The word ‘Auschwitz’ has become so synonymous with the Holocaust that it has become nearly impossible to think of what is undoubtedly one of humanity’s darkest ever chapters without it. And with good reason. For in this place, more of those deemed ‘undesirable’ by the Nazi State were murdered as part of the ‘Final Solution’, at least 1.1 million in all, than in any other concentration/extermination Camp.
Get your head around that figure, and add a couple more. 1.1 million, mostly Jews, brutally murdered across 3 years in a total ground area (if we combine both the original Auschwitz and Birkenau, aka ‘Auschwitz II’) of 472 acres. Stalin, a mass murderer in his own right, once said that a single death is a tragedy, whereas a million is a statistic. Only someone with a callous attitude to humanity would even consider agreeing; it is only such people who could not be affected by visiting here.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is UNESCO heritage listed and more and more people visit it every year (I’ll stop with the statistics there, I think). As such, you can expect crowds, and also a strict timed entry/compulsory guide system. Which is for the best – for this is not the sort of place you can have unlimited hordes of people swarming over without diluting what is a profound, unsettling and moving experience.
Just walking around the grounds of Auschwitz instills a sense of chilling unease, knowing just what unspeakable evil – how else to describe it? – took place here. But what struck me most, as well as the grimly cynical and oft-photographed ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign above the main gate, was the systematic, mundane ordinariness of the layout. Rows and columns of fenced-in, identikit blocks, with leafless poplar trees lining the pathways.
It’s designed to be ordinary and systematic, precisely because the mass murdering that took place here was done with an ordinary and systematic mindset. Only the barbed wire is a telltale sign of menace and coercion. And this all only makes it more sinister and disturbing.
13 of the surviving blocks house exhibitions. Block 4 focuses on the extermination process. Some actual Zyklon B, the chemical used for gassing those rounded up in the chambers, and unnerving photos of calm-looking deportees waiting to be led to the gas chamber (the Nazis would routinely lie to them about what was about to happen to keep them calm) are frightening enough, but the real ‘oh my God’ moment (for me anyway) is the sight of two tons of murdered women’s hair behind Perspex glass, found by the liberating Red Army, and often put to industrial use by the Nazis.
Block 5 is given over to showing evidence of the crimes, with vast displays of the everyday items – glasses, drinking cups, shoes of both adults and children – pilfered off the dead by the SS, whereas Block 6 looks at the conditions experienced by those who were not immediately ‘exterminated’. Life was endless misery, agony and despair for all those imprisoned here, and more often than not ended in death from disease, malnourishment, arbitrary execution and more.
The remaining blocks we visited in our tour looked at the grim, overpopulated housing conditions of the blocks and the camp jail/execution yard for ‘dissidents’ against the camp regime. Block 10, where the Nazi doctors conducted medical ‘experiments’, is closed to visitors, but our guide mentioned more than once how one of the worst of them, Josef Mengele, escaped justice by fleeing to, and gaining sanctuary in, South America. It was hard not to share her anger.
Back outside is another grim sight – the ‘collective gallows’ used to hang prisoners as punishment and deter/demoralise others – and things finish on a suitably sombre note at the gas chamber and crematorium. In between the two there is also the spectacle of SS Commandant Rudolf Hoss’ house, who lived on site. The very gallows he himself was executed at is outside it.
After a brief break, we were bussed to Birkenau. As emotionally drained as you may be after Auschwitz, I do definitely recommend you visit here as well to get a full appreciation of the true horror perpetrated across the complex. Birkenau has less buildings intact, as the retreating Nazis were a bit more thorough in destroying them to conceal their crimes, and the fact the area is considerably more vast than Auschwitz makes for a contrasting, but equally eerie, experience.
There are less ‘exhibits’, so to speak, here. But this doesn’t mean a vivid, unsettling atmosphere isn’t present either, not least in the shape of reconstructed living quarters, a model carriage used to transport prisoners and the collapsed gas chambers (the models of which are in Block 4 back at Auschwitz). It’s worth remembering that most of the actual killing took place at Birkenau.
The tasteful monument to the victims near the chambers served as a sobering end to the official tour, but if you get the chance do climb the tower at the entrance gate – with its accompanying train line, the other oft-photographed symbol of Auschwitz-Birkenau – to really see the scale of the crimes that took place here. Some panoramic views are breathtaking; this one is too, but in a very different sort of way to the norm.
So what does one take away from Auschwitz-Birkenau? Well, everyone will doubtless have their own thoughts as they try to come to terms with the sheer horror of it all. But ultimately the Holocaust is one of those things you just can’t be ambivalent about. It’s a stark and terrifying reminder of what human beings are capable of.
Whilst it’s borne out of a racist ideology that far, far less people subscribe to now than they did back then, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is guaranteed to be a one off. Indeed, other genocides – Cambodia and Rwanda to name just two – have happened since. Plus the practice of dehumanising whole groups/races/religions – the first stepping stone toward an agenda of murderous racism – of people is still, frighteningly, with us.
It is for this reason that Auschwitz-Birkenau, a powerful emblem of the Holocaust, is such an important place to visit, for all the attendant difficulties the experience can bring.
The Holocaust was a profoundly moving and affecting historical event for me before I’d visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. As such, I’d read quite a few accounts of it before, and wanted to read more afterward. As such this list is far from comprehensive, but here it goes…
There are a whole host of excellent books out there, including some powerful works of fiction, best known of which are ‘Schindler’s Ark’ by Thomas Keneally (later filmed as ‘Schindler’s List’ by Steven Spielberg) and ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne. The ‘Once’ series by Morris Gleitzmann is another, excellent account of the Holocaust from the point of view of a child.
Biographical memoirs and accounts are moving and revealing. ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ is an astonishing work written by an extraordinary young mind. ‘If This Is A Man’ by Primo Levi is remarkably calm and measured considering Levi survived the horrors of Auschwitz for a year. ‘Maus’ by Art Speigelman is a unique, pioneering graphic novel that dares to make its central protagonist – a holocaust survivor – rather unsympathetic at times.
For scholarly works, ‘The Holocaust: A New History’ by Laurence Rees is often seen as THE definitive account of the Holocaust and I can confirm that, for such a hefty tome, it is page-turning, as much as it is harrowing. I’ve just finished ‘Black Earth’ by Timothy Snyder, which examines the ‘warning from history’ angle with precision, and comes to the unnerving conclusion that humanity has not learned the lessons of the Holocaust as well as we might think.
Finally, I know less of art and music related to the Holocaust, with one notable exception. The Manic Street Preachers, a rock band from Wales, wrote two songs about the Holocaust on their dark and distressing – but brilliantly intellectual – album ‘The Holy Bible’. The first of these, ‘Mausoleum’, is a brutally effective straightforward rocker, and easier to listen to. But the remorselessly bleak ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ thoroughly succeeds in capturing a sense of the true horror of the Holocaust, both with its bone-chillingly simple lyrics (‘Welcome, welcome/Soldier smiling…’) and disturbingly atmospheric music. Check out the video below, if you can bear to listen…