Yesterday marked the 68th year since the horrors of the holocaust at Auschwitz. With this on my mind I thought it was the right time to document my visit to Auschwitz, Poland.
29.02.2012 - 01.03.2012 5 °C
It was a blank dull day on february 1st, and I was sat in a classroom during my second year at college, but today was different; it brought opportunity which any traveller would gladly go to harm's way to get. Opportunity had taken the form of my tutor Debbie, who had passed me a flyer for a competition to visit Auschwitz Birkenau for the day on february 29th, 2012. To win such an awe inspiring trip of a lifetime, all I had to do was write a letter regarding my views on the holocaust. At the same time I was kind of appalled that my classmates barely batted an eyelid at the gesture of opportunity so huge. At the same time a thousand questions flew through my cloudy mind; even if I won could I afford it? or how would I measure up against other students? and most important of all, if I was to win the competition could I handle what waited for me at Auschwitz?. These troubles were soon regarded as poppycock after Debbie told me the trip was free, all expenses paid. To help us eeze into the process of seeing the content of the death camp, we was to attend a seminar before and after which was reassuring enough. But the fact still stood, how was I to measure up against other students in the college? At this point I was just a public services student with the extensive vocabulary of an orangutang.
Despite my lack of experience in writing a gripping piece of literature I prevaled. Moments after I had been given the flyer, I threw aside my report on the effectiveness of British government, which was due later that day. But more important tasks were at hand, the shit better known as Mr.Cameron and his band of pretentious pet peers woud have to wait to be portrayed in a false light some other time.
Regardless of usually being so strict on the coursework deadlines, I was even more so surprised that my tutors Debbie and Mark were so keen to see me succeed in winning a place on the trip. Debbie fuelled my attempt through encouragement, with talks of her experiences at Auschwitz when she had visited the death camp a couple of years before. She said that such an experience had changed her life in such a positive way, and showed me photograph's of her stood at the gates of the camp with the snowy, eerie surrounding's of the camp. But in case I did manage to win, she left the details to a minimum as not to spoil it. Mark had given me my inspiration in the idea of making the letter not from my own perspective, but from a subject who would give the best depiction of the holocaust; the survivor.
This gave the introduction of the fictional survivor of the holocaust, Tomek. I had written the letter subjected around the opinions of the holocaust from Tomek, but the letter was created from the final journal entry in his last living moments before peacefully passing away. It was definitely a tear jerker, and before showing anyone like Mark or Debbie I knew my mum would be the first to crumble with emotion after reading Tomek's last journal entry. My bench mark for emotional grippage on the subject was my mother, so If I could show her first after finishing the report when heading home, I would be happy it would pull on the heart strings of the judge of the competition. If I could find the letter I had written that day I would have been sure to document it on here. All I remember is the end, in Tomek's last words "I have come to the end of my natural born life, which has seemed like an eternity since I escaped that awful camp. I can only be thankful that I will die in the comfort of my own home, and not in a cold pit, surrounded by the cold stench of death like the others in my family did. Spoczywaj w pokoju (Rest in Peace)". I had spent my morning break, lunch break, and the remainder of the evening in the college library. Ecstatic to add those last touches to Tomek's last entry. After exposing my mum to what was described as a moving piece of writing that evening, I knew that to some degree it was bound to pull on the heart strings of the judge. The next morning I handed the entry to my tutor, and waited. A week or so later I was told by Debbie that I was one of two students in the college that had won a place to visit Auschwitz Birkenau! I couldn't believe it! But I could when it turned out that nobody else besides myself and the other student had applied, making us both automatically win, oh well it's the thought that counts.
The weeks after that became a climax of excitement, fear and curiosity. We attended the seminars beforehand, being given lectures by one of the survivors themselves known as Ziggi, which was the closest preparation we could get to visiting the camp. At 2am on February 29th I left home with the other student Alex, offering to drive us both to the airport. We were met with a whole load of students from other colleges across the UK who had also been given the same opportunity as us. I was quick to mix in with the other students which was a surprise I was so social at 3am on a monday morning, whether it was the trip itself I was so thrilled about, or the amount of Haribo packed with E numbers I had just crammed down my gullet. We was also escorted by a teacher from the college I had never met before, which with all due respect had the personality of a teenage girl, eager to fit in with the kids.
Strange personas aside we boarded the plane to Auschwitz. I was sat with two posh female students from the London district and there was a high chance that the Haribo I ate would cascade form my mouth like a disgusting rainbow due to my flight sickness, things were panning out just great as usual.
