Reflections on my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau

When I visited Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau last year, I wrote the following:

While it was an educational experience, it wasn’t an enjoyable one, nor one that I wish to repeat. However, it was an experience that I believe everyone should have. Learning about the past is the only way to ensure it isn’t repeated and that couldn’t be more important than in the case of the Holocaust. This is the only picture I’m willing to upload from today. Not because I believe it is disrespectful, as images are hugely powerful educational tools, but because there are no photos that can do justice to the amount of terror and despair that the 1.5 million people within this camp went through. That being said, I was not comfortable watching people smile and pose for photos or take selfies next to gas chambers or prisoner barracks. “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity”.

Over 18 months later and my thoughts haven’t changed. Auschwitz remains one of the most difficult places I’ve ever visited and now, this is one of the most difficult posts I’ve ever written. Yet I feel a responsibility to write it. A responsibility to remember the levels of human suffering that can be reached, when a pervasive ideology of hatred dominates.

Birkenau II

Having completed my first degree in history, I’d studied the Holocaust multiple times over the years. Yet no lecture, textbook or documentary can prepare you for what you are confronted with when visiting Auschwitz. Reading grand figures on PowerPoint slides is incomparable to standing in front of a mountain of discarded shoes, or a wall full of portraits where each murdered individual is almost entirely expressionless. Years of studying provide no answers to the hundreds of questions you ask yourself when walking through the camp. There are no logical answers. This whole place makes no sense.

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It makes no sense that over 1.3 million people were killed because of their nationality, race, religion, political affiliation or sexual orientation. It makes no sense that human beings were experimented on, injected with diseases, exposed to radiation or used as research subjects for new drugs. It makes no sense that women and children were often selected as the first to be sent to the gas chambers when the trains arrived – sometimes being given soap and a towel as they were led into the ‘showers’. 12,000 Jews a day, from Hungary alone. 12,000 – my hometown isn’t much bigger. None of it makes any fucking sense.

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I imagine everyone who walks into the gates of Auschwitz is affected differently. For some, the overwhelming feeling will be sadness; a sadness for the indescribable suffering, loss, and destruction of innocent human life which took place here. For others, I imagine there will be fear at the prospect of what you will see and how you will react to it. Some people may even be able to detach themselves from the reality of what they are seeing. Personally, I felt numb. I wasn’t overcome with a wave of emotion, but I also barely spoke a word for the hours I was there. I was completely lost in my head and remained so during the bus journey back to Krakow. I couldn’t process what I was seeing. This sounds ridiculous, but even though I was with someone, part of a tour group and surrounded by hundreds of other visitors, I walked around Auschwitz alone.

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When I decided to write this post, I was planning on taking a much more logical and historical approach. I planned to explain the difference between Auschwitz and Auschwitz-II-Birkenau and was going to write the usual spiel about prices, tour guides and exhibits. But I got lost in my own thoughts and none of that seems important now. All that matters is that we continue to remember the horrific events of the past and do everything in our power to stop them repeating. Auschwitz-Birkenau is not an enjoyable place to visit. It would be far easier not to come. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. It is the responsibility of everyone to remember the past and learn from it. And while my experience of Auschwitz-Birkenau was near impossible to put into words, it is an experience that will remain with me forever and rightly so.

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Notes:

How to get to Auschwitz: Since I wrote this post in an attempt to convince you to visit Auschwitz, it would make sense for me to include quick instructions of how to do so. Presumably, you will be coming from Kraków, which is around an hour away. If you haven’t got a car, you could join one of the Kraków-based tours (a quick google search will bring up plenty). I prefer to travel more independently. You can get on a bus to Oświęcim from Kraków’s main bus station. A ticket will cost you about 15zł, the bus will take about 80 minutes and it will drop you off outside the museum.

Follow the rules: I cannot stress this enough, please follow the rules. If you’re looking at an exhibit which says ‘no photography’, please do not take photos. If you’re in a building which says ‘remain silent’, please do so. I could not comprehend how people found it appropriate to laugh, shout and take selfies during their visit. Just be respectful.

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6 Comments on “Reflections on my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau

  1. This reminds me of the time when I visited Pol Pot’s camp in Cambodia. I haven’t been to Auschwitz, but I think it is generally the same, though the concentration camp in Cambodia is smaller. But it’s the same in the sense that you are allowed to visit the rooms and read about what happened there. The walls are also lined with photographs of the people suffered there. Signs are posted, asking you not to smile or take photos in certain spots. And then there are people who do the very things they are asked to not do. I guess some people these days forego respect for the sake of a selfie or a proof that they have been to a certain place, regardless of the solemnity some places demand. It’s sad because that’s where the indifference begins and the forgetfulness starts to happen. You’re right in saying that in forgetting we risk the same thing happening again.

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    • Thanks for the fascinating and thoughtful comment Alyssa. I worry that this is all part of the larger culture of not living in the moment. The culture which makes the photo that you’ve got to post on instagram more important that the actual enjoyment you take while in a place. Even though I like taking decent photos for the blog, I will never do so at the expense of truly soaking in the experience.

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  4. This has been on my to-go list for a long time. I feel like it’s a responsibility we all have to go and really see. Go beyond our history lessons, and the statistics. My brother went, and he’s kind of a joker/non-serious kind of guy… but he was quite angry with all of the people laughing and posing. (and if it made HIM mad, then I feel like I’d wind up slapping someone! :/)
    Thank you for sharing. I was on verge of tears the entire article, but the second-to-last photo was the trigger. Gee whiz. 😦

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