Auschwitz – how the magnitude of one of the biggest atrosities in human history is still too hard to grasp

History is a big part of getting to know a country, its culture and its traditions. When Falko visited Eastern-Europe he wanted to pay a visit to Auschwitz, a German Nazi concentration and extermination camp. An estimate of 1.1 million people died here. He describes his visit and how history hit him right

Auschwitz is one of those places I’ve always wanted to see. It’s the sight of one of the most grimming occurrences in human history and something we have all seen in books, documentaries and movies. It’s always hard to imagine the size and impact of certain things just looking at pictures of it, and I was hoping a visit here would help me realise the true scale of events and its impact on the world…  Weirdly it did and didn’t do this at the same time.

Roadtrip Amsterdam – Berlin – Poland

A small introduction to how this trip came to be might be in order. My work has me traveling a lot. When I say a lot, I mean a ridiculous amount of time. My car might feel most at home nowadays, and cities and hotels rooms sometimes seem to blend. Although the downside to this is that your life might become lonely every once in awhile, the upside is that you get to see a lot of the world and get to meet a lot of interesting people along the way. One of the people is Carey, a girl from Singapore, who I recently met and who was more than happy to join me for some adventures. My work has brought me to Berlin over the last couple of weeks, and when I told her Berlin was on the table again she couldn’t wait to jump in the car with me and go and explore! I decided to extend my stay for a couple of extra days and make a road trip out of it, always looking for some adventure myself and of course happy I found a kindred spirit. On the map Krakow and Berlin did not seem that far apart from each other, so we figured a nice stay in Krakow for the weekend would be perfect, and this would be a good opportunity to visit Auschwitz. Berlin might be relatively close to Krakow on the map, however, the road made turned it into an 8.5hr drive! We arrived at Krakow at 9pm-ish on Friday evening, knowing we had to get out of bed early the next day for the trip we had booked to Auschwitz. We went for a quick bite to eat next to our hotel (food in Poland is relatively cheap, and the quality of the food here is awesome) and straight to bed after for a much-needed recharge.

Auschwitz

Luckily we had already done some research earlier that week, and as it turns out, you can only visit Auschwitz when you book in advance. Since we did not book that far in advance, we decided to go with a tour that had some good reviews on a few sites. Although personally, I’m not the biggest fan of tours, sometimes it’s a good way to go because of all the extra information that comes with them. We woke up around 6 in the morning and started our prep for the tour bus that would take us to Auschwitz at 07:15. It was raining outside, and although we hadn’t prepared for rain when we left Berlin or home for that matter it felt poetic to be rained upon, so we decided it wouldn’t be a bad thing to be a bit cold and wet. The small bus arrived sharp on time in front of our hotel and after a quick meet and greeted with our tour guide we were on our way, picking up a few more people who’d also planned the same trip. On our way to Auschwitz, a documentary was shown with a lot more background about the place. Although I already knew my fair share about Auschwitz and Birkenau, it was good to catch up on this information. Most of all the parts about Birkenau (Auschwitz 02 – The main destruction camp) and about Block 11 (which was known as the block of death since this is where most of the torture took place in Auschwitz 01 and where the first Zyklon B gassing took place) were chilling, especially with the foresight we’d be walking there soon.


It feels odd as we exit the bus, the sight of something this terrible being visited by so many people is something different. Auschwitz is the most popular tourist “attraction” near Krakow, and you can feel it. We get a tiny headset and move in line through a couple of gates to reach the main Auschwitz 01 camp. This is where the tour begins and the realization kicks in that this place, with all its horror and terror is very real.

