A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant
Author: Breanna Gietzel
“Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work brings freedom. This hollow, haunting sign casts a shadow on us, as we cluster around waiting, shivering slightly on this crisp June morning. A few minutes later the tour group in front of us moves on and we enter under the signed archway, our chatter slowly stilling. A dark history looms heavy in the air here and I sense it’s not just me who is feeling slightly ill at ease…
In 1940, during World War II, Poland was under German control and the Nazis evicted the residents of the small town of Oswiecim, 50 kilometres west of Krakow, to construct a concentration camp. The camp was originally built to hold the ever increasing number of prisoners of war, but time would see it become renowned as the stage where one of the most terrifying crimes in modern history – the Holocaust – would be played out. This infamous camp is of course, Auschwitz, and it is here I now find myself trailing after our tour guide.
The first surprise on entering Auschwitz I is that it is actually not as big as imagined. Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp, and consisted of 22 barracks holding 15-20,000 prisoners at the height of its capacity. It was at Auschwitz II – Birkenau, three kilometres away, that the majority of Auschwitz prisoners were held and where the major genocide of Jews was committed.
Several barracks at Auschwitz I have been converted into exhibitions and they are the first stop on our three hour tour. We make our way there, crunching along the hard path, the wind whipping through the double-cordoned barb wire fence encircling the camp, straight through the corridors between the red brick barracks. It’s summer here now and I’m chilly. I hate to think how bitterly cold winter must be.
We wander through the exhibitions, listening intently to our guide as he paints a sombre picture of camp life for us. But it is when we get to the Block Five barracks that the tour suddenly becomes much more confronting, no holds barred. We are walking through rooms which have displays of thousands upon thousands of worldly goods – combs and hairbrushes, kitchen utensils, prosthetic limbs, shoes and suitcases- remnants of lives destroyed.
However, it’s the room containing four tonnes of human hair that stops most of us short. This horrific sight slaps your face, wakes you up from the reverie you might slip into when you visit a museum and have been wandering through countless displays for hours on end. The colour of the hair has faded with time, mixing into a hue of greyish-brown. Our guide explains to us that it was shaved off the heads of thousands of people who died at Auschwitz and then used for the production of Nazi clothes and other war materials. We can only stare, shaking our heads in disbelief.
After viewing all the barrack exhibitions, we make the last stop on our tour of Auschwitz I – a gas chamber. This is the only gas chamber left standing in all the Auschwitz camps and it is smaller than the monstrosities which were built later at Birkenau. We filter through the doorway and into the chamber where 60,000 people died from 1941-42. The room isn’t large and it’s impossible not to think about how crowded, how terrifying those last few minutes would have been for those who lost their lives in here. Pain and terror will forever permeate the walls and we don’t linger long before escaping back out into the daylight.
A short, five minute drive later we arrive at Auschwitz II – Birkenau. We pass through the entryway of the weathered red brick building, along the railroad tracks, tracing the trail that brought hundreds of thousands of Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Soviet POWs and anyone else who Nazi Germany deemed “unsuitable”, to death’s door.
Birkenau was the largest of the Auschwitz camps, opening in March 1942. It became the centre of the systematic execution of Europe’s Jewish population, the place where the gas chambers stole so many lives and where the crematoriums stained the sky with their grey ash. Approximately 90 per cent of the 1.5 million people who died in the Auschwitz camps, lost their lives at Birkenau
Many of the barracks here have been destroyed, but we wander through one of the still-standing female blocks, which is reminiscent of an animal shed, before making our way to the ruins of a gas chamber. We can’t make out much of it as the gas chambers at Birkenau were destroyed at the end of the war, as the fleeing Nazis tried to cover their tracks. The only remaining clear structure is the corridor the victims were herded through before entering the chambers.
In finishing the tour, we pay our respects at the Auschwitz memorial – a large stone monument, with a line of plaques in front of it. Each plaque has the same inscription, but in a different language, symbolising the various nationalities of the people who died and suffered here. At the end is an English translation and we finally discover what words mark this site of death and depravity:
“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.”
A lot of people come to Auschwitz with questions, wondering how something like this could ever happen. After visiting Auschwitz, I find many of these questions are unanswerable, the crimes committed here incomprehensible to anyone who has an ounce of compassion or empathy. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit. The shadow Auschwitz has cast on history must act as a reminder, a warning about what can happen if humanity fails to protect the innocent. Auschwitz should be an essential stop on anyone’s itinerary, if only to ensure you leave here swearing, “Never again shall we let this happen.”