Since a teenager, visiting the concentration camps has always been something I have wanted to do. Having read countless accounts from survivors and historians, it is something that has touched me deeply over the years, and it was almost a sense of duty that called me to visit. Carl knowing slightly fewer details regarding the camps, was perhaps an unwitting passenger, but he too, came away deeply affected by the experience.
We decided to use the Polish public transport to get to Oswiecim, the name of the town where the camps are based. (Auschwitz was the name the Germans gave to the camp/town). The ‘bus’ was an oversized van, with capacity for 20 people. We set off on the 1h20minute journey with no less than 30 people sardined in, no airconditioning and no open windows (we managed to open the emergency escape sunroof halfway there as people were getting edgy!). At the expense of sounding indelicate, I couldn’t help but think of the people on their way to Auschwitz all those years before, with at least another 50 people in a cattle truck not much bigger than our bus. Suddenly the discomfort we felt wasn’t quite so relevant. We returned to Krakow by train, it was a slightly longer walk to the Oswiecim station, but the journey home was a little more spacious and air-conditioned.
At Auschwitz, you can either take a private tour, run by a tour operator or alternatively join a tour conducted by a guide from Auschwitz itself. We chose the latter. Tours begin at 10am, if you enter the site prior to that time you can walk around freely with no guide. After 10am you may no longer walk alone, but are required to join a tour.
Carl and I chose to get there early to allow ourselves time to walk through the camp unescorted and hopefully when it was a little quieter. What an experience.
There were barely ten people in the place when we arrived. The stillness, the silence echoed through the cold morning, through rooms blackened by smoke, through rooms empty now but still filled with their past. The sadness lay still at our feet as we stood.
At 10am, we joined our tour. Our guide had worked there for 15 years, yet it was clear to see that even on this tour, she was still affected by the history she spoke of.
Certain rooms are not available for viewing prior to 10am. Once on the tour, we filed through in a line with our guide talking softly through our earpieces, perhaps through the crush of people, it was easier to disassociate a little.
…Rooms filled with suitcases, each with someone’s name written on and their date of birth, written in the hope of easy location after the ‘showers’. Rooms filled with pots and pans, brought in the hope of providing meals for their families at their new destination. Walls lined with photos, of faces, of women, of men, of children – dignified, even through the humiliation. Dates marking their entry, dates marking their deaths, sometimes just days in between.
Words fail to do any justice to the profundity of our visit. It makes you question humanity, question yourself. Such suffering, such vulnerability, such horror.
Some things I cannot write here, the experience is too personal to describe.
If you are interested, some books to read:
- Eva’s Story | Eva Schloss
- Hope is the last to die | Halina Birenbaum
- Auschwitz: A Doctor’s eyewitness account | Dr Miklos Nyiszli
- Surviving the angel of death | Eva Kor
- Children of the Flames | Lucette Lagnado & Sheila Dekel