4 August 2011

I wasn’t sure how I would feel today. I had researched the history of Auschwitz last night to prepare myself.

This place held a certain fascination with me. Part of history, forever, but chilling and clinical with ruthless efficiency.

The Auchwitz museum was a 30 minute ride away. Took it easy of course. Even cars passed me – how embrassing!

But there was something wrong with today. Blue sky and warm, hot even. I should be going to Auschwitz in the depths of winter. With grey skies and snow on the ground. Would be bitterly cold also. Somehow the sun masked the true terror of this place.

I pulled in to the carpark around noon and was confronted by the number of people visiting. I suppose it is summer holidays in Europe after all.

I lined up for a ticket only to learn that tour guides were mandatory. Ok so be it. I normally fly through museums in about one quarter of the recommended time.

We are given headphones and a device which allows us to hear Aggie our guide. I’m in an English guided group of course and Aggie is a local. There are over 20 people in our group. Some other Aussies too. I could tell by their accents. But no chatting today. It just does not seem appropriate or respectful here where over 1 million people died. The whole site is a memorial to their suffering. It is not hard to be respectful in this place.

I have my camera but I’m unsure about taking photos. I take some anyway – of the buildings mostly where the prisoners were accomodated if you could call it that.

We start in Auschwitz I – a former barracks of the Polish army before Poland was invaded. The buildings remain in good condition – some are undergoing renovation. The electric fences and barbed wire serve as a constant reminder of the purpose of the camp.

Auschwitz Museum

Work makes you free

Aggie is pure Polish and wants this to be an education for us today. She knows the history well and has spoken with several survivors. It is her job now to pass on their story and she pulls no punches.

I sense Aggie wants us to know that many Polish people also died in this place. The museum is contained in several of the buildings and we pass from one to another. Evidence is presented in addition to photos. As we see the piles of personal belongings on display; shoes, suitcases, shaving brushes, spectacles, Aggie reminds us these were real people.

We learn about the selection, the concentration camp, the prison within the prison, and the gas chambers and crematorium. I was so ignorant.

Some places we are asked not to take photos out of respect.  Other places I simply choose not to.

The tour of Auschwitz I took about 2 hours and has now concluded. We take our seats on a bus for the 3km ride to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

KL Auschwitz II – Birkenau

On arrival I am immediately overwhelmed with the scale of this site – and the single railway line running down the middle of the camp. Some 25 times larger in area than Auschwitz I, this “factory” was the ultimate operational scale up. I had not realised that many of the buildings and all of the gas chambers and crematorium (there were 4 on this site) were scuttled towards the end of the war. Only a relative handful of the over 300 buildings remain. Aggie shows us around some of the remaining barracks (little more than stables) before walking the length of the railway line to the ruins of the gas chambers and crematorium.

The lesson is over about three and a half hours after it began. Our teacher’s mission is accomplished.

I head back. It sure is a warm day.

Can’t wait to get the bike kit off and have a walk around town.

As I wander aimlessly I reflect on the day. What sticks most in my mind is the enormous pile of human hair in the museum, removed from those gassed prior to cremation and sold to industry to make into fabric. And the photos of the prisoners that lined the walls in one of the buildings I passed through today – clothed the same and heads shaved as an act of dehumanisation – reducing them to numbers.

I’m not sure if it was the heat of the day, the thought of the journey in front of me or simply a mark of respect or yet another mid life crisis – but probably a combination of all the above. I entered the local hair salon and asked for a number 2. I like it.

My new look

Brett from BrisVegas post Auschwitz

Total miles today 54 (87km), cumulative 1,544 (2,485km).

Update: This was a very moving day for me and one I’ll likely never forget.  When planning my Turkey motorcycle tour I’d always planned to visit Auschwitz en-route to Krakow.  Even though my rear tyre problem meant a slight detour for a replacement, it also gave me more time to reflect on the atrocities that happened at this place.  At first, the Germans held Polish political prisoners in the camp. From the spring of 1942 Auschwitz became the largest site for the murder of Jews from all over Europe, citizens of various countries.  Soviet prisoners-of-war, Gypsies, Hungarians, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Frenchmen, Austrians, Germans and others were also among the prisoners of Auschwitz.  More than 1,100,000 men, women, and children lost their lives there.

The inscription on an otherwise plain headstone, located in Auschwitz II – Birkenau, is still very moving for me.  If you missed it in the second photo gallery, it simply says:

“To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. Here lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace.”

A challenging place but an important history lesson.  As awful as it is, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is a must see for everyone who has heard of but doesn’t fully comprehend the holocaust and wants to know more, or simply pay their respects.