A Day at Auschwitz
Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp had a death toll of more than one million people, ninety percent of them Jewish. Those not murdered in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labour, infectious disease, individual executions and medical experiments. In addition, an astonishing number of individuals died due to the sheer cold which allied with the Nazis to mercilessly attack the victims of the camp. Unimaginable atrocities occurred here; a race of people were driven to the brink of extinction, while many others endured the discrimination which is still being challenged today. Fascism manifested itself in the camps of Auschwitz, and Europe today is still recovering from this.
I recently found myself involved in a project in which we went to this camp. I did not know what I had expected to feel here; my expectations were flooded with ambiguity. Perhaps a feeling of emptiness and desolation as I tried to comprehend the extent of what had happened in this one camp. However, I could only imagine what was to come. Interesting, upon returning home, the most striking aspect of the visit was not my emotions when being in the camp, but the malevolency in which the ice winds antagonized us; stealthily following us, watching for signs of weakness.
Prior to going on this trip, we heard a testimony from a Holocaust survivor who told us in explicit and heart-wrenching detail of the horrors she had gone through at Auschwitz. She described how she was treated by the Nazis, and actions she was forced to take to ensure that she survived and lived on to tell her story. Her account left a feeling of hollowness within me as I tried to imagine what she had gone through – and yet I failed miserably to do so. Her experience was ineffable; never before had such an experience been so realistic due to here vivid depiction, and yet I failed to grasp to enormity of this.
I remember vividly when I first saw Auschwitz. My first sight was the historical front gate which read: “Arbeit macht frei” meaning ‘work makes free’. Lies; complete and utter lies. A statement used to trick the people who were brought to Auschwitz to believe that they had a future. But these people had no future. Most were condemned to live and die at Auschwitz. Among these included: one million Jews, 75,000 Poles, 21,000 Gypsies, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 5,000 people from other countries; all of whom perished at Auschwitz. The lucky few found methods which ensured their survival in the camp until its liberation in 1945. But for many, the very notion of freedom remained nothing more than an illusion. What the gates truly represented was a prison from which there was no escape.
As the day progressed, we moved into different buildings of the camp, and were again face to face with numerous atrocities. The first of these was the observation of what appeared to be thousands upon thousands of shoes. Every single shoe belonged to a different individual who died at this camp. Seeing these truly made me understand what occurred here. These people were individuals, and yet to the Nazis they were nothing more than the number of shoes they possessed; a simple statistic of their accomplishments. This nauseated me. Next, was display of tonnes of hair – packed behind a glass display. This was a further so-called accomplishment of the Nazis. I felt an overwhelming grief take over my every nerve as I looked on to this. And yet, I found myself unable to comprehend that every single strand of this hair was taken from an individual person. I understood that this was the case, but I found myself being unable to sympathise with this – nothing in my life could relate to this in any way and thus I was truly clueless towards the extent of their horrifying experiences.
However, it was not simply the belongings of the prisoners of this camp that made me reflect more deeply on the atrocities committed here. Even being outside for several hours was enough to this. Wearing several layers of clothing, the cold still persisted to viciously attack my every pore until I found myself shivering uncontrollably. It attacked vindictively and mercilessly. Its presence permeated the camp; there was simply no escape. Every bunker, every bed, every inch of ground; the cold pervaded. It was not until I was back in relative warmth I was forced to ask, how did these people survive in this cold with nothing more than rags as clothing? I still do not know the answer to this. Reflecting, I realised that not only did these people have to deal with the relentless torment of the Nazis, but if they successfully evaded this, they would surely be weakened by the cold. I barely managed a few hours before I was on the brink of collapse. So how did they do it? The end of the day was almost a blur – I was defeated by the cold and was resound to cling to my clothes in hopes of staying warm enough to escape this icy dungeon and return to the warmth and comfort I was accustomed to.
The last place we visited at Auschwitz was the memorial site where the names of the victims of this camp could live on, and be remembered. The darkness had taken over the sky and there was only a dim light which shone upon the memorial; the memories of these people almost ceased to exist, and yet the light continued to endure and live on. As a display of remembrance of what these people underwent at Auschwitz, each person was given a small candle and told to light it, and place it in front of the memorial. The faded light which was so close to being extinguished was now illuminated by a hundred candles, strengthening the memory of the horrors which ensued out Auschwitz. Never would these horrors be forgotten; as long as single candle light endured, we would always remember. I recall a moment which I believe will rest in my memory forever. As I lay down my candle, I stared into the flame and for only a moment I was overwhelmed with unimaginable grief. Where this came from, I had no idea. But it left me standing silently staring into this flame. Reflecting, this happened for only a moment, but at the time it had felt much longer. Looking back, I think it was at this moment I truly grasped the full extent of what had happened at Auschwitz, and this realisation felt a hollow feeling resounding in me.
Upon leaving, I looked around one last time at Auschwitz. Never would I forget the sight of infinite sorrow and decay. Yet, another feeling, surprising to me emerged. I was inspired. Witnessing the scene of enormous and unimaginable atrocities inspired me to pass what I had witnessed on to others. The purpose of the project was to ensure that such a historical event could never be forgotten. And it will not. As long as people go to Auschwitz and tell others of what they have witnessed, then the atrocities which ensued here will never be forgotten. It would be impossible to tell others exactly what the prisoners of the camp have endured – but hopefully I, and others, can give an accurate depiction to such a degree that people will be forced to remember such an event.
Auschwitz extermination camp is said to be the original place of fascism which then extended across Europe in the post-war era. This type of discrimination and intolerance is something which cannot be accepted in society today. This trip to Auschwitz I therefore believe is important so stop this. Studies have shown that children, if taught about the holocaust from an early age, grow of to be less discriminative of different groups of people and show less racist or homophobic tendencies for example. Understanding and remembering the holocaust therefore has fundamental value in society. But not only that, these people died at the hands of a dictorial leader whose ideology resulted in an attempted extermination of a whole group of people. The atrocities these people faced should not be ignored, and this trip has truly inspired me to go on and tell their stories. If these stories continue to be told, then we, as a society can remember and learn from mistakes of the past.