Overlooking Birkenau

This is the final entry from a three part series: Part I – A Cold and Lonely Path Into Auschwitz and Part II – Entering Auschwitz.

 

Birkenau.

The name may not carry as much horror as the word Auschwitz, but it should.

 

Unlike Auschwitz I, the red-brick camp with the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign, I saw the entrance to this second camp, Birkenau, from a long way away.

Converging railway tracks glint under the cloud-covered sky and race up to the watchtower’s mouth, pulsing right on into the heart of the camp. Architects designed Birkenau for incarceration and then extermination on a colossal scale, to ease the congestion at Auschwitz I.

A few people mill around the entrance, taking photos and waiting for their friends.

I step over the tracks that brought Jews here from France, Holland, Hungary and beyond and go in. After a brief spell of confusion, I’m waved up a staircase and am thankful that the crowds have gone.

When I read that the Nazis executed over a million people here, the number overwhelmed my imagination. Standing in Birkenau’s watchtower, the meaning behind those zeros becomes clear. Over my left shoulder, a few tourbuses are idling, but to the right, line upon line of chimneys rise out of the wasteland like burnt stalks at the end of a harvest. Railway tracks shoot straight down the centre, scars with no end in sight.

Back on the ground, I feel lost. Birkenau is preserved, not restored, and there’s no such thing as a visitors’ guide or a recommended route. It is what it is, the place seems to say.

So I wander in a clockwise direction, the icy water and mud introducing me to new leaks in my boots and my feet soon become numb to ease the pain. Each row of blocks looks the same, stout chimney, barrack space, snow and barbed wire. On and on and on they go without further explanation. But then, can there really be any further explanation?

Gas Chamber Remnants

Apart from two men in dark jackets who peer into the wreck of one building, I am alone. Eventually a small sign tells me that the collapsed pile of bricks used to be the gas chamber and that the next pile of rubble was a crematorium. Dynamite destroyed them both before the Soviet army arrived.

After around forty-five minutes, or maybe more, I reach the end of the railway track. A previously bright bouquet of flowers lies there, shivering and shuddering in the wind, with melting ice drowning its petals. The watchtower that loomed over me at the entrance is barely visible, such is the size of the place, the length of the track. On these platforms, a sign says, “selections” were made: workers on one side of the camp, the rest to the chambers.

This section is busier, and a group of teenagers pass by, led by their teacher and carrying Israeli flags. The blue stars burn bright against the whiteness, making the snow look drab, though while the adults look earnest, their students look bored and cold.

Inside the Camp. Looking back at the entrance (the watchtower in the photo above.)

The same unease creeps over me as it did in Aushwitz I, perhaps more so here where there are fewer exhibits or references to tie together history with the reality of a waterlogged field. What makes this place meaningful? These bricks and these chimneys or the stories we carry with us, burned into our past?

Just then, I reach a low-ceilinged building, one that stands out because it still has both walls and doors. I find two other solo travellers inside and we follow one other self-consciously through the echoing chambers. A reflective wall bears photos of the missing and the dead. Furnaces make me flinch until I read that they were used for sterilising equipment. A grim concrete shower block… that was used for showers.

Then I’m back into the snow, where tall pine forests stretch into the skies. In memory of Anne Frank, I search around for a sign of beauty, for something to pin hope upon, despite the torment that rages around. But I fail. The barbed wire is everywhere, the snow a tainted, filthy brown, and the bone-seeping cold makes me want to cry out with pain.

Birkenau Memorials

I am wearing a ski jacket, hat and leather boots, not striped pyjamas, and after two hours here I cannot feel my wrists, my ankles, my face. I pass monument after monument but by now I just want it all to stop.

I stumble on, slipping and sliding on the uncertain ground and catch a glimpse of the candy-pink houses that line the edge of the camp and overlook this monstrous swamp.

My misery is interrupted by the waves and shouts of a man beyond the fence.

“Are you the girl I’m waiting for?”

“Er, probably not,” I say as I get closer.

“Well, I dropped a girl at the watchtower but I’m supposed to meet her here,” he pats the side of his car. “I’m a taxi driver. You can call me Jan.”

