Visiting Tragedy

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.

Work Shall Make You Free

Work Shall Make You Free

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.

Wall of Death

Wall of Death

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.

Corridor lined with shoes

Corridor lined with shoes

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…

More tomorrow.


9 thoughts on “Visiting Tragedy

  1. Nicola McFall says:

    OMG – what an experience! I too am fasinated with the holocaust! I suffer from horrible nightmares though so I can’t read about it as much as I would like to. I did however do one of the main projects I did for my finals at Queens on Anne Frank. (I tended to specialise on the history for females and children so she was a natural choice)

    The cutting off of the hair is something that I always found so shocking! They Germans did it alot in France to the women too!

    Your picture of the shoes almost moved me to tears. I have sat down and watched Sex and the City, and Cribs and programmes like that and saw women with walls of shoes like that! I feel so disgusted by them now, and with myself for having so much when these poor people had everything stripped away from them.

  2. Nelly says:

    Will talk to you about this when you get back. I want to go there also. Travel should not just be about relaxation and pleasure. I also want to go to France and belgium to visit the WW1 sites. I cannot explain it. I just do.

  3. Terrible things happened and alas are still happening in this world. We need t be aware of them and use the experience to ensure we do something with our lives for the good of others as well as ourselves.

    Welcome Home Hailey!

  4. Why do we never seem to learn from history? Can one person truly bring change, even if only to their small corner of the world? I can but live in hope.

  5. katyboo1 says:

    Thanks for sharing about these experiences. I too have always wanted to go, but never quite managed to bring myself to do it yet.

    I presume you’ve read Primo Levi? If not, please do.

  6. Nicola – Yes, there’s just something so poignant about seeing things that belonged to those people, stripped away and becoming nothing more than one or two in tens of thousands. The shoes really got to me. They were just ordinary, everyday footwear like everyone wears. It made it seem even more appalling, somehow.
    Nelly – My parents did that last summer, with a friend who knew every historical detail and was able to guide them through it as they visited the sites and the graves. It made a huge impression on them. I’d love to go there too with their friend sometime.
    Grannymar – It’s horrifying to think of just how many terrible things go on without us even being aware of them. I was struck by the notion of what was going on at Auschwitz being completely concealed and unknown, as millions of people were tortured and killed.
    Brighid – I live in hope of that, too, but I share your doubts. However, seeing the faces of all the visitors leaving the camps did give me assurance that there is more good than evil in the world. My major emotion in the camps was utter disbelief that people – human beings! – could do such things to others. It was a relief to see that everyone else shared that disbelief.
    katyboo – I read “If This Is A Man” years ago, but now that you’ve mentioned him I’d really like to read it again. I think it would be all the more powerful in light of what I’ve just seen.

  7. katyboo1 says:


    I read them years ago myself. There are two about him I think If This is a Man and The Truce, they’re usually published in a double volume these days. Then there’s his last book – The Drowned and the Saved where he tries to make sense of it all. I never read this one and thanks to you, I’m just about to buy it! He committed suicide shortly thereafer so I’m assuming that he didn’t make a lot of sense.

    There’s also a novel. ‘If not now, when?’ which I read and found very powerful. It’s about Jewish resistance fighters during the war and although it’s fiction it is based on extensive research. You might enjoy it.

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