27th January 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp complex known as Auschwitz-Birkenau. In December 2009, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of a trip to Krakow, Poland. Below is an updated version of the 2010 article I wrote after my trip.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
George Santayana – Spanish writer and philosopher
There is one aspect of a destination that doesn’t change and that’s its history. In Ireland we are blessed with such a wealth of preserved culture and heritage sites that give us greater clarity on our past. Indeed, Europe as a continent has more recorded history associated with it than you could shake a stick at. But Europe’s history is littered with low points demonstrating man’s inhumanity to man, none more so than the southern Polish town of Oswiecim and the nearby village area of Brzezinka. For most, the names don’t register immediately but they are commonly known by their German translation: Auschwitz and Birkenau.
On a trip to Krakow, I took the opportunity to visit both of the above former Nazi detention/death camps which are located about an hour’s drive from the city. As gut-wrenching and as sombre as I anticipated it to be, I knew it was a must-do trip. It’s possible to make your own way there by bus or train to Oswiecim but many tour companies in central Krakow offer day trips to the camps.
The two camps are now part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, the busiest museum in Poland. I recommend visiting the Auschwitz camp first as its museum includes Birkenau information as well as details on the other minor camps. Admission to both sites is free although guided tours and booklets are extra.
On the way to Auschwitz, the scene had already been set. Video footage of the 1945 liberation of the camps taken by a Russian Army cameraman shown during the bus journey was inevitably gruesome to the point that I felt nauseous. To make matters worse, nobody on the bus could quite see our surroundings due to the dense fog outside. It all added to the eerie atmosphere.
By the time we reached the Auschwitz camp, our first port of call, the fog had cleared and the sun was shining brightly on this site of darkness. We met our guide and put on the hearing devices which magnified the guide’s voice allowing visits to be carried out with the least amount of noise possible. In fact, the only noise audible outside of the commentary was the ruffling of footwear on the cobblestones.
Within minutes, the group made its way from the visitor centre towards the main gate of the Auschwitz camp. We paused before entering to observe the infamous and cynical Arbeit Macht Frei (Work makes you free) sign over the main entrance. We also observed the double rows of soaring barbed wire which were electrified when the camp was in use. The guide explained that the main entrance was used as an execution site whereby the shooting of a number of existing prisoners was a lesson to incoming ones.
The museum is spread out between some of the original buildings which have been preserved in as much of their original state as possible. Firstly, we learned that Auschwitz, a converted Polish Army barracks, was initially established as a concentration camp for Poles in 1940 under the command of Rudolf Höss (not to be confused with the captured Rudolf Hess). Concentration camps were not an exclusively Nazi idea as they had been used in conflicts previously, most notably by a Kerryman, British Army Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, during the Boer War.
However, the exhibition focuses mainly on the camp’s second purpose: an extermination camp to eradicate the Jewish population of Europe as part of Hitler and Himmler’s Final Solution. Others such as gypsies and homosexuals also met the same fate as the Jewish population. It is evident from the exhibition that the planning and execution of this nightmare was disturbingly organised and efficient.
As we moved from building to building, the exhibition became more unsettling. Shoes, glasses, suitcases and combs are some of the original items confiscated from victims which are on display. Empty containers of Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide used in the gas chambers, are also shown. Enlarged copies of original photographs are on view. My legs went to jelly when viewing a picture depicting the results of criminal medical experiments carried out on gypsy children by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele.
Building 11 is where some of the worst crimes were carried out at this site. It is also where catholic priest Fr. Maximilian Kolbe died. Sober observation is all one could do here. We moved outside, passed a number of gallows and walked towards the on-site gas chamber and crematorium. Again, this area was gut-wrenching and our guide showed us the gallows where Rudolf Höss was publicly executed, at the request of the Polish people, after being found guilty at Nuremburg. This marked the end of the Auschwitz camp visit.
As understandably shocked as I was with the content of the exhibition, I was surprised at how small the Auschwitz camp was. However, the scale of Nazi crimes became apparent as the bus drove towards the Birkenau site. This camp is visible for miles and the sheer size of it is truly frightening. It is spread over 400 acres and is so large that the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria were too far from the main gate to see with the naked eye. Opened in 1942 and also known as Auschwitz II, it was purpose-built for extermination and at its peak was sadly murdering 20,000 people a day. In total, 1.1 million people perished in Birkenau, making it the largest death camp in all of Nazi-occupied lands.
