Auschwitz. The name alone invokes a harrowing sense of fear and despair, representing the absolute worst of humanity. I opted for the guided tour when I visited, which gave me a deeper understanding of the personal side if the story. Everyone knows what happened here, but to visit and experience for yourself the horror of the lines of brick and wooden barracks with their quietly dark past is something I think everyone should do. As the tour progressed, I felt alternately nauseous and stifled as I contemplated the enormity of what took place seventy years ago. It is very hard to put into words the emotions stirred up as you witness the complete lack of compassion that for fellow humans.
The weather was appropriately bleak: light rain turned into hail and freezing winds by the time we reached Birkenau, the largest and most fearsome of the three camps of Auschwitz. This camp, whose creation required the destruction of an entire village, was purpose built for slaughter, and over one million people spent their last days here. Cold and drenched, I walked beside the rail track towards what remains of the gas chambers and tried to imagine what it would be like if I were a prisoner being herded down the platform, unsure if I would live or die. I failed.
It was here, on this very platform, that the selection process took place. After being carted by the thousands into the complex on packed trains, the able-bodied were directed to the camp to live and work, while the weak and infirm were taken straight to the gas chambers.
In a surprising account, our guide told us of a German tourist who visited five years ago, and recognised his own father as an officer in one of the photos. Until this point he knew nothing of his father’s involvement the Holocaust.
At the end of the track is the memorial, where words of remembrance are enshrined on plaques in ten different languages, representing the nationalities of all those who lost their lives here.
I think it is important that this site be kept as a monument to the dangers of tyranny, and important that people continue to visit and keep the memory alive, to ensure that it never happens again. By being here, I feel I have done my (very small) part, because I sure as hell won’t forget this trip.
So what did I learn? That no matter how bad you imagine the depths of human cruelty, you can always find something deeper.