Once a secret, hidden behind lies; then a shame to cover up, then a truth too awful to believe; Auschwitz has now become a symbol of the horrors humans are capable of. It is embedded in society’s consciousness – a name that conjures images of organizational extermination. We hear the name, and instantly see flashes of black and white photographs in our minds. From visions of the endless lines of families being herded off the trains towards their unbelievable fate, to the hollow expressions of the few pyjama-clad skeletons who, somehow, survived to tell their tales.
Auschwitz already has so much emotional power locked within its name, as I passed under the famous gate, which states ‘Work will set you free’, and entered Auschwitz One, I wondered how much more power lay behind its barbed-wire fences. How much more could it touch the souls of those who entered. I would soon discover Auschwitz, though no longer hidden from the daylight, still holds so many stories that will strike deep into the hearts of those who look and listen. I realized it is not the brick and wooden buildings that make Auschwitz, it’s the small details, the unbelievable artifacts, and the cold hard truths, that bring home the lives of those who fell to humanity’s darkness.
I was going to tell you some of the many tales our guide told us, as we explored Auschwitz Camp One and Auschwitz Camp Two – known as Birkenau, but I feel those tales belong in Auschwitz. They belong there, to be spoken there. To be experienced there. It would lessen the truth to retell them to you, as you read this, sitting in your warm houses, or heated trains. To hear the tales, you need to take up pilgrimage… and pay thought to those who lived, some only lasted a few minutes, and perished in that place.
So, instead, I will give to you three examples of moments that struck hard. But there were so many more.
First I will tell you of two warehouses, known by the prisoners as Canada One and Canada Two – as Canada was thought to be the land of plenty. What has a land of plenty got to do with a concentration camp you may wonder. Well, many of the hundreds of thousands of Jews forcibly deported from Western Europe were told they were going to a good life, and would need things. They were told to pack one bag and write their details on it. Those deported from Central and Eastern Europe, already knew to distrust the Nazis, as they had already had a taste of what was to come, with the formation of ghettos. When those coming from Western Europe arrived they were told to leave their bags on the train platform. That was the last they would see of their belongings. The prisoners were then coldly and systematically judged by SS doctors, and either sent to the work camps, or directly to the gas chambers. Their bags were stored in Canada One and Two, where they were sorted. Anything of worth was then sent to the Third Reich.
It was upon seeing the mass of bags, all with names written on them, that the truth struck hard. You can also see piles and piles of shoes, glasses, prosthetics, hair brushes… despite the guards destroying one of the warehouses near the end of the war, there was still so much stuff.
And it didn’t stop there. The looting of victims went on. There is a long corridor in Auschwitz filled with the hair of an estimated 40000+ women, taken to be used by the third Reich for weaving garments. Seeing all that hair, and trying to imagine all the women being shaved, as their own horrors began, sends a chill through you.
Secondly, there is a corridor in the infamous prison block 11 in Auschwitz One, where the photos of some of the early prisoners are displayed, along with their names and the dates of arrival and death. These were taken before the Nazis found more economical means of recording prisoners – numbers tattooed on their forearms. The photographer was told to destroy the negatives, but thankfully disobeyed. And so we can now see the faces of some of those who were first to perish, including their personal lifespans in the camps, some only lived weeks, or months… many barely lasted a year. When I stared into the eyes of the victims, with their shaved heads and striped pyjamas, I tried to find signs of recognizable expressions. Most were ghostly, with blank eyes. But I remember seeing the expression on one girl’s face. It was almost a smile. Seeing that, amidst everything we had been told and shown. Seeing that tiny spark of human warmth, that would soon be systematically extinguished. It was both chilling and confirming. It felt like a tiny light, in an ocean of darkness, however brief it may have shone.
Lastly, I will take you to a brick hut in Birkenau (just as much an extermination complex, as a prison camp). Birkenau was an expansion of Auschwitz One. Where the trains rolled straight through the gates (holding thousands of prisoners at a time), and where nearly all of the gas chambers were located.
This one hut is unique, because it was for children. This was surprising because, children were almost universally sent directly to the gas chambers. Jewish women and children were seen as worthless, and only one end awaited them – packed naked, thousands at a time, into underground chambers to be gassed with reusable Zyklon B crystals, and then cremated.
But this hut held children taken along with their families, during the spread of the Nazis eastwards, and as a result of the failed Warsaw uprising. The thing that got to me about this hut, other than the horrific conditions (squashed like sardines), was the artwork on two adjacent walls. Apparently they were painted by other prisoners, who wanted the children to see a world outside the camp. To see that a better world existed. Though most would never see such a world, it was again a tiny light of humanity in the darkest recesses.
In a large way, Auschwitz left me with thoughts of those tiny lights. The brief specks, that shine ever brighter amongst the unbelievable ghosts of our darkest past. Auschwitz is a mirror of humanity, and we must never ever turn away. It puts faces and lives to the unimaginable numbers.
Between May 1940 and January 1945, when Russian troops liberated the camps, it is estimated that over one million lives (Jews, Poles, Romani, Russian prisoners of war…), over one million stories, were ended in Auschwitz.