Over the last years I have been fortunate enough to visit many museums and heritage sites all over the world. Amazing sites, seeped in history, impressive works of art testimony to humankind’s creativeness, imposing architecture testament to man’s genius, extraordinary collections that help us answer a basic question, what is it to be a human being? This is what inspires my love towards museum interpretation and accessibility.
Today the 3rd of September I spent 7 hours walking through the hell called Auschwitz. Throughout the time I spent walking in this death camp I felt a “nothingness” that engulfed my senses.
The previously sunny warm days disappeared and the visit to Auschwitz was met with very wet and overcast grey sky. On the way to the camp I looked at the windscreen wipers frantically trying to wipe away the pouring rain. Somehow I preferred this gloomy weather to accompany me to the place where millions had lost their lives. Somehow I could not imagine Auschwitz to be drenched in the warmth of the Mediterranean sun.
I had been wishing to visit Auschwitz since as a child I had read “The Silver Sword” by Ian Serraillier. The chilling descriptions and human tragedies described in “Anne Frank’s diary” and the film “Shindler’s List” made me want to one day visit this horrible place. I was particularly looking forward to visit Auschwitz. Yet as I walked through the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” gate, the very same gate that millions of humans had walked to their death a very strange numbness overtook my feelings. For the next few hours the place I walked through gave me back “nothing”. No feelings of awe or admiration and I dare say not even of compassion or pity. I was stunned by the way I felt.
Auschwitz is in reality 3 camps in one, Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II commonly known as Birkenaw and the smaller Monowitz. The visit started at Auschwitz I, now turned into a museum. This was the first camp to be built, housing around 16,000 prisoners at any one point. It was almost hard to believe that in the neatly organized brick buildings the most imaginable atrocities against thousands of human beings were carried out. This was both a concentration camp as well as a death camp. Here the first experiments and murders were carried out. Millions of visitors visit Auschwitz every year. Highly organized visitor management systems allow thousands of visitors to flow in through the gates every hour, in the 50’s various blocks had been turned into exhibitions where visitors could try to imagine life in Auschwitz, how the human body was just a resource for the Nazis, how human hair was harvested and shipped to Germany to be used for insulation in Uboats, how shoes were recycled to make belts and other leather products, how corpses after being gassed had their teeth pulled to be harvested from gold fillings, the more I saw the more I got numb. These rooms were certainly hard to visit. I tried to imagine the people to whom these shoes, spectacles, brushes, and clothes belonged to. The piles of human hair impressed me most. I could make out curly blond hairamongst the darker brown and black hair and lumps of grey hair, in the huge piles of hair along one whole wall. Shaving a person’s hair and making him or her stand naked is meant to remove every shred of human dignity.
In another room there were piles of suitcases, each with a name and a date written by the Jews themselves thinking they would get their possessions back once they were disinfected. I tried to imagine the scene, the families being torn apart never to see each other again,the selections sending many to the gas chambers and a few to slow agonizing death by exhaustion, starvation and disease. The more I imagined the less I could understand.
I visited the death block where thousands prisoners were routinely executed by firing squad. In the basement of the building was a prison A prison within a prison. Political prisoners, resistance fighters and special undesirables were held here. As I followed the endless queue of visitors silently shuffling behind each other, I came across cell 18 in which the polish priest Maximilian Kolbe choose to starve to death in place of an other prisoner, cell 20 where prisoners were crammed into a small cell without ventilation and left to die by suffocation.
Hundreds of cans of Zyklon B were on display, the very same cans which had been poured through the vents of the gas chambers in order to exterminate by suffocation the millions of Jews thinking they were about to get a shower.
Following a short drive to the Birkenau camp just 3 miles away, I walked along the tracks leading to the selection platforms. A solitary cattle cart without any windows stood on the tracks. One of the carts which the Nazis used to transport millions of Jews from all over Europe to the most efficient factory of mass extermination.
Total numbness as I entered the sprawling complex. Birkenau is huge, it could hold around 100,000 vermin at any point, 1.5 million Jews were gassed here. Four or five crematoria worked non-stop trying to burn the thousands of bodies gassed every day. When these ovens could not cope with the output of the gas chambers, bodies were pilled and burnt in open pits.
Birkenau had a completely different felling to Auschwitz I. The size of the place, gave it a sense of efficiency, organization and management. everything was designed to process in the fastest, least “wasteful”, highest output. Here human life was of absolutely no value. The guide showing us around, explained how prisoners had to work with the thinnest of uniforms, often without shoes in the freezing mud. sometimes they had to endure hours in the main gathering area for the roll call, being counted in -25degree snowing weather. As I ran my hand along the bunk beds where prisoners slept, died and defecated on each other, I tried to imagine the stench, the misery, the cold, the pain, the desperation, yet I could not understand.
The camp had no sanitary families, no water to have showers, not even enough toilets. Prisoners would have to sit 3 at a time trying to use each hole in the latrines. Prisoners assigned to the latrines, who had to clean them out by hand were considered lucky because they were at least working indoors and the Nazi guards found the place too disgusting to go anywhere near it.
By the time the visit ended I was completely physically and emotionally drained. During the drive back to Krakow I started slowly coming to terms with the numbness I had felt. Unlike other sites which would normally inspire and excite me Auschwitz and Birkenau made me question humanity. How can a human being do this to another human being. How is it possible to believe that another human being is vermin, a sub human, an inferior race. How can you kill on such a scale? The horror, the evil and the sheer scale of it numbed me.
What happened in civilized Germany could happen again. Today we still hear people speaking of other human beings as vermin, cockroaches and subhumans. Once again I realized that a museum was not about the artifacts on display but about the coming to terms with deepest feelings brought about by the visit, pondering on reality and trying to understand how humans can sometimes be such beasts.