“Arbeit macht Frei”

We start off by walking through the ‘ever so well known’ entrance with the famous lie “arbeit macht frei” eerily hanging above us. The gates themselves and the fencing around the place show you how hard it must have felt walking through here and that this sign might actually have been a belief to hold on to. Auschwitz 01 itself is very well preserved as the buildings are made out of stone, instead of the wooden sheds that were used so much in Auschwitz-Birkenau for instance. After a small walk we enter the first building. This block has some pictures explaining what went on in the camp and that this place didn’t start off as the place of destruction it later came to be. A lot of pictures are shown in regards to the people that arrived in the camp and the further you get into the building, the more dire the circumstances for the people in Auschwitz 01 during the second world war seem to become. This all builds up to some of the locations which perhaps visualize the horror of this place the best, and I have to admit, walking past the vitrine filled with empty Zyklon B canisters only to end up with the room of hair still sends chills down my spine. The hair displayed in the room was found after the camp was liberated. This was the hair of the prisoners, jews, sinti, homosexuals and all other people that came to be in this camp during WWII. This hair was to be used for the production cloths. Moving onto the other blocks there is a lot more to see and a lot more explanations about what happened in this place. Halls filled with pictures of people who were held in Auschwitz, their date of arrival and their date of death give a face to the gruesomeness.

 

As we get closer to block 11, I come to realize how bad this place really is. Right in front of Block 11 there’s a watchtower with a little sign in front of it saying “stop” in German. It has a skull and bones on there, and where we now just see this as a sign of danger, this was actually a place where so much death was found. It feels weird entering block 11. We move in drones of people as if we just want to get this over with, and with the number of other tourists here, it’s easy to forget what this block actually stood for. I try and shoot some quick pictures of the sleeping quarters and already feel the line to the back of me is getting annoyed with me not moving forward quick enough, so I have to move onwards and we get ushered into the basement of the building. This is the place where all of the torture took place. There’s starvation cells and even standing cells. These cells were made in such way it was impossible to lay down. People became so sleep deprived they would die of exhaustion. In the midst of all the tourists here it’s getting hard to imagine the despair most captives must have felt as we just continue to move onwards and upwards out of this horrid building. Once we get to the courtyard we hold with the group for a few seconds, it’s explained how the back wall here was used for firing squadrons and how the poles with hooks were used to hang people from. Also, how there was a special way of hanging prisoners will their arms tied to the back, inverted, their shoulders being permanently damaged in the process. Being unfit for work meant certain death. It’s explained why the neighbouring block is boarded up, so other prisoners couldn’t see the atrocities. I realize this is where Zyklom B was tested first, and how it wasn’t tested the right way, and how it took 2 days to kill everyone in this building at that time. It seems to be lost on most of the people here.

 

As we get towards the end of the tour, I realize I completely forgot about the crematorium and the gas chambers that were present at this site too. My mind had been too occupied with the harrowing thoughts surrounding the goings on in block 11. We near the edge of the campsite, towards the officers building and the gas chambers as I realize some people might not have come here for the same experience I did. I see a couple making happy selfies of themselves in front of the crematorium as if they are posing for a new facebook profile picture. My mind is still thinking about the #auschwitz #selfie I’ve just seen as I enter the gas chamber. The tour guide tells us to look up to the holes in the ceiling where the Zyklom B christals would be dumped from and to pay attention to the crematorium. This place was able to process 700 to 800 people a day… Yet, because of the appalling selfie sight earlier, I’m just wondering about the amount of check-ins this place might have on Facebook. This is where the first part of the tour ends, then we move to the bus on the way to Birkenau.

Birkenau

We arrive at Birkenau just as it clears up. This place is much bigger than I imagined, though still not big enough to imagine the number of people that were held here. I have seen these train tracks in so many different movies, pictures and documentaries, but nothing can put in perspective how big this actually must have been. Most of birkenau was destroyed by the Nazi’s right before the red army came to liberate this place, so a lot of it is in ruins and the 4 large gas chambers and crematories were destroyed before the camp was liberated. Ihr haben das gewusst. Luckily this place feels less touristy than Auschwitz 01 because of its size. I try to imagine the size of it all during the war and realize it’s impossible to do so. The amounts of people that have moved through here and were destroyed without any hesitation is something that is incredibly hard to grasp.

