So, today. Where do I begin?
Perhaps a small history lesson, in case some of you do not know the basics. Auschwitz was actually three camps, I, II and III.
Today I visited Auschwitz I [Auschwitz Camp by name] and Auschwitz II [Birkenau by name, and the place that everyone thinks is Auschwitz.] There is nothing left of Auschwitz III [Monowitz] save for the commercial premises of the company it served during the war years. You will have heard of I.G.Farben.
I paid for a guide all to myself, approximately £50 very well spent, and he and I spent four hours walking through I and II, with a little bus journey to get from one to the other.
Without a doubt, I was not looking forward to the day, and wondered what horrors I would lay before my family on my return, and how much the places would get inside my mind. I saw some truly awful things, laid out in simple fashion for the eye to take in, and then for the brain to struggle to appreciate the enormity of the sight. Most of you will have heard the whispers about shoes, luggage et al. Yes, that is true. For me to try to describe those things would be wrong, save to say that they are truly awful. For one thing, I would not have the ability to do so; secondly, it is something that you should see for yourself.
I took pictures, but found myself taking less and less. I felt almost that the doing was, in some way, an affront to what was represented there.
In some places, I made a judgement not to capture some images, because the horror of what was on display could not be amply brought out in a picture. In one crushingly tragic case, I would not take it because I wanted to avoid ever seeing such an affront to the human race again. I think I may have failed, as it is my strongest mental image of this day, and I feel will stay with me until the day I am no more.
I am not ashamed to say that I cried. I think I might be more ashamed had I not, in honesty.
Auschwitz I was not what I expected; smaller, solidly built and, well, almost neat. We wandered around, his soft voice filling me in on the many, many details I did not know. I chatted with my guide as we wandered into a solid building. Something grabbed my chest and squeezed hard. It was a physical experience, nausea, and pain in equal measure.
We were in a gas chamber on the Auschwitz I site, which I did not know until I walked ‘into that brick wall’.
We completed our walk around Auschwitz I and a short shuttle ride took us to Birkenau, where the large building with its central arch is to be found, with its train tracks leading into the camp to the gas chambers over a kilometre into the camp. This was the place that most people think of as Auschwitz. This was the killing machine that slew thousands upon thousands.
I had the wonderful experience of witnessing a large group of young Israelis, soon to be soldiers for their country, singing and dancing in celebration, and also in mourning. It seemed wholly fitting and I was privileged to witness much of their emotional tribute.
The heat was gruelling, but we both walked steadily on, down the central path, to where the trains disembarked and selection began.
It was a normal railway line, surrounded by well-kept grass. But, then again, it wasn’t, and you knew that despite the ordinariness of what you were looking at.
The huge gas chambers and crematoriums were blown up by the Germans, but enough of them remain for the observer to shudder at the thought. It is even possible, although probably not desirable, to conjure up an image in your mind’s eye. I did, and it made me shudder to the core.
We walked back, stopping to look inside a hut preserved as it was in 1945. That day it was 26’ with no wind. In their winters, -30’ was not unheard of, and I was surprised at how any survived such awful temperatures in these ‘huts’.
I had heard that no birds fly over this place. In truth, I saw none.
What struck me the most about Birkenau was the nothingness.
Maybe the fact that there were hundreds of people visiting undermined my experience? It is possible, but I think not, as there were prolonged moments when my guide and I were well apart from the crowd and could talk quietly, or, in silence absorb the history surrounding us.
I had expected to be moved, or shocked, or appalled, or made angry, or combinations of those.
I was, at specific things, but not with the overall nature of the place. I found there to be nothing present, save a landscape marred by concrete and barbed wire, scarred by prison huts, and defiled by the buildings where death was visited upon so many hundreds of thousands.
My overriding feeling was that the place had long since yielded every ounce of emotion, and had nothing more to give up. Auschwitz II - Birkenau was the ultimate machine of death, devised by man to be used on man. Intelligent men designed it, built it, devised its systems of work, and ran it.
And I think, in that, there may lie a deeper horror, for this place was not an excess or a momentary lapse in standards.
It was designed to remove a people from the earth, and in that, it has no equal in its awfulness.
If you are a person of faith, I am not, I would be very surprised if your faith was not put to the test by what you see here. Perhaps, it could be seen as a reinforcement of faith, as your presence in the nearest thing to hell on earth would testify? That would be a matter for you and your God of course.
I will return, with my daughters and my wife, before Auschwitz II - Birkenau disappears, slowly claimed by the water plain on which it sits, and which consumes it on a daily basis.
If you have already been, then you will know much of what I have written about here for yourself. On the other hand, maybe your own experience was different. I rather suspect that each person will take away what his or her mind chooses to digest, or what the heart has a capacity to endure.
This is not an attraction, it is a place of learning, of tribute and homage, and one of real undiluted horror.
If you have not been, you should go, and go for the right reasons but on the understanding that your sense of humanity will be assaulted and affronted in a way that you will not believe.