An hour outside the city of Krakow in Southern Poland is the town of Oswiecim, a name that to many would seem unfamiliar. That is because the town is more commonly known by its German name, Auschwitz, a word that provokes images of some of the most brutal suffering in human history.
For it was here that 1.3 million people were deported to around Europe. Where 900,000 people were sent immediately to their deaths after spending days packed into railway carriages like cattle. Where 200,000 children were murdered. The concentration camp, which still stands today, is a humbling yet chilling reminder of the crimes of the Nazi Party that took place almost three-quarters of a century ago.
On a recent trip to Krakow, I took the opportunity to visit Auschwitz and its camp Birkenau. I had previously visited at the age of 14 with family and can still remember the horrors of the camp, as I witnessed without the knowledge that I have today. Now visiting as a history student with an academic interest in the Holocaust, I was keen to understand why this atrocity had occurred, as futile as that may sound.
What must be remembered when one walks around the camp, is that when you do, you do so with liberty. Those who would have walked along the same path in the early 1940s in those infamous ‘striped pyjamas’ did so under threat of being flogged, placed in a standing cell for 20 to 30 nights or murdered. Your arrival is incomprehensibly pleasant compared to that of the 1.3 million who were forcibly taken there. You will not be threatened, but you are in a place where 1.1 million people were murdered, 1 million of them Jews. 900,000 immediately sent to die in a gas chamber. You are better off than the 400,000 people who were spared upon arrival, some to die during imprisonment, some to survive yet never see their families again.
12 April 1930 | Dora Gottfried, a French Jewish girl, was born in #Paris to Chaya and Selig. On 23 August 1942 she was killed in a gas chamber at #Auschwitz she was 12 years old. (Photo: @yadvashem) pic.twitter.com/wj4y0aMcun
— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) April 12, 2019
There were 5 gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, with only one still standing, the rest destroyed by the Nazis to hide their crimes as the impending liberation of the camp loomed upon them. The chamber that still stands is rightly a place of silence. The chamber sticks in my mind more than anything else. I saw first hand the rooms where up to 350 people per day were murdered and incinerated. At Birkenau, the chambers are nothing but ruins, yet as we were informed by our guide, could hold up to 2000 people at one time. The figures are staggering as it proves that there was evidently no moral conscience within the brutal Nazi ideology, with the only concern being how it would be possible to eliminate more and more people. Whether it is right or not to execute those responsible for the Holocaust is a matter of debate, but it is somewhat just that Auschwitz Commandant Rudolph Höss was hanged in front of the chamber where he had personally overseen and ordered the execution of so many people.At Auschwitz, there are rows of barracks, which had their own brutal purposes for the camp. The most visually striking of these was the inside of Barrack 11 and the execution wall next to it. Barrack 11, known as the ‘Prison in a Prison’ held various interrogation rooms and prison cells where the Gestapo and SS punished many by death by starvation or by firing squad. One notable victim of these horrors was Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Friar, who selflessly took the place of a man condemned to death by starvation. The cells themselves are claustrophobic, some no bigger than a phone-box. But we could leave these cells. We were not starved, or forced to stand for 20-30 days. We were not punished by being made to strip down, taken to a wall and shot like criminals. But thousands were, not because of any wrong they had committed, but because they were Jewish…or Slav…or Roma…or anything else that did not fit with the ‘Master Race’ that Hitler and Himmler desired in Europe. Auschwitz was not the only theatre for this display of human evil.
17 February 1941 | Franciscan Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was arrested by Germans in Niepokalanów. He was first sent to Pawiak prison in Warsaw and then to #Auschwitz, where he finally sacrificed his life – volunteered to replace another prisoner sentenced to starvation death. pic.twitter.com/bA8zZpytmZ
— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) February 17, 2019
At the same time as my tour, a group of Hasidic Jews from Israel were also present at Auschwitz. I can only imagine the effect that this may have had on them, but the prayer they gave was a reminder of the importance of where we all were; somewhere that is today not only a museum but a place of remembering the suffering of millions. In January the BBC reported that 5% of UK adults don’t believe that the Holocaust happened, with a further 12% believing that the figures of those killed have been exaggerated throughout history. To those people, I would implore them to go to Auschwitz and look at The Book of Names, that details the millions murdered by the Nazis. I would ask them to walk down the railway line at Birkenau, the same walk that 900,000 people took as they were marched to their deaths.
As our tour ended our guide echoed the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who said:
Those that cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
This statement is crucially applicable to Auschwitz and the Holocaust. I believe it is important that we educate ourselves on events such as the Holocaust to ensure that the attempted elimination of an entire race of people never happens again.