After ensuring that I hadn't spilled a rainbow on the poor unsuspecting girls by gripping my stomach for a few hours, we landed in Poland. My first impressions were how the hell could anywhere be more grey and gloomier than the UK? It was 7am and we didn't hesitate to get straight on the bus and into the centre of Krakow to see one of the biggest Jewish graveyard's in Poland. If Auschwitz was anything like this place, I was eager to see what it had in store for me. The graveyard was sadly kept under lock and chain, some of the sights inside were beyond description, some gravestones had been smashed by those non-believers of the Jewish religion. Remnants of gravestones were scattered across the ground, in the bushes. Most peculiar of all, which I wouldn't have believed myself if not with someone else who saw. Upon heading away from the group to the back of the graveyard were two huge deer, prancing through the grounds, hiding behind the rows and rows of graves. Unfortunately to back up my sanity, I wasn't able to flip out my camera for a shot at the time. We spent an hour or so exploring the grounds, I payed my respects and felt the emotion of the place. Felt the pain and suffering, the negligence of those responsible, my anger was snuffed out by the peaceful surroundings. Below are a few pictures of the peaceful but unfortunate grounds of what remains of the graveyard in the centre of Krakow. These pictures can only depict a fraction of what the place was like in real life.
The occurrence of these gravestones being scattered across the ground with no claims to an owner was frequent. Sometimes the Jewish star was etched out and the mark of the Nazi swastika was carved into it. My heart sank at some of the sights, but I knew what this trip had in store for me. I knew of its content, as much as textbooks, or research could prepare me anyway. After leaving Krakow we headed for the death camp at Auschwitz Birkenau. Upon arrival it was a huge bleak looking building, with no signs. One could even mistake the place for a factory or something like that. Before entering the museum I saw a wall with names etched from every visitor who had came to to see the sights of Auschwitz. I added my name to that wall.
Upon entering the camp we was given a set of headphones so our tour guide could tell us of the sights we saw as we toured the camp. One would expect masses of crowds shouting, students talking; but non of that. Non of us spoke a single word. We looked and listened, nothing more. I just took it all in, the first thing I remember of Auschwitz was the fact that there was no noise at all, no birdsong, nothing. It was as though even nature knew of the horrors that occurred there, a lone bird sat in the tree not making a single sound.At first I found this curious, then became fearful of just why it was like this. Below is a photograph of the gates to the death camp, Auschwitz.
We went through the entirety of the camp, from the gas chambers themselves where the majority of jewish lives were ended, to the property left behind by those who perished. It ranged from the glasses, to even the hair confiscated from their poor shivering bodies as they were shaved before their demise. Forgive me if anyone is offended or too sensitive to such descriptions, but to those who are interested in my tour here it is the best depiction I can give. For those who are faint hearted and are easily upset by these things, I suggest to stop reading here.
With each room that we passed through, the content of each became more and more devastating. Even as I write this now it still brings a tear to my eye at just what despicable things the Nazi occupation were capable of. The first few rooms held the belongings of those who perished on the grounds of Auschwitz. From glasses to suitcases, false limbs to the shoes of children left behind.
Despite all of these awful sights, everybody remained silent. Seemingly unaffected, I remained calm and observational to its content. However, I couldn't say what it was about the last room of the property part of the museum, but it hit me hard. (Pictured above) Behind a plate of glass was a huge pile of suitcases which touched the ceiling, upon seeing it I just wept like a child into my sleeve, away from the rest of the group. I think this affected me due to the fact that some of these poor souls were in the mindset of going on holiday. One of the cruel jokes of the Nazi's was to tell the Jews they were simply being taken on holiday, to leave their suitcases where they were for the time being. After being crammed onto trains, the Nazi's would simply empty the contents of the suitcases onto the ground, with no regard for it's value, by which time the owner would be dead anyway. I researched the name of the case pictured, Franz Engel, Franz was a famous comedian at the time who toured Paris, but upon the Nazi's discovering his Jewish religion, he was captured and killed. A very moving sight, especially for a traveller like myself. These rooms full of possessions would sometimes be as large as a full scale bedroom, as you can see below. They were filled right to the top. To preserve the respect of those who perished, photographs of human remnants like hair etc could not be photographed by myself.
Pictured left is the despicable 'motto' of the Nazi occupation. Pictured right is the death camp framework which existed during the Holocaust, Auschwitz Birkenau being the biggest. Most are now in ruin, bombed by the british.
