A tear trickles down my cheek. But at this very moment, I’m powerless to wipe it away. I’m frozen to the spot. I can’t move. I’m numb. A chill runs down my spine, my lips are quivering. Suddenly, the power of Auschwitz has hit me.
I'm in a gas chamber. A large, empty, dingy room where, less than 80 years ago, unimaginable and unthinkable atrocities occurred. The reality dawns on me, perhaps a bit too much. This, truly, is a chamber of horrors; a real life graveyard where thousands upon thousands of innocent people took their last breath. I’m standing in a room, nay, on the very spot, where helpless souls were exterminated during one of mankind’s darkest chapters.
I’m silent, stunned into the most sombre of reflections. Then, one of my group breaks this moment of deep contemplation, which has lasted a few seconds, but feels like minutes. He tells me to look up at the ceiling – and there it is, directly above my head, the shoot where the Zyklon B would have been poured in to this room of death, down on to the hoards of people below. I feel sick to the pit of my stomach.
Emotionally, things don’t improve. The chamber next door – a crematorium. My God! This is horror in its most vivid form. Nothing has prepared me for how I’m feeling right now.
Shaken, I leave this unforgettable site of mass murder; a building which, before the war, had been a munitions bunker. Oh how things changed. From August 1940, the SS used it as a crematorium, before transforming the largest room into an improvised gas chamber; the first of its kind at Auschwitz I and where many thousands of Jews were murdered within hours of their arrival at the camp. Several other groups, including Soviet prisoners of war, were also slaughtered here in this way.
So much for that notorious sign at the entrance to Auschwitz, which cruelly reads Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free). The most savage of lies. As I make my exit, another sobering thought hits me. I’ve walked out of this building alive. Countless people were not so lucky. It’s chilling. But it is an emotion not confined to this part of the site.
In one of the former camp blocks, a glass case containing tiny shoes, tops and other items of clothing which belonged to young children – infants, in fact – rocks me to the core. The uncompromising brutality of the Holocaust epitomised right here. No one was safe, not even children. The innocence of youth neither a defence nor a protective shield in this tale of human obliteration.
Then there’s the mass of human hair, the collection of glasses, the suitcases and a room filled to the brim with shoes. But remember, these aren’t just inanimate objects. Behind every item is a story. They belonged to real people – like you and me – who had hopes, dreams, aspirations and emotions, only to be ruthlessly targeted, and in many cases, wiped out by the Nazis.
But if Auschwitz I is tough to take, wait until you experience nearby Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The first site, formerly an Army barracks, is deceptively attractive; rows of red-bricked buildings and tree-lined avenues. It is not what you expect a labour and death camp to look like. Of course, this is just a facade to the true terrors that occurred here.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which was built to ease congestion at the main camp, is an altogether different story, visually speaking. It is sparse, it is barren, it is hell.
It is not until I clamber to the top of the site’s main entrance – which was referred to by prisoners as the Gate of Death – that the sheer size of the camp becomes clear. Quite simply, it is huge. A vast expanse, stretching farther than the eye can see. It takes my breath away.
Around the camp are the barracks that prisoners called home; shelters which would have been overcrowded and disease-ridden, robbing every soul of their humanity and dignity.
Underneath the gate house and running into the camp are those notorious train tracks, leading to the unloading bay, where those poor, unfortunate prisoners exited from trains and the selection process took place. Those fit for work were allowed to live, well, until they inevitably died of disease or overwork. The others were sent immediately to one of the site’s four gas chambers, which are no longer intact, but still paint a disturbingly vivid picture of past horrors.
I shiver, nervously. The feeling I experienced in the gas chamber at Auschwitz I a few hours earlier returns, and so too the tears.
And that’s Auschwitz. It’s powerful, it’s relentless, it’s emotionally draining. Why? Because it is real. Every building, every barbed-wire fence, every gas chamber, every prison cell, every strand of human hair, every suitcase, every child’s shoe, every wooden barrack – it’s all real.
Yet, despite everything I see and experience, despite the tears, despite my stunned silences, I still struggle to fully absorb it all. That is, I think, because I can’t truly appreciate it.
It’s a feeling that is best summed up during an emotional and poignant concluding ceremony – with some parts conducted in Hebrew – by Rabbi Garson.
He tells us that, while we have visited these sites, none of us have truly been to Auschwitz – not for one day, not for one hour, not for one minute, not even for one second.
He’s right. We can’t even begin to imagine what it was like. Not even close. The hunger, the disease, the horror, the fear, the desperate fight for survival. It’s simply incomprehensible.
By the time his passionate speech has finished, the darkness has descended on Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The creeping mist and the bright moonlight gives the camp an eerie and haunting feel. The temperature has dropped and I lament being cold. Then I break into a wry smile. I have layers upon layers of clothing on, a luxury which the prisoners would not have had. It’s another powerful realisation.
We conclude the ceremony by each lighting a candle and placing the tributes in front of one of the ruined gas chambers and crematorium – which incidentally is much larger than the one at Auschwitz I. A depressing thought. But, unlike the flames on those candles, the deep, emotional impact of the trip will, for me, never die out.