We move alongside the train track towards the memorial that is built into the back of this place. This is the only thing that has beenadded since the war, the rest of this place has been left and preserved as it was. There’s nothing but rubble left of the gas chambers here now. As we visit the gas chambers I try to imagine how life must have been here. How truly horrible it must have been for the people going in. What an incredible burden it must have been for the Sonderkommando working in these places. We move alongside the memorial to take a look at the plaques placed in all the languages of the prisoners at this place. I find the Dutch and the English one. The text reads:

‘For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940 – 1945’

 

As we get towards the end of the tour, I realize I completely forgot about the crematorium and the gas chambers that were present at this site too. My mind had been too occupied with the harrowing thoughts surrounding the goings on in block 11. We near the edge of the camp site, towards the officers building and the gas chambers as I realize some people might not have come here for the same experience I did. I see a couple making happy selfies of themselves in front of the crematorium as if they are posing for a new facebook profile picture. My mind is still thinking about the #auschwitz #selfie I’ve just seen as I enter the gas chamber. The tour guide tells us to look up to the holes in the ceiling where the Zyklom B christals would be dumped from and to pay attention to the crematorium. This place was able to process 700 to 800 people a day… Yet, because of the appalling selfie sight earlier, I’m just wondering about the amount of check-ins this place might have on facebook. This is where the first part of the tour ends, then we move to the bus on the way to Birkenau.


Left: Fence between the camp and the officers building. Right: Gas chamber.

Left: Crematorium.Right: Outer fence. Only the outside actually had warning signs about the deadly amount of voltage that moved through this fence.

The tour comes to an end at the last remaining wooden sheds that are left. They are trying to explain how these sheds would fit up to 600 people. I can’t even try and imagine that as the shed already feels crowded with our tiny tour group in there. I wanted to come here to see if I could grasp the magnitude of it, but the more I try, the more I have the feeling I’m failing at it. It might be because of all the tourism this place attracts and the fact that people seem to have become indifferent to the actual history of the place. It sometimes feels like this is just another location for people to brag about on Facebook or Instagram, although at the same time I realize I’m also uploading on these sites. It’s hard t

o describe the place to people, this is truly a place one has to see and experience themselves. The hard part about it, is that it’s difficult to get a real experience, however, most of the real feeling of this place seems to get muffled under the sheer amount of tourists.

We arrive at Birkenau just as it clears up. This place is much bigger than I imagined, though still not big enough to imagine the number of people that were held here. I have seen these train tracks in so many different movies, pictures and documentaries, but nothing can put in perspective how big this actually must have been. Most of birkenau was destroyed by the Nazi’s right before the Red army came to liberate this place, so a lot of it is in ruins, and the 4 large gas chambers and crematories were destroyed before the camp was liberated. Ihr haben das gewusst. Luckily this place feels less touristy than Auschwitz 01 because of its size. I try to imagine the size of it all during the war and realize it’s impossible to do so. The amounts of people that have moved through here and were destroyed without any hesitation is something that is incredibly hard to grasp.

Left: Stone buildings of Birkenau. Right: Main railway.

Left: One of the trains used to transport people into the camp. Right: Wooden sheds of Birkenau. Most have been burned. Only the first row “survived”.

We move alongside the train track towards the memorial that is built into the back of this place. This is the only thing that has been added since the war, the rest of this place has been left and preserved as it was. There’s nothing but rubble left of the gas chambers here now. As we visit the gas chambers I try to imagine how life must have been here. How truly horrible it must have been for the people going in. What an incredible burden it must have been for the Sonderkommando working in these places. We move alongside the memorial to take a look at the plaques placed in all the languages of the prisoners at this place. I find the Dutch and the English one. The text reads:

 

‘For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940 – 1945’

English plaque. There’s one to find for every language that was spoken in the camp.

The tour comes to an end at the last remaining wooden sheds that are left. They are trying to explain how these sheds would fit up to 600 people. I can’t even try and imagine that as the shed already feels crowded with our tiny tour group in there. I wanted to come here to see if I could grasp the magnitude of it, but the more I try, the more I have the feeling I’m failing at it. It might be because of all the tourism this place attracts and the fact that people seem to have become indifferent to the actual history of the place. It sometimes feels like this is just another location for people to brag about on Facebook or Instagram, although at the same time I realize I’m also uploading on these sites. It’s hard to describe the place to people, this is truly a place one has to see and experience themselves. The hard part about it, is that it’s difficult to get a real experience, however, most of the real feeling of this place seems to get muffled under the sheer amount of tourists.

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