So, this weekend we went to Krakow. We had a great time, usual stuff, lots of cocktails. But that's not a write-up which needs writing; we've done it all before.
We also went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and this is something which does bear writing about.
The Holocaust is something I've been aware of in detail since I did my GCSEs, as Hitler's rise to power and the Final Solution formed part of the syllabus. We saw some pretty gruesome footage and photographs as part of our studies, but it's something which sits in your brain as a horrible thing but somewhat removed from 'real life'. Actually being there made it very, very real. And the true horror is that this is something which happened less than 65 years ago.
The first Auschwitz camp with the famous 'Arbeit Macht Frei'
sign ('Work will make you free') initially doesn't feel particularly horrifying - it was originally barracks built for Polish soldiers and the avenues between are lined with trees
- but as you move through each barrack building you see how the SS converted and adapted the camp to degrade, torture and eventually kill their prisoners. 'Standing cells' just 90cm square designed for 4 people to spend their nights in - unable to sit or lie down, unable to go to the bathroom, crawling with lice and filth. Suffocation cells - rooms which could perhaps accommodate three people comfortably being used for 30-40 inmates, ensuring that overnight many expired from lack of oxygen.
In Barrack 16 there is an exhibition of items recovered from Auschwitz which materially demonstrated what had been done to those incarcerated there. Women's hair, removed after gassing. About 50,000 women in one room. The Nazis sold it off to be used as cloth, or mattress stuffing. Nothing wasted. Thousands of pairs of shoes, thousands of suitcases, glasses, hairbrushes and other personal effects. There aren't really any words to cover how this makes you feel. If you bought second-hand gold jewellery in Germany in the last 60-odd years, there's every chance it was made from melted down gold teeth, torn from newly-gassed mouths.
Between 16 and 17, cordoned off from the other barracks, there's an execution wall
. Thousands of men, women and children were lined up here and shot in the back, for minute infractions of the many rules of the camp. Most of the time for no reason at all.
Rudolf Höss and his family maintained a house just outside the camp
, and right next to it now stands the gallows from which he was hanged
. Of the 8,000 Gestapo/SS officers who were involved with running the concentration camps, only 700 were ever captured. Some are possibly still alive.
Auschwitz II- Birkenau is a whole other experience. It stretches as far as the eye can see
and was purpose built - along with many other camps - to exterminate the Jewish population in Europe. Individuals who had been identified as scapegoats for Germany's economic woes. The cattle cars would arrive
and thousands of families were torn apart - many sent immediately to the gas chambers. Those who were deemed able to work were used as slave labour.
People often write that they were treated like animals. I disagree - most people treat animals well. These were treated like people whom the Nazis wanted to break, degrade and humiliate. And when that ceased to be entertaining, they were murdered. If they survived the selection, some were sent to be live subjects for Mengele's experiments. Many people threw themselves on the electrified fences
in order to end the suffering.
How many of these places are you even aware of? Dachau? Bergen-Belsen? That's probably where my knowledge ended before this weekend.
Auschwitz I (Oświęcim)
Auschwitz II (Birkenau / Brzezinka)
Auschwitz III (Monowitz / Monowice)
Blechhammer (Arbeitslager Blechhammer)
Budy [clarification needed]
Chorzów (Arbeitslager Bismarckshütte)
Czechowice-Dziedzice (Tschechowitz I & II)
Jaworzno (Arbeitslager Neu-Dachs)
Lędziny (Arbeitslager Günthergrube)
Libiaz Maty (Janinagrube)
Lagiewniki Slaskie (Hohenlinde, Hubertushütte)
Lagisza Cmentarna (Lagischa)
Rydultowy (Arbeitslager Charlottegrube)
Stara Kuźnia (Althammer)
Świętochłowice (Arbeitslager Eintrachtshütte)
None of us can come close to imagining the horror of what those people suffered. Not even close.