VISITING AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU 75 YEARS AFTER ITS LIBERATION
At least 1.1 million people lost their lives at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but that figure is expected to be closer to 2 million. It's a diabolical place that should not exist and photography felt uncomfortable. As survivors dwindle, and antisemitism rises, we all have a duty to ensure this never happens again.
The iconic sign states in German: "work sets you free". It leads into what is known as Auschwitz 1. The concentration camp, which essentially means killing people slowly through inhumane conditions, served two basic functions in its history. From 1940 it held Polish and political prisoners. From 1942 the extermination of Jews, and other ethnic minorities. Its purpose was to eradicate the entire Jewish population from across Europe.
Having not 'Googled' before visiting, my preconception was of a ruined camp. In my mind there were scenes of rubble piled high. I was wrong. Gradually you begin to realise the scale of the operation that took place.
Many of the buildings now home parts of the museum. Some buildings have clearly labelled functions. Others merely support ominous numbers.
A maze of barbed wire separates buildings, with guard posts looking down the main straights. Of the 200 or so people who managed to escape Auschwitz, none of these escapes are known to have taken place inside the camp.
For disobedience, and minor offences, captives could be hung outside of the kitchen building. It's in full view of the camp.
Before the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi's blew up the gas chambers at Birkenau. The chamber at Auschwitz still exists. Zyklon B (cyanide) would be dropped into the chamber from a small hatch in the roof, killing 700 people in 25 minutes. Inside the chamber, on the left, is a crematorium - the ceiling is still black from soot. I stood in the chamber and could only bring myself to take this outside photograph. Anything else felt wrong.
The courtyard was a separated permanently sealed section run by the S.S. Political prisoners would be sentenced to death and shot at this wall. Nobody knows exactly how many people were killed here. One guard boasted to have killed 20,000 people alone. Underground is a maze of starvation rooms, along with rooms where gassings were experimented as a means of mass murder.
Leaving Auschwitz 1, you are taken to Birkenau (Auschwitz 2). The true scale of the Nazi's killing operation becomes apparent. It's unbelievable and has honestly scarred my mind. Personally though, it was crucial for me to visit, as it brought home the reality of history.
The scale of Birkenau is jaw-dropping. Each of these ruins were huts, housing captives 3 bunks high across each wall, with each bunk holding up to 8 people. This is one small corner of the camp, and these ruins stretch as far as your eyes can see.
People were kept in inhospitable conditions. Of the few who survive today, they somehow managed to live two years in these conditions. This is a barren part of Poland, where temperatures used to reach -20c in the winter, -10c inside.
Whilst freezing in the winter, apparently Summer was worse. Disease would break out as captives lived in their own squaller. Those who became sick died or were killed.
In some of the photographs you'll see lighting rigs, preparing for today's (Monday 27 Jan 2020) memorial service.
Rusty buckets, buried in the ground. Captives used these buckets for everything - including the toilet.
Some huts were toilet facilities, if you can call them that.
Close up to ruins of a wooden hut, chimney stacks balance precariously.
The white tent in the distance is where the memorial service is being held. It covers the infamous view of the guard tower that overlooks the railway and the camp. There was no hiding here. Or living.
This is the railway that carried mostly Jewish people to their deaths. They didn't realise this at the time. They thought they were being re-homed. In lines, people were divided; those on the left were sent immediately to the gas chambers. Those on the right would work, and eventually die.
Hundreds of thousands of people walked down this road to their deaths. It's incredibly moving and unbearable - even standing at the start of this road, it's impossible to comprehend what happened here.
Birkenau had three gas chambers. Two are on the edges of the site, one is further into the woods. All were destroyed just before Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. Above you can see the destroyed ruins of two chambers, representing at least 400,000 deaths.
Although destroyed, it's still possible to understand the structures of the gas chambers. This area was the undressing room, before people walked into the main chamber. Disinfection or showers were often given as reasons. The scale is difficult to witness.
Our tour guide mentioned that this railway track is symbolic of 'the end'. It marked the end of people's lives and the conclusion of the Nazi's killing machine.
We should never forget that the atrocities that happened here were less than a lifetime ago. It happened whilst my grandad (still alive) was evacuated from London, whilst my wife's grandad (still alive) was fighting with his company. 200 Auschwitz survivors are visiting the site today as I'm writing this.
This place wasn't the result of a few corrupt people. It was state-sanctioned and supported by private companies.
We all have a duty to fight against the beliefs and hatred that built this place. I'll never forget.