Reflections on Auschwitz – my personal experience

Picture what I experienced in that God-forsaken building. It is black and charred on the inside – you look up and see the hole. If you are with anyone, I guarantee you will hold their hand. You look at the wall and see the faint scratches where people have lost reason and tried to dig their way out in their death throes. You feel sick. You are confused. You are boiling over with rage. You have a lump in your throat. You see the ovens where the Sonderkommando would pile the bodies for burning. You are quickly led outside and you see, just a few metres away, the house of Kommandant Hoess, where his wife grew tomatoes and where he sat in his garden as people screamed and died. You want to die.”

I sat staring blankly at my computer screen for a good 15 minutes before beginning to pen this article, still without any idea of how to start and how indeed to explain what I have seen.
I have always been interested in history, in particular the 20th century history of Europe, which encompasses the period that spans The Great War and World War II. That period, of course, includes the terrible persecution and extermination of Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
Still, as I write, I cannot quite find the words to explain what a profound effect a visit to the site of the murder of 1.1 million people can have on a person.
The sites of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowitz lie in the picturesque Polish Silesian countryside in a small village called Oswiecim – the native name of Auschwitz. Going through the undulating fields and meadows, you could not imagine that you are heading for the site of the most heinous place on earth – the site of brutal, deceptive and terrible mass murder.
It is most strange. As soon as you reach the outside assembly area, already a strange feeling of dread, and at the same time, anticipation hits you. Already, you know you are somewhere ‘special’. You are told to refrain from smoking, not to speak in a loud voice and to retain a sense of sombreness as you are given the audio equipment in order to hear the commentary from your guide.
They need not tell you. As soon as you enter the camp, you see a replica of the main gate over which the twisted Rudolph Hoess (camp commandant for most of its existence) installed the slogan “Arbeit macht Frei”.
Quite literally, it is a philosophy of Hoess’ in the sense that “work gives you freedom” and not “work makes you free”, as is the popular belief. The slogan comes from Hoess’ own time of imprisonment when the Nazi Party was still in its infancy. He had suicidal thoughts until he was given a prison job that allowed him to be ‘free’ in his mind.
As soon as you step through that gate and see the imposing detention blocks, double-layered electrified barbed wire fences and sinister guard towers, the reality of it all becomes all too apparent. I was filled with a sense of dread that I have not felt since I went to Ground Zero exactly one year after the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center. I went there in 2002 when they were still clearing the rubble and I stood in the giant hole. It is impossible to explain, but the body knows something evil, sinister and dreadful happened in that place. It was the same in the Auschwitz camp – hairs begin to stand on end, the mouth salivates, blood drains from your guts and adrenalin shoots around your body. It was also blazing hot – 32 degrees Celsius – which gives you an idea of what forced labour must have been like in those conditions, let alone the freezing winter temperatures.
Forgive the personal tone of this article, but I honestly believe that I cannot embark on an explanatory tour of the camp – mostly because the overload of emotions makes it become a blur, with only flashes of memory linked to feelings.
When you go round the camp, you are first taken to some of the less horrific parts of the exhibit where you are shown the roundup of European Jews and the ghetto-isation of sectors of European cities. The journey to Auschwitz from places as far away as Greece and Norway often took three to four days on crowded cattle trains with no latrines. Even when the trains pulled into stations the doors were not opened – the people were kept inside like animals and made to use buckets for slops. Those who died on the way just lay there, stinking, until the arrival at the Camp. It was a taste of things to come – we will speak about the infamous selections later and for now will only talk of those who were chosen to be worked to death.
You are taken to one of the buildings that has been restored to illustrate the living conditions inside Auschwitz I which, believe it or not, were luxury compared to the conditions in Auschwitz II Birkenau (of which more later).
Luxury compared to the later camp it might have been, but a bunk housing five people in lice-infested, wafer-thin blankets is not luxury. Harrowing tales are told inside the museum by survivors’ memoirs, which recount how they were driven hard by their Kapos (work chiefs, usually common German or Polish criminals or Communists) who used to beat and work the Jewish work gangs to death. Do not assume they did it for pleasure, they did it to stay alive and to retain privileges, such as the use of a normal toilet. The bulk of inmates, though, had it different – they used common latrines that they had to clean themselves – with their bare hands. If shovelling your own mess sounds bad – the fact that it was regarded as a privileged job makes it worse. It was a privileged job because it was indoors. If you kept out of trouble – you might have a chance to survive beyond the usual two-month span. It let you live.
From there the visitor is taken into another building, which is lined with photographs that were taken by the Nazis and used as identification. They include the date of admittance to the camp and the date of expiry – the average lifespan of an inmate was two months. Some of these photos – signed and stamped by the Nazis – show that some workers only survived a day or two. Pretty soon the Nazis realised that the photographs were useless, as people aged so quickly they could not be identified, and so the regime of tattooing numbers began. When bodies were piled high outside, the Sonderkommando (Jews themselves in charge of disposing of the dead or aiding in the death process) were instructed to leave the hands visible so the dead could be struck off the register.
The infamous Block 11 – the torture block – is also on the list and there you begin to see the depths of depravity to which the mind can sink. Starvation cells contain graffiti showing that some ate their shoes (a sure way to die, even if you did make it through a week’s incarceration, because you were never given shoes again – try working outside in snow without shoes).
The standing up cells were equally brutal, while the most simple – the wooden stakes from which prisoners were suspended, with their arms behind their backs, until their shoulders ripped from their sockets. Once that happened you were disabled, you became useless for work and you were taken outside to be shot. You can still see the wall in the courtyard where hundreds and thousands of Jews, Poles, Soviets and Communists were shot with a small calibre pistol to minimise the noise. Check the bullet holes in the walls. Then, of course, there is the infamous medical experiment block, headed by Dr Joseph Mengele – “Uncle Joe” he was known as – who handed out sweets and biscuits to befriend children, twins in particular. He would gain their confidence and then head off to cut people up and sew their body parts together the wrong way round. If it didn’t work (as if it ever could) he would use you to see how much petrol you could withstand as a direct injection to the heart. This block is closed – the camp’s administration believes it is far too disturbing for anyone to see or learn of with their own eyes. I would agree.