My eyes still stream from the cold and I weigh up the reality of the distance between me and the original bus stop, several miles away.

“You have seen Auschwitz?” he asks.

I nod.

“And Birkenau?”

“Yes.”

“Then you have seen all you came for, you are finished, yes?”

I look across the vast expanse of endless snow and wire, twisted remains and dark history. “I suppose so.”

“Then you have seen all you came for, you are finished, yes?”

“I’ll drive you back then,” he offers. “And then I’ll come back for her. It’s a very long way otherwise. I learned my English in America you know, we left when the communists were here but then we came back to Oświȩcim…”

I climb in, grateful, oh so grateful for the warmth.

“Here’s a picture of my family,” we swerve across the road as he stabs at a photo, “they have a house just over there as well.”

I don’t want to seem rude but I can’t help but ask, “Why? Why here?”

One Side of Birkenau

He shrugs. “Why not? It is good land and it is cheap. After I came from America, you are not American, no? Australian? Ah, English. Here have a sweet, no? An apple…” and he continues merrily to himself until we screech to a halt in front of the minibus, blocking its departure.

He calls out in Polish and the driver opens the door.

“One more, eh?” Jan says to me. “I said there’s always room for one more. So, then, now you are back and now you have seen everything.”He hands me his card. “For you or your friends the next time you are here.”

I don’t really know what to say. “Thank you,” I mumble. “Dziękujȩ.”

And that’s it. Ninety minutes later I’m back in Krakow, in the rush hour stream of21st century life. Beyonce’s Beautiful Nightmare accompanies the commuters and shoppers, while fluorescent lights shine over the latest Zara collection and women sell salt-encrusted Obwarzanki from kiosks sheltered from the wind.

I go to buy one and find two pieces of paper in my pocket. Jan’s card and the square cut-out from the first bus driver. It lists the departure times from Auschwitz back to the modern world.

It’s only small, but perhaps this was the sliver of beauty and hope that I was searching for.

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20 Responses to Overlooking Birkenau

  1. ciki April 26, 2010 at 1:23 pm #

    amazing story. did u feel the bad vibes? i went to an old abandoned prison once.. could not get out of there fast enough. I swear I could feel the terror, the pain. Sad but a great reminder of man’s folly. must never be repeated!

    EXCELLENT post… !

  2. Abi April 28, 2010 at 11:48 pm #

    Thank you. I felt a range of emotions, perhaps heightened by the fact that I travelled there alone, perhaps not.

  3. Merja Ruotsalainen May 29, 2010 at 7:22 pm #

    Thank you for your story ! I´m going there next week
    and now I wonder if I should at all. It was like I was there already and I don´t want to go there any more with my perhaps noisy group of people.Thank you!
    (I´m from Finland)

  4. Abi May 31, 2010 at 7:06 pm #

    Merja, thank you so much for your comment. I think that it would be a tough(er) place to visit in a large group – but that’s only my opinion.

    Let us know how you get on…

  5. Terry Lee July 6, 2010 at 2:30 am #

    Abi, I have read all three articles, while I have been to Dachau, I have yet to visit Auschwitz or Birkenau but I intend to do so.
    Your words do justice to the solemnity and honour those that perished. Thank you.

    • Abi July 7, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

      Thank you, Terry. Comments like that mean so much to me.

  6. Kirsten Alana August 3, 2011 at 3:45 am #

    I read all three parts before ending here. Thank you for writing them. I’ve read other posts on Auschwitz and Birkenau. I’ve seen Schindler’s List. I went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and threw up my lunch in the sterile bathroom. I do feel sometimes we’ve become desensitized to what all this means for us, living now. Yet I still cried reading your posts. I still became physically ill in DC. I’ve had a small amount of people do horrible things to me in my life and I lived with a father who could be compared to Hitler in many ways, I’m not saying that lightly or as a joke. I really do believe at the end of the day the choice we have is to not carry on or carry out behavior fueled by hate. Discrimination can start out lightly, even slyly without full realization of the dangerous depths it references. But we can choose to never again repeat the sins of WWII or to stand against it when we see it beginning to rise. Short of that, I’m still figuring it out. I think that’s why I haven’t yet gone to the camps. I don’t yet know how I’d apply the feelings I would confront there. And until I do, I don’t know…

  7. Abi August 4, 2011 at 7:41 pm #

    That’s such a moving comment, Kirsten.

