In Auschwitz it was the shoes that got me. I stood in the gas chambers, silent chambers that still bare the black smoked scars of the furnaces that burned there. I stood before the execution wall, with its gaps torn by countless bullets and skulls. I looked at the cells and read the descriptions of how the SS tortured these prisoners with ways most people couldn’t even begin to imagine.
But it was the shoes that got me.
I knew to expect it because Seb had been there before and warned me. Seas of shoes, piled up behind the glass, shoes that had been stripped from each human being as they had been processed like cattle through the gates of this hell. A room for the mens shoes. A room for the womens. A room for the childrens. Shoes that had been polished a thousand times. Shoes with holes in. Strappy sandals with heels. Shoes no longer than my little finger. Somehow it was the shoes that hit home to me, made me see it all as not as a genocide, a mass killing. It was the most brutal and savage murder of 11 million individuals. 11 million people who all lived, and loved, laughed and cried, worried about money, cleaned their kitchens, picked out shoes to wear.
I never liked to know much about the 2nd World War, it always made me sad. Who really likes to dwell on pure evil and how it has completely ravaged our world? But then I read Fatherland, by Robert Harris, a thriller set in an alternate history, where Hitler won and a police detective stumbles upon the truth about the Final Solution, which has been covered up from all public knowledge. The book is brilliant and horrendous, made all the more chilling by the fact that every document referenced in it actually existed. It piqued my interest, and I began a phase of reading about the Holocaust and watching documentaries. When my boyfriend Seb and I began planning our trip to Poland, his country, he mentioned that Auschwitz was close to Krakow, where we were spending time, and I decided we had to go.
As tourist destinations go, Auschwitz 1 and 2 probably aren’t amongst the first that spring to mind. Certainly, as we wandered through the cobblestoned streets of Krakow, under perfect blue skies and surrounded by beauty wherever we looked, it was easy to forget something so dreadful had happened in that very place. It’s natural to take photos of stunning old castles and who wouldn’t look forward to visiting the most amazing hot chocolate shop in the world? But going to a concentration camp is a strange feeling. I knew I had to go, I very much wanted to see it, but I dreaded it at the same time. I knew it would be terrible, and it did not disappoint.
There is an eerie stillness about Auschwitz 1. Apart from the voices of the tour guides, if you wander around by yourself, as we did, there isn’t much in the way of sound, just the rustling of the trees and the odd hushed whisper from yourselves. The ironic thing is, it could be a really pretty place, there are so many trees and lawns. But whether by the choice of the Museum, or by the fact that here was just too much evil, flowers don’t grow. Stark, spiked fences and cold, blacked out windows give that feeling of menace they’re supposed to give and any thought of natural beauty is completely lanced by the silhouette of the gas chamber’s brick chimney.
After that, the tour is pretty much a list of unimaginably sick ways to torture people. How does the human mind construct a standing cell, a cell too small and narrow for a person to do anything except stand in it until they die? Portable hanging platforms, starvation cells, oversized lethal injection needles, medical experimentation units, Auschwitz has it all. And that’s without taking into consideration the living conditions, the lice infested straw you only slept on if you were lucky, and the handful of toilets between thousands and thousands of people, a rotten and inadequate food supply and the total and utter lack of anything comforting whatsoever. Everywhere you look its clear that the Nazis didn’t want to just kill anyone they saw as a threat or a blemish to society, they wanted to do it in the most vile, miserable way possible.
After the sea of shoes had knocked down some sort of wall in me, I began to take everything personally. I felt angry, I felt sick, and I wanted to break down and weep. I am a born again Christian, and I wondered how on earth God could love us, this hopeless race that somewhere found the capacity to do this to one another. That we can move on from something like this is, I am convinced, a complete testament to the hope I believe in. I wondered how I would feel walking around this place as a Jew, or how much much worse it would be if I’d known someone in my family went through it. When we walked through an exhibition about how Hitler had wanted to obliterate every Polish person from the face of the earth, I wanted to hold Seb close to me and never let him go. I wanted to ring my parents, my sister, tell them I loved them. I can’t even make myself imagine how the prisoners felt. I do it now, try to make myself imagine that’s me and I’m there, and my partner has been ripped away from me, I never see my family again but I know what’s happened to them, the pain that they felt, the fear. I can’t do it, it makes me physically feel sick. It’s not a coincidence that it has taken me ten months to be able to think about it enough to write a blog. How must they have felt? The thousands of photos that line almost every corridor do a pretty good job of helping you see how they must have felt. The Nazis obsessive documentation of their prisoners (except the Jewish ones) now hang in a sort of strange silent honour, the framed faces of half starved, shaven headed men, each bearing their date of entry and date of death. If the obvious fear and madness in their eyes doesn’t haunt you, the startlingly short space between the majority of entry and death dates will.
If I thought Auschwitz 1 was bad, nothing could have prepared me for the terrible Auschwitz 2. About two kilometres from the original camp, this second site has to be one of the bleakest places anywhere in the world. A massive, flat expanse of pure death. This was an extermination camp, and you feel it. The first thing you see are the long lines of the train track that shipped people there in their millions. You follow the road in, down which they would have been thrown, and past the point where they were sorted. Sorted into working men who went to the barracks as slaves and everyone else who went to agonising death in the underground chambers. You look down the line of wooden huts they kept people in, stables built to house a maximum of 52 army horses, now ‘home’ to over 400 men. Then you look behind the line and see miles of broken huts and outlines of their foundations and it hits you just how many people ended here. It completely knocked my guts. Some of them, the childrens section in particular, still have drawings scraped into the walls and shelves they slept on.
When the Nazis realised the tide of the war was turning against them, they began destroying evidence and dismantling the death camps. Days before Auschwitz was liberated from German authority, they blew up the gas chambers, and today, over the collapsed ruins, the official memorial statue stands, tall and sombre, surveying the acres of horror that remain. As I looked at the same view, my mind could not begin to comprehend how men who were sons, and husbands, fathers and friends, could do this to other human beings. How could the despotic evil of someone like Hitler or Himmler affect and influence so many others to act in such a way, resulting in the staggering bloodshed that happened just 70 years ago? How does humanity reach that depth of depravity? I don’t understand it, and thankfully I never will. One look at the news will tell you that not everyone is like that. Time has moved on, but there is still evil. Sometimes I think it’s worse than ever. People still torture other humans, wars are still fought and persecution is still rampant. It can be overwhelming, and you feel helpless and tiny.
But ultimately, Auschwitz fell. Years later, survivors of the camp became it’s first tour guides. There is horror in that fact but there is also hope, and that is beautiful. At the top of Auschwitz II, there is a memorial statue, and a quote by George Santaya; ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ In a world so frought and angry, that is the reason why places like Auschwitz are so important. We have to remember. We have to learn. We have to move on and we have to hope.
‘The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.’ – JRR Tolkien