I expected to be moved to tears by harrowing stories of cattle cars of people arriving at the infamous gates of Auschwitz. There were plenty of harrowing stories but what really surprised us was the industrial scale of tourism there now. Instead of cattle cars, there’s a car park full of cars and tour buses. We were jam packed into the barracks and even the gas chamber. The irony was palpable.
You enter the place under one of the most notorious examples of political spin in history: Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free) and we all know what it really did.
The sky was blue, the sun was shining and everyone was dressed in casual summer clothes as we queued to look through the rooms full of horrors. Death on an industrial scale of bricks and chimneys and barracks. It was a respectful, quiet crowd and all you could hear was the click of camera shutters and the shuffle of shoes and guides speaking in various languages.
There was one group apart from the rest – a study tour from Israel with their flags draped around them as they moved slowly from section to section, hearing detailed explanations in Hebrew. They looked sombre and hugged each other tenderly. Nevertheless, it was jarring to see them walk willingly into the gas chambers together.
Our guide has been working at Auschwitz for 37 years after she promised her survivor father-in-law that she would tell people the stories of what really happened. He was a local Polish baker who gave bread to prisoners and was captured by the SS. He spent ten months in Auschwitz then was sent to Austria until he was liberated. He was never the same again and died at 42. Our guide had quiet dignity. She spoke without hyperbole. There was no need. This is a place that speaks for itself.
Auschwitz is one 25th the size of Birkenau. Inmates of Birkenau desperately wanted to be in Auschwitz because the buildings were double storey brick whereas they were chilly single storey huts in Birkenau with holes in the roof. Survival depended not only on whether you were selected for the gas chambers on arrival or to work – but what sort of work you got. Everyone wanted to work in ‘Canada’ – (the promised land) vast sheds full of the treasured belongings of the prisoners. It was sorted and sent to Berlin for German banks and citizens.
It’s a 2 km bus trip between the camps. We walked along the tracks where the Jews arrived from all over Europe. Our guide pointed to fragments of white bone in the pits after all these decades.
Standing in the one surviving gas chamber was highly disturbing- and looking at the crematorium ovens– but the only thing physically stressful for the army of tourists was trying to find a toilet before the bus left for Krakow and finding one zloty to pay for it. Geoff had to cross his legs a number of times because there were no toilets around- but if he’d been a prisoner he would only have been allowed to go to the toilet a few minutes in the morning and evening with 180 other men.
Auschwitz been a part of my consciousness since I was at school. I feel numb after a day there – still processing the knowledge, the buildings, the rooms of shoes and human hair and spectacles and the dignity of our guide’s presentation. We have sat quietly in our apartment for the rest of the day.