    Sadly, even if no-one ever visited them again, it wouldn’t change what happened there.

    I agree with you entirely that what we CAN do is stand against discrimination whenever and wherever we see it rise again.

    And I’m so sorry to read about your father. Yet it’s very inspiring that, despite those previous experiences, you’ve decided not to carry on with behaviour fuelled by hate.

    I found visiting the camps an incredibly emotional experience – although not in the way I had perhaps anticipated.

  8. aNCA November 11, 2011 at 4:37 am #

    Quite a few years have passed since I’ve been to Auschwitz and Birkenau but I still remember the horror and sadness I felt. I sometimes stumble across the set of postcards I purchased there and those feelings come back time and again, every time I hold them. It is articles like this that make people realise, even without having been there, what had actually happened and what some of us are capable of doing.

    • Abi December 5, 2012 at 5:31 pm #

      Yes, it’s been quite a while since I was there now – but I still get a chill from thinking about it.

  9. fotoeins | Henry December 1, 2011 at 4:11 am #

    Devastating series, Abi.

    I’ve often wondered whether I’m personally ready or prepared to see something like Auschwitz. But I do feel the compulsion, the need to connect all that I’ve read to the images I would see, the sensations I might feel. By pages or words alone, the obscenity done to man, woman, and child almost doesn’t seem “real”. But then again, as your experience showed, they were all too horribly real.

    Thanks again for writing and taking us on your journey.

    • Abi December 5, 2012 at 5:33 pm #

      I’m not sure whether it is a good idea to go there on your own, to be honest. But I am very glad that I did go, even if I find it difficult to explain why.

  10. Tash January 14, 2012 at 4:10 am #

    This is powerful writing, well done. Takes me right back to my Dachu visit years ago….and an amazing tribute to you visit and emotional journey through.

    • Abi December 5, 2012 at 5:33 pm #

      Thank you

  11. Philip January 23, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    What a powerful, well written and emotionally moving story. I have thought, for years, about visiting the camps where so many relatives I will never know perished. Wiping away a few tears now, I feel that however emotionally harrowing that experience will be, it is one I will experience. Recalling the words of Santayana, it is ironical that so little is done by ‘civilized’ society to halt the genocide that continues today. Perhaps if more people made this journey… With appreciation for moving me to a deeper place.

    • Abi January 24, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

      It’s a place I will never forget, although I still feel confused about so much of it.Thank you.

  12. Lisa | LLWorldTour February 4, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    Moving posts Abi. I traveled all throughout Europe – east to west – a couple years ago and was confronted by so much of this in every country – it was stunning. I, too, went to Auschwitz and Birkenau alone – all in a vacuum in my own head, the silence can be deafening, no? I was so truck by Birkenau – the enormity, the systematic efficiency of this death camp. What is so unbelievable to me is how recent this all was and how, being Jewish myself, I can NOT fathom someone literally coming to take me away. And then I can’t believe how many good, normal people it happened to.

    • Abi December 5, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

      It is so, so, so difficult to try to understand how so many people thought that the solution to all their problems lay in killing a certain group of people. I just don’t know where to begin.

      You describe it well – the “vacuum in my own head.” A very, very strange feeling.

      And so distressing that acts of genocide still occur…

  13. cosmoHallitan November 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    What a haunting and beautiful post. I had to do a report on Birkenau when I was in high school and I cried every day I spent researching it. Ever since then I’ve read as much as I can about WWII and the events leading up to it to try to make sense of what happened. But it’s not possible to make sense of something so atrocious. What we can do is try to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again. We also can honor those who perished by remembering them and teaching our children their history.

    • Abi December 5, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

      That’s a beautifu last line – thank you.

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