yourself at every step, every new room, and every bit of cruel information you receive. And still, you remind yourself, you’re the lucky one. Tonight you will be drinking away these truths in a way that the people who were herded through the paths you now walk on couldn’t even imagine.
If you’re going to go to Auschwitz, avoid the guided tours at all cost. The last thing you want – as you struggle with what you’re being presented with in overwhelming volume – is a person with a clipboard herding you through. Enter before 10am or after 3pm and you can proceed without a tour group.
You need time to consider what you’re seeing, space to step away and reflect on the atrocities you’re surrounded by, your own quiet time to let it sink in: this is what happened, right here. These are how many. This is how. Here is what. Perhaps the only question that signboards and guidebooks can’t provide an answer to is why.
Hundreds, thousands of photographs of prisoners line the walls in some of the halls. You might find yourself wanting to look into each of their eyes, studying each of their faces, reading each of their names. But for every thousand you see, there are thousands more still. The numbers are almost incomprehensible.
You see the gas chambers, and you visit the cells. You see the many blocks in which torture was carried out, experiments were conducted on prisoners, the wall where mass shootings and executions took place. You could spend the day there and still there are horrors around every corner.
At Auschwitz II (Birkenau), both a concentration and extermination camp, train tracks mark the route that shuttled Jews from all over German-occupied Europe to the gas chambers. Here, its vastness is what overwhelms. There is so much space, and a stroll through the woods seems peaceful, honestly quite pleasant.
The rain has stopped, and birds are chirping, you’re surrounded by green. And then you encounter the board and photographs that tells you: you’re standing on the grounds where Jewish families were kept while lining up for the gas chambers. At this point you haven’t any tears left and your heart is already shattered.
The rain begins again and far from the main blocks, a shelter is available. It’s pouring outside, and I learn I’ve stumbled into the place where newly arrived prisoners had to undress. Clothes, valuables and documents were confiscated – kept in deposit if you were not a Jew, sorted, disinfected and shipped out to German civilians if you were.
Another room holds the mountains of discarded shoes that were collected. Another holds brushes, toiletries, daily necessities. The worst of them – giant mounds of hair they shaved off Jewish women and sold to factories for use in the textile industry, now laid to waste.
At first it’s impossible to wrap your head around the reality of Auschwitz. And then it’s heartbreaking and terrifying to reconsider this reality while keeping in mind the realities of our own societies today.
Everyone should learn about Auschwitz, and visit if they can – not only to remember history, but to understand the possibilites of genocide and war, of what humans are capable of.
This all began because a group of people decided they were better and more entitled than others, and they wanted to eliminate an entire race for their own gain. Small acts and ideas of hate and entitlement, when combined and subsequently unleashed and encouraged, resulted in one of the worst atrocities humanity world has seen. It’s especially important to remember this, to know this, when we witness small acts of hate, entitlement and intolerance in our own communities today.
Weeks later there is still a part of me that sits hollow in my chest, the weight of the horrendous truths, like a lead weight I can barely come to terms with. I’ve been told by friends who visited Auschwitz years ago that it never really goes away; we carry the weight of the truths we have seen with us. Let us not forget them.
Instead, we do what we can to create a world where race, religion, gender or orientation do not ostracise, a society in which no man or woman decides who is to stay, or to go. This history is uncomfortable knowledge to hold onto – but we strive to do better. We can, and we must.