Having studied a ‘Representing Trauma’ module at University, exploring the ways in which traumatic events in the world’s history are represented in various multi modal forms, I was apprehensive about visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau – with a lot of the studies being about the ethics of visiting such places.
What hit me as soon as we got there was the weather. We visited in -2 degree weather, wrapped up in coats etc; I was cold. I just imagined the millions of those less fortunate walking the same paths, in freezing rags and no shoes. I also recognised that I was imagining myself, literally, in their shoes. One of the only ways I was really able to withstand the full day visiting such horrific places was by detaching myself from what we were seeing and experiencing, so I had to constantly remind myself to not envisage what had actually taken place in the very place I was standing.
Everyone is given headphones whilst walking around, both to ensure you can hear your guide and to keep the grounds generally silent, as a form of respect I imagine. We approached the sadistic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work will set you free) sign over the entrance and this was the first visual shock for me, having seen the sign so many times in films and pictures.
We then proceeded into Auschwitz, where we had a tour of the general grounds and the guide talked us through a lot of the history specific to the site. I won’t go into facts and figures, but the general volume of victims was shocking, more than shocking, and ineffable really to congest. The way the guides tell you the atrocities are quite bluntly put, I think I was expecting more sort of cushioning of facts similar to what you hear in school, but there’s no softening of the inhumane brutality of the whole systematic operation of the camps. The facts are often too much to comprehend and paired with literally being stood where it happened, again, I had to stop and detach myself from where I was.
The room that disgusted me the most was a room full of human hair, as you walk in there is over two tons of victim’s hair in a huge display. The Nazi’s kept everything of the victims, including the hair they shaved as they used it for wool etc. Nothing went to ‘waste’ – including gold fillings, rings, and glasses – all which was taken off the dead bodies by other camp labourers, as a form of work. I had to leave the room after a few moments; you are also asked not take photos at that particular spot.
The gas chambers are also, obviously, a harrowing moment in the tour. I really didn’t know what I was expecting but you can’t prepare for it. It is an utterly sobering moment that will stay with me forever; the scratch marks on the black walls, the openings in the ceiling and the oven in the corner of the room. Again I could only be in there for a few moments before leaving, to imagine the life lost in there is just incomprehensible.
After Auschwitz 1 you travel to Birkenau (by the coach/ tour group you came on). It is a short drive but a sobering one. This was the next visual sight that hit me the hardest, the ‘death gate’ – the railway lines leading into the camp, again having seen it in so many images and films. The linear railway lines directed towards the mouth of the gate just swallows your gaze instantly – made worse by knowing the millions of entrants to the camp did not leave.
The tour then proceeds down the platform, on which many of the ‘selections’ took place – Nazi officers and Dr’s deciding who would be sent to work and who would be sent to die. Previously at Auschwitz you are shown many images from these platforms, so to be stood in that spot is again a very hard hitting moment. One story took place on that particular platform which our tour guide told us about – a mother, with her young daughter and son, had had word that something untoward was happening in the camps so, just before the selection process she pushed her son towards a passing group of men.He came running back to her and she pushed him away for a second time, again he came running back to her and again she pushed him (harder this time) away. He came running back crying and upset and as she shoved him away for the last time he shouted at her ‘I hate you’. Those words were the last he spoke to his family, as he survived the camp unlike his mother and sister.
It’s an odd feeling being in Birkenau and in particular being stood on the platform, the usual feelings of calmness that comes with vastness and openness of space are obviously never going to be there, the intense feeling of sadness and vulnerability hit me immediately. You just have to look around to see the limitless rows of barbed wire, the huts that will have seen countless atrocities and the clock towers that will have afforded countless victims to be killed for being alive. I almost felt guilty for standing there knowing what I did about the history of the place.
Whilst there (in the camp) I felt scared. I felt vulnerable and small compared to establishments and ideologies that are much larger than the individual. I felt unsure of whether I should be there at all and mostly I felt horrified that this systematic killing of people could have ever been orchestrated for such a long period of time. It’s scary because we never learn, the systematic ostracising of ‘the other’ will always exist – it is happening in America, on a public scale not really seen since racism was at its most prevalent there, it is happening in the refusal of refugee’s to first world countries, such as the UK, and it is happening through ‘Islamophobia’.
Our tour guide ended the tour with a quote by Elie Wiesel, ‘to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time’. I needed to hear this quote, I wasn’t there to gawp over what I was seeing – I was there to learn about the past, to ensure it never happens again in the future.
All in all, my advice is to go. View it as the learning experience that it is, and the memory of the victims will live on through the education of others.
We booked a tour before going to Krakow: http://krakowshuttle.com/krakow-tours/auschwitz-birkenau-tour/. Though entrance to the camps is free, you pay for travel and the tour guide/use of companies.
As tours go, they were efficient and reliable. We were picked up and dropped back off at our apartment, and the driver ensured everyone was back on the minibus as it would have been easy to get lost. This tour also ensures you get an English speaking guide, which is essential for your time there as you want to get a full understanding from someone more knowledgeable. If you go on your own you’re not guaranteed to get a tour guide.
I would recommend to take food with you, as the trip overall is around 6 hours (travel time included) and it’s not always clear when you will be stopping for breaks etc.
Take some money with you for food, drink & toilet use.
Unsure of why but they don’t allow bags in bigger than size of A4, so bring a small bag or ensure you can leave it in the transport provided.
Below Left, ‘The Killing Wall’, location where hundreds were lined up and fatally shot.
Below Right, ‘Those Who Do Not Remember The Past Are Condemned To Repeat It’ – George Santayana.