My latest city-break (and escape from a mounting uni workload) took me to my most Eastern European destination to date: Krakow, Poland. The city offers a plethora of wonderful things to its visitors; scrumptious food, sublime vodka and the nicest hot chocolate my young soul has ever been blessed to experience. Previously home to Pope John Paul II, Krakow boasts an abundance of stunning churches and just a short walk away is the Jewish quarter; here you can visit Schindler’s factory, the ghetto where Jewish citizens were forced to live before being transported to concentration camps and monuments to the many lives lost during the WW2 period. However, aside from the rich culture and delicious cuisine, perhaps Krakow’s most important site of interest lies around an hour’s drive outside of the city: Auschwitz. Symbol of the Holocaust, and the memorial to all those who died at the hands of Nazi Germany in the labour and death camps during WW2, a visit to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau does not constitute an easy or necessarily enjoyable day, but it should, I believe, be on everyone’s to-do list.
Entering into the camps beneath the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign, there is a palpable sense of loss and horror in the air. Most of the buildings have been converted into museums chronicling the lives and deaths of so many who were forced into the camps during WW2, and the barbed-wire fence remains as a stark reminder of the terrifying entrapment of the prisoners. Within said museums, one is confronted with the sight of seemingly interminable mounds of human hair and a corridor stacked to the roof on both sides with countless pairs of shoes which formerly belonged to the camp’s victims. Also on display is a mass of entangled spectacles and perhaps most distressingly, pots and pans which symbolise the genuine belief and hope amongst the victims of the possibility of beginning a new life at and beyond the camps. At first, my natural defence-mechanisms played their part and I found myself almost detached from the experience, the ungraspable, vast nature of the horrors inflicted there weren’t something I could relate to. Then, gradually, individuals began to spring up from the masses; the kind face of a lady, her photo hanging on the wall, caught my eye; a beautiful red-leather shoe held my attention, and I imagined a young female like myself bringing them home, so proud of her purchase, so unaware of the terrifying location they would one day be exhibited. The tiny dress of a new-born baby brought me to tears; how could this have happened? How could such a small, innocent child be gassed to death for her race and religion?
The next part of the visit saw us entering into the on-site prison, within the bleak walls was a cell designated for starvation, one for suffocation, another for experiments… Outside stands the so-called ‘death wall’, against which thousands of prisoners were shot. The horrors of Auschwitz are relentless; our guide then led us into the one remaining gas-chamber (the two largest were blown up in an attempt to conceal the atrocities). I tried but could not turn away from what was before me, on the very ground that I walked, the lives of innocent people had been extinguished in the most horrific way imaginable. Harrowing, distressing and profoundly troubling, paying witness and respect to such evidence was anything but an easy task, and the tour was far from over.
We continued to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a much larger camp which seemed eerily similar, given its recognisable train platform featured in many a movie. Perhaps I had expected that the likes of Schindler’s List would have prepared me for seeing the location in person; I was wrong. Representations of terror are limited; only upon viewing first-hand the horrendous, inhumane living and working conditions inflicted upon these individuals did the reality of the Holocaust’s horror sink in. Until then, it had been an intangible kind of idea, a well-documented but essentially incomprehensible notion of suffering. Suddenly, the terror and suffering were real and undeniable, yet impossible to understand. Such is the nature of inexplicable human cruelty, and precisely why everyone should make an effort to visit this brutal reminder of our past, and the terrible impact of war, prejudice and unchecked power.
Each visitor that passes through Auschwitz’s gates becomes an eye-witness to the terrible fate of over one million civilians; in recognising their history, in all its unthinkable horror, one seeks to comprehend what occurred some seventy years ago. As time passes, the number of those who lived through the period is dwindling, thus it is of ever-more importance that new generations pay recognition to the deep scars WW2 left across Europe. Though the barbaric nature of the Holocaust may never be fully assimilated, it is of utmost importance that we seek to in some way understand and commemorate the lives lost, for as philosopher and Nobel Prize winner George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”