The horrors perpetrated by the Nazis linger on at Auschwitz, with disbelief the most strident emotion, says KRYSTEN BOOTH
It’s not hard to understand that people feel a sense of disbelief when they visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. Disbelief that so many people died here – official reports still don’t know whether it was closer to 1.1 million or 1.5 million. Disbelief that of the 220,000 children sent to the world’s most infamous concentration camp, only 650 survived. But disbelief, above all, that it could actually have happened at all.
Yet it’s a common theme which runs through a tour of the site which is only 60km from Krakow in Poland. It’s strange the first time Daria, our guide, refers to “evidence”, like she’s trying to convince us of what happened here. Often her points are bookended with stories of atrocities and then a simple statement: “This is just further evidence of what happened here.” On first impressions, she could be accused of sounding like a cracked record, but rather than unnecessarily trying to recreate an atmosphere of doom and gloom, Daria is building a case – a case which most people think was closed more than 50 years ago.
But for some, it was the Nazis’ haste to implement the Final Solution that has allowed some deniers to argue that the atrocities carried out on the site didn’t happen or were exaggerated by survivors.
Auschwitz first opened on June 14, 1940 when Polish political prisoners were sent to the site in the outer suburbs of the town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz, in German). Initially established as a concentration camp, it wasn’t until the beginning of 1942 that the methodical mass murder began by gassing at Birkenau.
What took place over the next three years still haunts the site today. With thousands of prisoners arriving at the camp almost daily, life and death decisions were made within moments of their arrival. After being offloaded from crude cattle trains, men were separated from women and children. Teams of Nazi doctors and nurses then separated the strong and healthy from the elderly, the ill, the pregnant and nearly all the children. The strong and healthy were sent to work, while the rest, usually 70%-75% of the transport, were almost immediately sent to their death in the gas chambers.
“When the camp was first established there were records of names, ages and even photographs of people,” Daria says. “But as the amount of people arriving increased it became impossible to keep up, so many were sent to their death with no record kept. We’ll never know exactly how many people died here.”
What we do know, though, is that life at Auschwitz-Birkenau must have been hell and the people who ran the camps were living evil. The tons of hair of condemned prisoners and thousands of shoes on display are testament to that.
“They used hair to make blankets, mattresses – anything they could think of,” Daria says. “Everything was about profit. They would make the prisoners work until they were dead and then they would melt their false teeth for money.”
For most, a trip to Auschwitz isn’t a journey to discover a terrible secret hidden from the world, it’s a journey which reinforces the lurking evil in people and how such evil prospers when we sit by and do nothing. It’s a journey which the modern world should believe in.
>>Several tour companies in Krakow run trips to Auschwitz-Birkenau from around £20, including guided tour. Public buses to the site run about 10 times per day from the central bus depot which is situated close to the Krakow Glowny main rail station and will cost about £2. Admission to the site is free and guided tours can be joined for about £4.50.
>>Krysten Booth travelled to Krakow with Opodo (0871-277 0090), who have return flights with British Airways from £152 and accommodation at the Novotel Krakow Bronowice from £45 per room per night.