The next house had a very eerie feel to it, the bottom had a cellar with torture chambers, including a box where men and women would be made to stand back to back for days on end. Exhibits of the pyjamas the Jews were made to wear were placed in the shapes of the workers, looking as though the pyjamas were occupied. As I walked into the room it fell freezing cold, my breath appeared infront of me, you could almost picture what it was like on those cold, painful days on the yards working. Behind the figures were the photographs of the workers. You could compare the poor souls before and after, arriving fresh faced with ruby cheeks, resorted to a boney frail frame with all emotion drained. Bearing in mind that these rows of houses were in fact the living quarters for the Jews, just outside was a firing wall, here those to frail to work or those punished would be shot(Pictured below right. Just next to them were hanging posts, just low enough to the ground so that they were made to suffer for longer whilst they tried to touch their feet on the floor.
Before leaving the camp the last room to be seen was the gas chambers, I stepped into them myself and explored it's dark and wicked structure. The floors were hollowed out in some places for a furnace, serving as an efficient way to get rid of the bodies after they had been told they were just getting a wash to be clean for more work. I can only imagine how fearful they were as the gas came cascading through the shower heads, poor souls. Even being in the disused part with some shower heads destroyed I was eager to leave, the door upon exit had huge padlocks to ensure its occupants could not escape its crude intentions.
After seeing its heavily fortified walls, guard towers and sickening sights, Auschwitz had truly shocked me to the core. Never before had I seen something so moving in such a negative light. I was told that if you were to give a minutes prayer to everybody lost at Auschwitz Birkenau,you would be stood for three years. Never before had so much sadness and anger swept through my soul.
To my horror, this was only Auschwitz one. Shortly after our visit to the museum, we headed for Auschwitz two. This was the main hub where the Jews were kept before heading to work at Auschwitz one. Some may recognise the train tracks pictured below, these were often shown in films like Schindler's list, which was incidentally the most accurate perception of the holocaust according to one of it's eldest survivors, our speaker at the seminar; Ziggi. To the right below is a photo of the carrieages that dozens of Jews would be packed into upon arrival at the camp.
Auschwitz two was scarily huge, with many of it's jewish living quarters destroyed (Pictured below right). Each chimney you can see was a living quarter designed to keep 30 horses, but instead was housing for 300 jews. Packed into each one like animals.
Inside was no better, heaps of bunker beds stacked on top of one another. Toilets were simply a hole made in a concrete seat, forcing the Jews to do their business shoulder to shoulder, their dignity was tarnished and their privacy stripped.
Towards the end of our trip we headed to the very bottom of the tracks where a giant memorial lay, amongst the wreckage of the gas chambers, bombed by british pilots. The sun was setting along with my realisation that this really happened. I cannot document the entirety of my journey here, or else you would no doubt get bored of my journey. Below are photographs of the memorial, along with the wreckages of the gas chambers.
Although the day had been filled with so much sadness, anger, and despair of just how some human beings could do such things to one anther, the end of day was peaceful and awe inspiring. We visited a room which was filled with photographs of those who were lost in the holocaust, and some who survived. Even letters from children to their parents in hopes of finding them alive were portrayed on the walls. We were asked to pick which photograph related to us the most, below was mine. Pictured together was a mother, a father, sister and brother.
The day ended in the most ceremonial of ways, we read a prayer with a Jewish priest on the grounds of the memorial. Lit entirely by candles that we had each been given. As the holy words were spoken I thought of a lot of things in that moment, of the millions lost, of my family and friends. The general fact of having my loved ones around had never been so important to me. With each candle we had been given, we placed them leading from the bottom of the railway, all the way to the top. The sun had set, and I was heading back home, back to my family; which those who suffered had never gotten the chance to do on a daily basis. Below left is the sun setting over one of the guard towers at Auschwitz two. On the right is a photograph of the candles going from the bottom of the tracks to the top.
I was never the same again, never negligent, always appreciative. It was one of the awe- inspiring days of my life so far, Auschwitz Birkenau had changed me forever. This is why we must remember what happened in the holocaust, to ensure future generations know what happened in the holocaust. Mankind is capable of many things, this should never have been one of them. If you want to see my entire album of my tour of Auschwitz, Poland you can see it here at my Facebook page @
Thank-you for taking the time to read this, in hops you might take something from it. -R
Me pictured at the gates of Auschwitz one.