A trip to Auschwitz – Birkenau
For years, I dreaded it. For decades, I’ve spoken about it, yet tried to ignore it. I made my excuses. Maybe, I’m just not ready, I would say. I kept promising to go and hid it away in a mind box and compartmentalised it. It was finally my time to confront it, so I went with my two children to visit Auschwitz Birkenau.
I’ve been writing an historical novel that’s set in Warsaw at the time of the Warsaw Ghetto. I needed to visit Auschwitz Birkenau to further my understanding of the place and what it would have meant for the prisoners.
Planning the trip
I went with my children to the camping shop for warm clothes. We’d talked about how cold Auschwitz was going to be (zero degrees predicted) in December, and that we’d be standing outside for many hours. As I rummaged through the array of thermal socks, woolly hats and warm hiking boots, I thought about the prisoners in their inadequate striped pyjamas that had been often passed down to them from other prisoners who had died. I thought about their sockless wooden or worn out leather clogs as they worked and slept, starving hungry, in minus 20 temperatures as was the case in the 1940s.
On the day of the visit, we donned our thermal gear. The sun was shining and the air was cold but fresh. Again, images flashed in my mind of the frozen prisoners in their uniforms. We arrived at the gates of Auschwitz 1, the famous ones that say, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” I’d seen this before so many times in photos. Beyond the gates were a series of brick buildings, so benign-looking, it wouldn’t have seemed out of place in any modern business park. The barbed wire could have been a standard security measure for any military complex. I felt okay.
We entered a building and passed various rooms with displays of photos, portraits and resin models. It was all so tragic and sad, but I felt ok. Into the next section, and the contents of a cabinet display took me completely by surprise. I wasn’t ready for it. It had the very effect I was so scared to confront.
In the previous rooms, I had already choked at the displays of thousands of shoes and mountains of luggage. The masses of human hair stolen from the owners was almost too difficult to behold. So, why did I feel such depth of feeling over this one separate display?
It was hard to focus through the tears. In this particular cabinet were the crockery, pots and pans taken from the victims before they were murdered in a gas chamber.
I thought about my mother’s pans, the years in which she prepared her delicious food served to the family with such love and care. “This is the best ever,” we would say to her. She would smile and say that we always said that. If she can see what I’m writing, the fact is that we were telling the truth. It’s how we felt. Even now, I find it hard not to shed a tear when I use my mother’s cooking spoon or eat off a plate on which she used to serve us meals when we were children.
The pots and pans on display in Auschwitz 1 are humble items of kitchenware. They tell of the families that would have once gathered together, bonded by the delicious culinary, religious and spiritual deliciousness of the lovingly prepared home cooked food. I can hear them pray, laugh and relish the food as I write.
I looked at my daughter, and could tell that similar thoughts ran through her head. “How could anyone see these pans and not feel their owners weren’t human?” she said to me. Yes, she had felt it too! She knew how much my mother’s kitchenware meant to me.
I’ve pondered on this, perhaps more than I should. The crockery display is a statement of humanity presented through modest every day items, forcibly taken from their owners before they were murdered as “subhumans”. For me, this was the story of Auschwitz. The tale of how a people could be dehumanised, tortured and murdered simply because they were Jews. I was so upset I felt sick. I’m shivering as I’m writing this.
We exited the building and its tragic display cabinets. Outside in the fresh cold air again. We were told that the workers not selected for the gas chambers perished in the frozen temperatures. They showed us the “Standing Cells” where prisoners were forced to stand in the darkness without food in the freezing cold as punishment for the most trivial of reasons. They were expected to work for 10 hours the following day. Many perished in the process.
Without a doubt, many of my ancestors would have perished in the Holocaust. I will probably never know who they were. One day soon I intend to at least try to research them. Those ancestors who fled the pogroms in Poland for a safer life in America and Britain survived the Holocaust. All the rest who stayed behind will have perished.
How do I feel now?
I was born at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation. I’m therefore a beneficiary of an improved life made possible by the countless souls that perished in the fight for our freedoms. With every step I took within the vast grounds of Auschwitz Birkenau, I was made aware it wasn’t me who was in a cattle truck. It wasn’t me who was given a choice to be cruel to my fellow humans so I or my family could have a reprieve from death for a few months. It wasn’t me herded into the Birkenau underground undressing room tunnel. It wasn’t me squashed into a so called shower room with hundreds of others where the lights were switched off. It wasn’t me forced to breathe in the agonising vapours of Zyklon B amid the screams of the people dying around me and knowing I too would die with searing pain and suffocation.
The Polish government has carefully preserved the historical camp site. There are now no traces of emaciated and sick, no stench of death, no trace of the piles of corpses, too numerous for the limited capacity of the crematoria, a problem that vexed the German engineers. There was no smell of burnt human flesh that would have pervaded the site.
I feel forever grateful for my great fortune that my children came into my world to enrich my own. Having them with me on this trip was a welcome source of comfort.
We discussed the visit at length. We each agreed that the sanitisation of the site is the correct option so that the camps should be preserved, forever. We also agreed that the Auschwitz complex was probably not the most effective medium for people to feel a visceral experience of the horrors that took place on such a massive scale.
It’s through the power of storytelling that we feel an emotional attachment to the characters, whether historical or fictional. The Auschwitz complex itself stands as a monument to a part of mankind’s history, so evil and inhumane, that it transcends the importance of character-based stories. The character in this case is a collective suffering of the millions murdered or tortured.
I believe, there exists the potential in many people throughout mankind’s history, for inflicting cruelty, suffering and death onto others. I am certain there is an ability in many humans, from any society, to dehumanise others to the extent that they would consider a level of cruelty we would generally consider inhumane in the context of today’s comparatively safe, democratic society. Even today, there are many who try to hide their secret agenda by using words and tropes to dehumanise others.
There are many people whom, like opportunistic pathogens, stand by in wait for them to receive the green light to commit such crimes, but only if they think they can get away with it. We see this happening time and time again on smaller scales throughout the world. It’s up to all of us to remind ourselves and others of what it is collectively and individually capable of doing.
What does it all mean?
We felt that our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau formed just a part of our education of the Holocaust. We have planned to visit Holocaust museums and watch the various, tragic but equally amazing movies that give us that personal connection to what happened in that dreadful place.
I was fearful of the effect that the visit would have on me. I write this with the view in mind that I feel sad but, moreover strengthened by it. I will do what I can to raise awareness of the tragedy of the Holocaust. This is what I have in mind as I write my novel.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba…
Adam Frosh is the co author of the award winning novel Space Taxis, a science fiction novel with historical links to WW2. It is the Gold medal winner of the Reader’s Favorite Science fantasy category. It can be purchased here as paperback, kindle or as an audio version.
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