YOU’D think we would’ve stepped off the bus in silence. But we didn’t. People were asking for the toilets. They were hungry because it was early and they hadn’t had breakfast. They wanted coffee.
This is how I arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It hits no one that here we are, at the entrance of this Hell where 1.1 million innocent people died. This is the Holocaust – this is a mass grave. That no one seems to notice comes as a surprise. Perhaps they were best left sleeping in their hotel beds.
It was June and the sun was shining: one woman said she hadn’t expected it to be so nice. Perfect weather to be killed!
Should we be worried? There’s no heartbreak or shock. Even in the queues at the kiosks no one’s patient. It’s just as if we’d arrived at any other tourist attraction. Yet this isn’t Machu Picchu in Peru or the Acropolis in Greece where you wander around the ruins of an ancient civilisation and enjoy the scenery.
- “Essential exercise” on memorial to war dead
- Beach you to it: The sandcastles built long before Machu Picchu
- Follow the guide into the deadly history of Angkor Wat
We are just lucky that it wasn’t 80 years earlier when others arrived. They stepped off cattle trains, not buses. There was no coffee or bathroom breaks. They didn’t even know where they were. They were ordered to strip – believing they were to simply take a shower. Men, women and children were separated. Some, who were considered useful, were selected for hard labour.
In contrast we’re given ear pieces to listen along to as we pass under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free) sign towards the red-brick accommodation blocks.
This former Polish army garrison that the SS took over in 1940 looks much as it did when it was renamed Auschwitz I and became the largest Nazi death camp.
Those sent here were Poles, Jews and Soviet prisoners of war. Their heads were shaved and their hair used to make socks and textiles.
Over five years, 1.1million people were killed. Some from the firing squads. Others of hunger, many were tortured. But most were gassed with Zyklon B, with the smoke billowing out of the chimneys, for all to see, all day long. It was inescapable and death was never far away.
Our group walks across to Birkenau (Auschwitz II) to see the gas chambers and the children’s camp where their names remain, scratched into the walls. Very few survived.
The buildings were open to the public just after the war. It’s meant to be a reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust and a memorial to those who died.
Every year on the January 27th anniversary of liberation, survivors return.
I expect they arrive in silence. And are not demanding coffee and cake.