Auschwitz. The very sound of it makes you feel empty inside. A horrible word that symbolises terror, genocide and the Holocaust. I had heard stories before. Seen movies. But nothing compares to the feeling of standing within the grounds of Auschwitz. It was difficult to imagine that here, in a place that’s now so quiet and green, the most horrific acts to man kind took place. Here I was, standing inside the barracks, witnessing the tonnes of shaved hair, the piles of personal items from victims, hearing stories of torture, and yet still, I couldn’t imagine what had happened here to be true. It all seemed too horrific. Too unreal. If only I could tell you it was all a lie, but it wasn’t. It happened. And Auschwitz now stands to remind us of that.
During the Second World War, German forces invaded Poland and established a concentration camp on the outskirts of a town called Oswiecim. Later known as Auschwitz, this was the biggest of the concentration camps, comprising of three main camps and forty subcamps. At the beginning of 1942, Auschwitz became the setting for the biggest murder campaign in history, when the Nazis operated a plan to destroy the entire Jewish population. Upon arrival to the camp, prisoners faced a selection process; sent to the right and you were selected to work, sent to the left and you unknowingly walked towards your death inside the gas chambers.
The majority of prisoners sent to the chambers were women and children. They were assured they were walking towards a “disinfection process,” and were handed bars of soap. Over 2000 Jews would be beaten by the SS as they were forced to cram inside the chambers. There, they stood in the dark, frightened, where they awaited their death by the poison of Zyklon B.
When the SS realised the end of the war was near, they attempted to destroy any evidence of the atrocities that happened at Auschwitz. One chamber however, still remains. I waited in line to enter and used the surrounding silence as a moment to remember the victims. How different their entrance into the chambers would have been. How terrified they would have felt as they entered the unknown. As I stepped inside, I immediately felt the temperature drop. It was cold and dark. My focus was drawn towards the scratch marks engrained in the walls – a lasting sign of distress and desperation. I studied the small patch of light that fell onto the cement floor and searched for the source: a small, square hole was cut from the roof. Today, this opening allowed the sun to shine into an otherwise dark chamber, however 70 years ago this hole had a different sole purpose.
Upon leaving the chamber, I felt sick. Before coming to Auschwitz, I, of course, knew of the chambers. However, to stand inside is yet another experience. As we walked away from the chambers and started to learn of the life of the prisoners, my mind began to wander. Can you imagine a life where you live in constant fear? Where you’re given minimal rations, which barely provide the sustenance to survive 12 hours of labour. A life where you’re made to believe that you should be condemned for who you are. Where you’re forced to live in the most inhumane conditions thought possible, making it almost impossible to survive. And, a life where you’re a witness to the uncountable deaths of innocent people, both adults and children. Can you imagine that? I can’t. I simply can’t. And so, my mind began to wander as I thought to myself, ‘What would I prefer?’ To be sent to a chamber or to live the life of a prisoner and live in fear that each day could be my last. Which would you choose?
The memorial site of Auschwitz opened in 1947, just 2 years after the prisoners were liberated by the Red Army. Initially, I was shocked to hear how soon it had opened. However, the efficiency of the memorial soon made sense as I became witness to the following words:
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
For me, these powerful words created a whole new light on Auschwitz today. The memorial should be used as a way to remember. To acknowledge that something horrific happened. It happened to ordinary people. Normal people, like you and me. We need to use the memory of Auschwitz as a reminder to say, “No,” when someone tells us to condemn a person because of who they are or what they believe in. We need to use Auschwitz, and the memory of the millions of victims, to ensure that something like this does not happen again.
So, as the sun began to set, I stood on the train tracks at Auschwitz Birkenau; the point where the initial selection process took place. I looked down the long track towards the ‘Gate of Death,’ and slowly began to walk. And, as I took a moment to acknowledge the lives of the victims of Auschwitz, I freely walked out; a decision that so many before me were not able to make.
This piece was written with the aim to respect the memory of those that suffered and died at Auschwitz.