Auschwitz II – Birkenau is a beautiful place.
It’s so still, with only the sound of birdsong breaking the silence. The rows of wooden shacks could pass for barns and farm buildings. There are green fields, and a sparkling pond, and a beautiful forest area. It is tranquil and calming, the sort of place you could imagine spending a pleasant afternoon strolling around, perhaps having a picnic under the trees and beside the pond where frogs chirp and spash into the water.
And then you learn that just behind the woods are the gas chambers, where thousands of innocent people were herded in and exterminated. And that clearing past the woods? That’s where their bodies were burned. As for the woods themselves, people used to have to huddle there and wait their turn if the gas chambers were currently “in use”. Oh, and the pond, with the pretty reeds and flowers and wildlife? The ashes of the gassed, burned bodies were dumped there.
The level of inhumanity in that camp makes the natural beauty seem wrong. A betrayal. It should be stark and ugly and grey, not leafy and green and filled with sunshine. And yet there’s an eerie, dark feeling that seems to prevail; a sense of unspeakable horrors and terrifying history that settles on your shoulders as you walk through the rows of huts and through the trees.
The shower block is still standing, and you can walk through, tracing the steps of the thousands of sick and louse-infested prisoners who were marched in there in an effort to stop epidemics and preserve the workforce. There’s the room where they were forced to strip… the corridor full of sterilising equipment where their clothes were treated… the narrow area where all their body hair was shaved off as they were jeered at by taunting SS soldiers… the echo-filled chamber where they were packed in, hundreds at a time, and had either freezing cold or scalding hot water dumped on them from above.
You exit the shower block feeling numb, and the first thing you see is a ruined gas chamber, where the prisoners were taken if they were deemed too sick to be of any use in the work force. “Too sick” included children, and pregnant women. Towards the end of the war, the SS set fire to a number of their buildings in an effort to conceal their crimes, and this gas chamber is now mostly rubble, since they finished it off with dynamite.
I cried when I left the shower block and saw the gas chamber. I hadn’t expected to feel so utterly horrified at what I saw — I mean, I knew the history, I knew the stories, I thought I knew what to expect. But all I could do at that point was stand there and cry pointless, shocked, angry tears.
An elderly man approached me, speaking quietly in Polish but indicating that he knew I didn’t understand him. He carried three red roses, and he gave me one, touching my shoulder gently and gesturing around us. There are flowers and candles dotted all over the place at both camps, in random places – some on the “beds”, some by the pond of ashes, some on the rubble of the gas chambers, some on individual photographs of prisoners out of the thousands that line the corridors in most of the buildings.
I thanked the Polish man for the flower, walked back into the shower block, and placed my rose in the final, cold and empty room, where people were made to wait, naked and wet, until they received their clothing back.
A visit to Aschwitz should be mandatory for everyone — so that what happened there is never forgotten, and every effort is made never to let it happen again.