When we decided to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau on this trip, we knew it wouldn’t be a so-called fun day. Instead, it was meant to educate. When something that horrific occurs in history, you make sure you remember and you ensure you honour the dead.
You think you understand the Holocaust and what happened when Hitler decided the Aerien race was dominant but, you don’t. I learned things that I never understood and probably never will.
You walk through exhibitions. You’re told that they found seven tonnes of hair at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The display is only two. It seems like a hundred.
There are suitcases. With names and addresses. A ploy. Prisoners told they would be reuinited with their possessions and families once they were “resettled”.
There are baby shoes. So many baby shoes. And then there is a hallway of all the other shoes. You can almost smell them through the glass.
It hit me then. These belonged to living, breathing individuals. Those with no idea they might die in the next few hours. Or that they may never see their husbands or children again. Or forced to labour in utter starvation with no will to live.
There’s a difference between a concentration camp and an extermination camp. There were only six extermination camps, all in Poland, yet there were concentration camps throughout Europe.
Extermination camps were synonymous to death camps: you’re selected to die. Concentration camps meant labour. Hard, gruelling labour. Barracks that were originally built as horse stables with three-tiered bunks. Hundreds of prisoners and cockroaches and rats for friends.
It could take 7-10 days to reach a death camp like Auschwitz-Birkenau from somewhere like Paris or Greece, in a cattle car full of 100 individuals and all their belongings. Once closed, the doors didn’t open until arrival. Excrement leaked from the cars, according to prisoners who saw them arrive. People died in these cars.
Testimonies from survivors say they remember the selection process on the landing platform as the worst moment of their lives. It’s the last time many saw their family members – either selected to be gassed in one of five gas chambers and crematoriums at the site or forced to labour and subsequently dying from starvation or other diseases that riddled the camps.
It was prisoners’ jobs to cremate those who died in these chambers. To strip their clothing, cut their hair, pull out their metal dental work. Prisoners. Not guards.
Those “fit to work” laboured for 11 hours a day on less than 1100 calories and only two monitored toilet breaks lasting up to one minute each.
Don’t plan an escape. There were prisons at the camps. Torture chambers, really. There were dark rooms, starvation rooms, standing cells. One standing cell at 1x1m for four individuals who also laboured during the day.
There was a yard. Two poles for hanging prisoners with their arms twisted for hours. A grey death wall. Prisoners shot to death. Gallows to hang prisoners as a warning to others.
You walk through a gas chamber and crematorium. It’s difficult to process. You see the chimneys where the gas was released. A tiny room with 700 naked people crammed in together thinking they will be bathing.
Dying in a gas chamber was physically painful. The gas they used would make victims vomit and scream.
You see furnaces. Actual furnaces where corpses were burned. If they broke down, the corpses were laid in piles and burned in the open air. Cremated remains were never really found. They were dumped in rivers or used as fertilizer.
The things you see only represent 3-4% of what was actually present. The Nazis burned the evidence and rid themselves of items that could not be sent to the Third Reich.
95% of those who escaped were prisoners made to work in farms and fields outside the barbed wire, electrocuted fence. They ran. Into the forest. Some survived.
You leave feeling lucky. Feeling scared and in awe of survivors. You don’t believe you’ll ever see anything as horrible as what you just witnessed. Yet they saw the reality. They lived it. And you feel numb.