Tempus Fugit

Time Flies…

   Sep 23

The Stairway to Heaven

0545 – Krakow ‘krahh-kov’ (in Poland)

First things first…obtain some zloty the local currency.

Cab to hotel…an orange hotel next to a shell service station in the Krakow booners.

Bags stored.  Fortyfive minute cab ride to Oschwein.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

Arriving at 0900 at the site of the biggest mass genocide the world has ever seen.  I was not sure what to expect.  I did not expect the weather to be beautiful and the atmosphere to be serene.  It was.  Which was in stark contrast to the atrocities that went on in these concentration camps.

Wandered around Auschwitz I.  Was feeling distinctly queasy when I walked into a room that was literally full of hair…human hair… shaved off corpses and sold to be made into fabric.  It was literally piled high to the ceiling.  There were other rooms with thousands of spectacles,  shoes,  personal belongings.

Block 11 was the site of the execution wall – thousands shot against this wall.  Again the stark contrast of the sun shining, a gentle breeze, blue skies grated horribly with my thoughts of what this courtyard had seen.  Similarly Block 11 was the site of the trial gas chambers, medical experimentation, torture and other things.

A short trip from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II).  I was not prepared for the sheer size of the camp.  Many buildings reduced to rubble.  The main gate – the so-called Death Gate that is a very famous image was still standing.  It was through these gates that the millions of Jews and political prisoners were transported in cattle cars by train to their certain doom.  The building, although not overly imposing was very emotion-provoking.  Walking through the death gate there are a series of three rail lines that run up the centre of the camp.  Barracks on either side.  It was in this rail yard that prisoners were ‘selected’ either for hard labour or execution and extermination.  About two-hundred metres past the death gate and beyond the selection yard were the crematoria and gas ovens.

FOUR separate crematoria/gas chambers capable of each processing thousands of executions a day. Prisoners were told they were to go and have a ‘disinfection shower’ and herded naked underground down a flight of steps.

As I stood at the top of one of these flights of steps staring down into the ruins I had difficulty even comprehending what was before me.  These steps have seen hundreds of thousands of souls walk to their deaths.  A stairway to heaven if you will. I felt sick thinking about what they must have been thinking and feeling…whether they knew that they would never leave this building alive…but out a chimney and as a pile of ash to be dumped nearby.

It is estimated around 1.5 million people were executed at Auschwitz-Birkenau – making this the largest cemetary in the world.

The Tour Group and Photography Dilemma

I was glad that I had chosen not to go on a guided tour and to go early.  By the time we left, the place was SWARMING with tour groups…literally thousands of people.  Most of them eagerly photographing sites of these awful events that happened really not that long ago.

When I arrived, I made a conscious decision not to photograph anything in the complex because I felt it was ghoulish and disrespectful to make a ‘happy-snap’ spectacle of such an horrific time in history.

As I left I wondered if it was a good or a bad thing to have hordes of tourists clamouring over such a sacred site and if it was a good or bad thing to have hundreds of photographs taken.

I have to say that although I felt that the immensity the events these sites represent were probably lost on a lot of people who toured through  – and many of the photos taken were probably out of ghoulish fascination rather than to serve as a memory or a reminder…in the big scheme of things it’s probably a good thing.

I can’t help but think that the only way to prevent such thing from happening again is to make sure we never forget.  We owe it to the memories of the 1.5 million slaughtered souls to ensure it’s never forgotten.  If these tour-groups and snap-happy tourists achieve this then perhaps it’s tolerable.

I don’t think any photograph or any writing can encapsulate the feeling of visiting this site in person. Seeing first-hand the places and the evidence of these barbaric times has left me feeling a changed person. It is a powerful experience I will not forget.

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2 Comments

  1. Chris says:

    I had severe reservations about visiting the place as a “tourist destination” and it was only my inability to read a train timetable and plan properly that saw me get there.

    I was there on a gorgeos Autumn day, all perfect blue skys and golden leafed trees. Likewise it hardly fitted my preconceptions of the place. I refused to take any photos, not sure exactly why, other than to do so felt really, really wrong. I got quite pissed off with a bunch of Israeli school groups who were posing for photos in front of that spectacle display. I was wondering what they would do with such a photo? “… and this is me smiling in front of the glasses of 15 000 murdered people”. I suppose such thought is asking a bit much of 30 nike wearing 15 year olds.

    As opposed to Auschwitz II, I was surprised at how unimposing it was. I arrived by foot (after getting off at the wrong stop) and just thought the low brick buildings were some factory. Walking through the front gate was thoroughly chilling though and had the hairs on my neck standing up.

    One thing that got to me was all those original signs in German. More than once I paused at a sign telling me that if I went any further I would be shot! Being there is certainly not an experience that lends itself to be easily described.

  2. vicky says:

    hey…just read through your trip blogs….
    now I know why6 you havent been pickin up when i call you

    well …call me when you have a chance…

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