Auschwitz-Birkineau – Brief Impressions
We are all aware of what happened here during the era of Nazism. Imprisonment. Forced labour. Extermination. The worst in human cruelty.
Seventy years on there is still a human morbid fascination with this place. In the same way a motorway grinds to a halt when drivers slow to “rubber neck”, to get a glimpse of an accident on the opposite carriageway. It’s almost as if many people feel compelled to look, or in this case visit.
As someone with a great interest in 20th century history, Auschwitz was for me in many ways quite surprising.
Such is the fascination and “popularity”of this museum it’s routinely queued up, as hundreds of tourists wait to pass through a metal detector – yes, airport style metal detectors – and security screening.
I expected Auschwitz, which now comprises the main camp (Auschwitz A) and Birkineau, to be in the middle of nowhere. To be surrounded by desolate and silent land, land that even the animals dare not inhabit. It wasn’t. I’d heard anecdotally that when you’re within Auschwitz you won’t even hear the birds sing, as if they somehow know. Across the road from Auschwitz A is a restaurant. There are houses and businesses in the immediate vicinity of both surviving camps.
Passing through security I’m greeted with those infamous metal gates, adorned with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work will set you free). I’m also again struck by just how busy the place is. We took an English speaking guided tour, as it seemed did most visitors.
Walking around Auschwitz A, visiting various “blocks”, we were shown some chilling exhibits. My hairs were standing on end. Personal belongings of prisoners, suitcases, pairs of glasses, kitchen ware, clothing. Preserved rooms. Prison cells. Standing cells. Human hair. Human ashes. Photographs of thousands of prisoners and their personal particulars. Every one of them killed in the camp. Jews, political prisoners, gypsies…anyone deemed to be an enemy of the Nazi state.
Being escorted around it did feel a bit like being on a conveyor belt. There were group after group of guided groups. One-way systems in operation inside buildings to facilitate efficient movement of people. It became apparent the guide would talk long enough until the next guide moved on, then we would shuffle along to where the other group had just been standing. Hoardes of people everywhere. To his credit the guide spoke excellent English and was very knowledgeable.
This was a freezing cold day in March. I can only imagine how much busier it will be during the summer months.
As is usual with this sort of thing you get some selfish people who always make sure they push their way to the front. You know, because they’re more important than everyone else. You know the type. I’ve always found that disrespectful and rude, but especially so given where we were.
Incidentally, this particular young couple later used a selfie stick to take a photograph of their smiling selves at the railway lines of Birkineau. I have nothing against photography and I don’t believe people need to spend their entire time there looking miserable – but please, a little decorum and respect. I see standing in Auschwitz akin to standing within a cemetery, act accordingly.
Remember the anecdote about birds not singing within Auschwitz? Well, it turns out they do. Within Birkineau, standing in silence, surrounded by people and alone in my thoughts, focusing on my surroundings I could hear birds chirping away in the nearby trees. A gentle reminder, Mother Nature and time, they stop for no-one, for nothing.
I reflect on the fact three of my grandparents served in the British forces (RAF, Royal Navy & WRNS) against the regime that created this. That’s a real human connection to it, something that future generations won’t have.
How privileged we are to be able to go anywhere in a free Europe.
The only place I’ve ever been that had the same powerful impact on me was Tyne Cot War Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium. Actually, that’s not true. A walk around the ghost town of Oradour-Sur-Glane, which literally hasn’t changed a bit since its’ inhabitants were massacred by the Germans in 1944, really moved me. I’ll cover it in a separate blog when I move onto a European road trip.
Having spent four hours between the two camps I felt like, as this blog has, I’d only just scratched the surface. I’ll be following this blog up with a more researched and detailed one, giving a fuller account of the history of the place…