So far I have refrained from talking about the issue of extermination. I have spoken only of those worked or tortured to death. From where did the idea of the gas chambers arise? Well, it appears that when the Germans were advancing on the Soviet Union and were ordered to kill Jews to provide more food to feed the army and future living space for the Germanic peoples, many suffered psychological problems as a result of shooting hundreds and thousands of women and children. As a result, a better way had to be found and Heinrich Himmler instructed Hoess to find a way. Find a way they did and, in the most base of human reasoning, they thought that as the Jews were in their view parasites, then maybe the Zyklon B lice poison would work if it was used in sufficiently high quantities. They tried it in block 11. They dropped canisters of crystals into the cells and waited. The dose was not high enough, and some prisoners were still alive. They were finished off and the experiment started again. And from there we see the horrific practice of doubling up the crematorium into a gas chamber. This is when the selections started. An exhibit explains the process. People arrived at Auschwitz, with the women, children and infirm set aside for slaughter. Yet they were not told this. They were told they were going to be disinfected and washed before being sent off to work. They were jovial, thinking that their relative suffering was over. The Nazis knew that the best way to get them into the gas-chamber/oven was to deceive them. You cannot imagine the sheer terror these people must have felt as the canisters came down through the holes in the ceiling. Death took 15-20 minutes. People, crammed like sardines in the chamber, screamed, they choked, they clawed at the walls with their fingernails and shouted for God, their mothers or anyone else to help them.
Now picture what I experienced in that God-forsaken building. It is black and charred on the inside – you look up and see the hole. If you are with anyone, I guarantee you will hold their hand. You look at the wall and see the faint scratches where people have lost reason and tried to dig their way out in their death throes. You feel sick. You are confused. You are boiling over with rage. You have a lump in your throat. You see the ovens where the Sonderkommando would pile the bodies for burning. You are quickly led outside and you see, just a few metres away, the house of Kommandant Hoess, where his wife grew tomatoes and where he sat in his garden as people died. You want to die.
Then there is some retribution; you see the gallows outside his house where he was eventually hung after receiving the death sentence. There is some justice, but it pales in comparison to the killing that took place. Hoess remained unrepentant to his death – still firm in the belief that the Final Solution was justified and right. We will not go into the merits of why and who and what – no one can ever understand the warped Nazi ideology.

The biggest heartbreak of all
What really encapsulated the visit to Auschwitz for me personally was the visit to one of the blocks that features an exhibition of Jewish possessions. There was an urn containing human ashes, but still that did not have the same effect on me as seeing things that belonged to people just minutes before they were deceived and killed. Some knew about the gas – the vast majority didn’t. The Nazis told them that after their ‘showers’ they would be billeted and sent off to work for a better future. So they told them to mark all their bags, to tie their shoes together and to fold their belongings neatly so they could find them easily once they were ‘clean’.
I am known as a hard-nosed man who is not easily perturbed or drawn into a display of emotion. The first exhibit – hundreds and thousands of pairs of spectacles lying on top of each other – brought a lump to my throat. You are not allowed photographs and again I agree – it is too personal. As I fought back that rising lump, we were taken into another room where mounds and mounds of shaved locks were displayed – they were woven into cloth to line the boots of sailors. Now I had to swallow hard and without even wanting too, my fingertips brushed the glass. I cannot explain why. The last room leads you into an exhibit with thousands of vintage suitcases – each clearly marked, just as the Nazis had ordered. Jan from Amsterdam (with a Star of David), Jacek – Budapest… the list goes on and on. By now, many people were retiring into corners, wiping a tear or two from their eyes.
But nothing I have ever been through, witnessed in my time as a journalist or seen on television could prepare me for what came next: 40 thousand pairs of miniature shoes – and it hit me. They belonged to children. Tough as I am, I openly wept. And I was not the only one. Never in all my life have I ever felt such despair or tried to comprehend the depravity of which fellow humans could be capable. Beautiful little children, massacred, most separated from their parents and grandparents, tying their shoes together by their laces as they were told to by the Nazis.
I don’t know how long I stood there and I do not know what I felt. All I know is that as I write this, that lump returns to my throat. I feel disgusted at myself for all the times I have indulged in self-pity because of problems I have had to deal with. They mean nothing in the face of such slaughter, even all these decades later. I truly believe that I emerged from that room a different person. Life… death… Who are we? What are we? What are we capable of?
The last part of the visit was to Birkenau – the fully-fledged, designed from the onset, death camp. A train platform still stands, The Juden Ramp, where doctors took one look up and down and decided whether you lived or died. You pace up and down. You cannot believe what happened here. You cannot believe you are standing on the same ground where people decided to try and exterminate a race. You cannot believe that you are so lucky to be alive. You cannot believe… well, you simply cannot believe.
Those in denial, believers – it’s irrelevant. You can never speak about the Jews or the Holocaust without having lived through their experience. You cannot speak without having visited, without having seen this God-forsaken place. And there’s one other thing that sticks in my memory: there are trees and yet I didn’t hear one twitter of birdsong… This can never happen again.
One final thought – I have open admiration for the German people who visit the camp – it must take guts, as those who were there showed me on the day.

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