A moving visit to Auschwitz

Things not to do before visiting Auschwitz. Start drinking Polish vodka at 2 o’clock in the afternoon the day before, continue drinking into the night with a group of football casuals from Newcastle, wake up 20 minutes before the coach is due to leave with very little memory of the previous day.

That feeling as you leave the hotel, stomach churning, a quick glance at the reception staff. Do they know what happened? Across the road to the meeting point for the coach tour. It’s minus 6 degrees celsius, we have the worst hangovers known to man and are on our way to a concentration camp. After a two hour journey during which we consistently ask each other “why did we do that?”, we find ourselves in the Auschwitz car park, surreally eating a hamburger from the world’s most depressingly located food truck, waiting for the tour to begin.

This post isn’t meant to be lighthearted. As soon as we entered the gates, all thoughts of hangovers disappeared.

Auschwitz is probably the most famous former concentration camp and site of mass genocide in the world. From 1940-1945 around one and a half million people, mainly Jewish, were tortured and murdered there at the hands of the Nazi regime. It’s a very surreal, educational and eye-opening experience, somewhere everybody should visit if they can.

Auschwitz I was a former army barracks and the main centre of the camp, housing the commandant’s office, admin buildings, main guard station, housing for prison workers, “death block” where criminals were held and tortured and the first gas chamber. This is now where the majority of museum exhibits are. The entrance is guarded by the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work sets you free) an evil irony as the prisoners knew that only death would grant them freedom.

The buildings house harrowing reminders of the sheer scale of the concentration camp. Rooms filled with shoes and suitcases, false limbs, pots and pans and the eeriest of all – a room full of human hair which the Nazis harvested and used to make various products.

Perhaps the most distressing building at Auschwitz I is the gas chamber. This was reconstructed as it was converted to an air raid shelter, but the original door still remains and you enter through the very same door that the victims would have. Inside is a dark, dimly lit room, with candles and a floral tribute in the centre. It’s difficult to comprehend what people would have been thinking as they were crowded in, in pitch darkness not knowing what was to come next. The walls are covered in scratch marks, where people were clawing to get out, desperate to survive. It is absolutely horrendous. A place we will never forget.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau was built a couple of years after Auschwitz I and is guarded by the famous “Gate of Death.” Trains rolled through this gate bringing thousands of Jews to their death at the gas chambers. Around 90% of the victims died at Birkenau and it really was set up to be a giant extermination camp.

We went up to the top of the gatehouse for a view of the camp and the sheer size of it hit us. It was huge. Very few buildings remain but the land is scarred by where they stood. If ever we had an image of a concentration camp in our heads, this was it.

Towards the back of the site are the ruins of several gas chambers, which the Nazis destroyed just before the libration of the camp in 1945. Among these ruins were shower heads, showing the pure evil of the commanders. They would tell the prisoners that they were going to be disinfected and bathe, got them to undress, took them into the gas chambers and locked them in, where they were murdered with Zyklon B gas.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is the location for a national monument, at the end of the railway tracks and between the ruins of the two biggest gas chambers. On the steps are several plaques with inscriptions.

Let’s not forget this atrocity was less than 80 years ago. This wasn’t something medieval, it was only two generations ago – our grandparents were alive.

“Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.”

With the way the world is at the moment, it’s important to remember.

Auschwitz memorial

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