Travel The World

Entering Auschwitz

Find the first part of this series, A Cold and Lonely Path: Into Auschwitz here.

Entry to Auschwitz feels like a macabre blend between a Saturday afternoon football crush, a communist toilet block and the road to hell itself. After the empty path along snow and wire, my senses struggle to register the line of tour coaches and hundreds, yes hundreds, of happy-go-lucky teenagers.

As it happens, I’m travelling alone and therefore do not fit neatly into the Auschwitz programme. I am pushed, shoved, battered and crushed into grey walls and turnstiles as hormone-ridden faces text, tweet and talk about who got up to what last night.

The set-up funnels the crowd towards the cinema, but I make my escape. Admission is free and with a thudding clunk from another turnstile, I find myself alone on the mud and ice, granted a moment’s peace.

I hurry along, cold and self-conscious of the crunch of each footstep.

Then, just like that, I see it. Small, curling letters, wedged between a few trees.

Arbeit Macht Frei. Work sets you free.

Arbeit Macht Frei

Arbeit Macht Frei. Work Sets You Free.

I can’t remember how young I was when I first read about this, first saw these letters. But now, to see it for real…it’s dizzying. The words are smaller than my childhood eyes pictured them and winter branches smother the edges. Yet something still chokes my throat, forcing me to check my surroundings.  About 50 yards away a group of German tourists are approaching, about 100 paces ahead a couple takes photos.  The watchtowers stand empty.

I walk underneath.

And then I really am inside.

Then I really am inside.

Block 11, Auschwitz

Auschwitz I consists of several rows of brick barracks, each labelled with white paint on a dark chocolate sign, a jarring home-made touch. A few sober posters, with tight white words on black, tell of prisoners doused in water and left to freeze to death, of escapees’ families tied here to serve as a warning.

A horrible recognition sets in. These buildings, all rust and burnt-ochre with a central tree-lined thoroughfare and gently uneven pavements…They remind me of my first school, where the ground was used for hopscotch and there was a different kind of roll call.

Inside is even more disturbing. The industrial green-grey walls remind me of old hospitals I’ve both worked in and recovered in. I wait for white-coated officials to greet me absent-mindedly, the squeak of trainers and rattle of hospital trolleys to echo from some far off place.

Brick Buildings, Auschwitz

It’s a frightening similarity, but what did I expect? Architecture delivered straight from Hannibal Lecter’s sketchbook or mundane institutional buildings from a particular period in time?

When I turn the corner, I want to throw up. I’ve entered, with little warning, the collection of human hair. There follows suitcases, brushes, photos and shoes. Heaps upon heaps of shoes.

Of all the artefacts, the shoes haunt me the most. The photos look detached, from another age, almost unreal. I needed the museum’s sign to identify the hair as human.

But the shoes.

They look worn, lived in, personal – and modern. There are scarlet espadrilles, leather Sunday bests, polished bank manager shoes and sturdy nurse footwear. Even shoes for tiny tots. Of all the clothes we ever possess, our shoes – moulded with every step until they’re no good for anyone else – feel like the closest thing to human expression through an everyday object.

The closest thing to human expression through an everyday object.

I ricochet back to the 21st century with the reappearance of the teenage hordes.  It’s almost impossible to get past them, let alone see anything, except for the boys at the back mocking the prisoners’ haircuts.

It’s a reality check, alright. Throughout the holocaust memorials, I’ve read the following, unconditional message:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” by Santayana.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” by Santayana.

Perhaps it’s time to add some caveats, though, and to realise that not everyone should come here. Some are too young, some too ignorant and there will always be some who get a sick pleasure from the death camps.

I watch the boys laugh at another photo. Should any of us be here at all? I brush past the sniggering young men and stumble out into the cold.

From the personal property barracks, small arrows point to the medical centre, the execution block and the cells where prisoners were gassed for the first time. The second row of barracks feature memorials from countries where Jews were rounded up and sent here, from as far away as Holland, France and Greece.

I am completely alone in these chambers, although the sound of slamming doors and muffled voices is never far away. It is a dark and frightening experience.

At the gate, I am desperate to leave but first I need to fight my way through the next onslaught of visitors. Shrouded in the smell of disinfectant, I finally reach the information desk.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I came to see Birkenau as well. How do I get there?”

“In winter,” the woman says, “the shuttle is closed.”

“So how far is it to walk?” I ask, the sway of the crowd pulling me away from her desk.

“Three kilometres,” she replies. “In the snow.”

Inside Auschwitz

Continues here…Overlooking Birkenau

4 Responses to Entering Auschwitz

  1. Terence April 1, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    Wow. I’m sure it’s not only haunting, but educational at the same time. We were at Dachau 2 months back… the most memorable thing we took back from there was its freedom soldier statue. It says: “To honor the dead and to warn the living”.

  2. Abi April 5, 2010 at 8:46 am #

    It certainly stirs up plenty of emotion and I think you’ve chosen a really appropriate quote here, thank you.

  3. Chloe Johnson October 27, 2010 at 1:19 pm #

    I read your story before I went to Auschwitz and could feel the emotion, then I read it again on my return yesterday and could REALLY relate to what you have written. Such a sad history but one that has shaped Krakow.

    • Abi November 3, 2010 at 10:26 am #

      Thanks for coming back, Chloe, to let me know how you found it. Krakow seems to have suffered quite a few blows at the hand of history, which to my mind makes it an even more incredible place to visit.