My overwhelming impression of Auschwitz? It is huge.
I’ve read a lot on the subject of the Holocaust, a sort of horrified fascination that has been with me since I first read Anne Frank’s Diary when I was a child. My most recent reading was a book called The Last Seven Months Of Anne Frank, which was a collection of stories narrated by women who survived Auschwitz, and who encountered the Frank girls at some point during their ordeal. It was the hardest time I’ve ever had reading a book. It took me a couple of weeks — and I’m a book-in-a-day kinda girl —because I had to keep putting it down, the horror in those stories so overwhelming that I needed to take a break.
But as much as I’ve learned about the horrific events that took place in those concentration camps, the sheer scale of it never really dawned on me until the moment I stepped on to the loading platform at Auschwitz II – Birkenau and looked around at the camp. It is absolutely massive. I mean, it’s more like a town than the “camp” that I had visualised. My phone’s pedometer tells me that I walked six miles around it, and I didn’t go into every section. Walking around the first camp added another three miles on to that, and again, I didn’t do it all.
Stepping through the gate at the first camp, with that infamous motto emblazoned above it, was a surreal and chilling experience. It’s like a pretty little village, with cobbled streets and quaint rows of houses, and yet everywhere you turn is a photograph or a sign reminding you of the atrocities that took place there. Like the place where the families of escaped prisoners had to stand until the escapee was recaptured, as a warning to other prisoners that the same punishment would befall their still-free wives and children if they attempted to break out. If the prisoner wasn’t found again, his family would eventually be publicly executed.
Or there’s the spot where an “orchestra” was forced to stand and play a marching tune as the prisoners were marched to and from work.
Or the “Wall of Death” in a small, sunny courtyard, where prisoners were lined up and shot. You are entering a courtyard where the SS murdered thousands of people, warns the sign outside, Please maintain silence here: remember their suffering and show respect for their mourners.
Auschwitz I is full of exhibition blocks, showing evidence of the crimes commited there. One is packed full of items taken from prisoners. There’s a huge case full of spectacles; a room of suitcases; a corridor consisting of glass-fronted walls on either side, both filled with thousands and thousands of pairs of shoes. The latter made my breath catch in my chest. It was awful. And the glass wall filled with hair shaven from the victims on their arrival, well, you can’t put into words how you feel when you’re confronted with that.
I found myself saying “Oh, God…” over and over again to myself as I walked around. I was relieved to leave. And then I went to Auschwitz II – Birkenau…