The Nazis constructed approximately 300 buildings in Birkenau but only a few remain, most destroyed in an effort to hide all evidence of genocide from the approaching Russian army. During the camp’s operational period, the victims were contained in wooden huts furnished only with bare concrete floors, wooden bunk shelves and red-brick chimney stoves. Hundreds of victims were packed into these draft-ravaged buildings, each of which measured, at an estimate, 50 – 100 square metres.
We followed the guide inside two of the huts where she described the appalling conditions of existence. She didn’t need to explain – the barbarity and callousness of the camp’s past is obvious. In fact, the scale of Birkenau was an immensely over-powering experience. It stunned the whole group into silence. Before we left the camp via the railway tracks which run underneath the infamous red-brick watchtower, I paused and looked back at the site. Hell on earth, I thought, and all of it man-made.
One doesn’t need to be a professional journalist or historian to learn or understand history. I am none of the above but believe that evil will triumph if society is ignorant. Indeed, ignorance has meant that lessons have not been learned from the Nazi atrocities. Since World War II genocide of considerable proportions has taken place in Cambodia and Rwanda to name but a few conflicts. Modern Europe shockingly tolerated ethnic cleansing (i.e. genocide) in the former Yugoslavia twenty years ago. In fact, one could be forgiven in thinking that the wrong lessons were learned. With those thoughts I returned to Krakow feeling utterly despondent.
After the tour, my feelings of despondency made way for enquiry and reflection. Eyewitness accounts, television footage, history books, and other resources inform us of the when, where and how of an event. From my history knowledge I knew the answers to most of those questions even before stepping foot in Auschwitz. But it’s the why question which has equally fascinated and horrified me subsequent to the trip. One could fill dozens of warehouses with books discussing Hitler’s motivations, so for the sake of brevity, I will refrain from this discussion. But the most pertinent question which has concerned me since the visit was the relationship between Hitler and the masses. Why did so many people at every level of a cultured society become fanatic disciples of Hitler: subscribing to and implementing his evil ideology in the most inhumane manner possible? Why did so many people with extreme deviant behaviour exist in the same place at the same time? Is this level of malevolence and evil dormant in every society, and simply allowed free reign in times of conflict? This is a debate which is not exclusively the preserve of social historians and social psychologists. It is imperative we all ask these fundamental questions.
I found some answers in Laurence Rees 2012 book The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler and through subsequent personal reflection. Post-WWI Germany was politically volatile and by the end of the 1920s the country was teetering towards an economic abyss. Whilst Hitler used terror, murder, and Goebbels’ propaganda to gain political advantage it was his own manipulative oratory skills, persuasive powers and offer of salvation which appealed to the impoverished masses disillusioned by the democracy talking shop, oratory skills which differ little from cult leaders and numerous post-WWII politicians.
When Hitler came to power in 1933 six million people were unemployed in Germany. Three years into his dictatorship that figure was down to one million, leading people to place an enormous amount of trust in Hitler with some, including vast sections of the professional classes, embracing and implementing his apocalyptic vision. I believe Hitler intentionally created conflict as war is a convenient justification for allowing evil free reign, in this case to facilitate the Holocaust. I firmly believe that psychopaths and sadists like Hitler and the Nazis exist in every society and the extent of their destructive deeds depends on the extent of their persuasive powers, available resources and circumstance. Not only does post-WWII history demonstrate this but we all have personal experience of people who bully and terrorise.
If a trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is beyond your scope then worry not. The museum’s website is outstanding and countless numbers of books and documentaries have been produced covering the subject. Indeed, one of the best books on Auschwitz is Irish writer John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a fictional story which gives an astoundingly accurate description of the camp, and does for Auschwitz what George Orwell’s Animal Farm did for communism.
If you are able to travel to this part of the world, then I highly recommend a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage centre. It is by far the most important historical site I have ever experienced, the most emotional but the most worthwhile. Credit must be given to our superb guide whose historical knowledge, sensitivity towards the memory of the victims and language skills made it a first-class experience for all the right reasons.
Credit must also be given to my fellow travellers in the group and indeed to everyone else who has visited the camps. By engaging with this part of the past, hopefully we are better equipped to avoid repeating it.