We started with the main camp, Auschwitz. Simply by walking into the camp I could feel a chill wash over my entire body; I was extremely aware of the hairs on the back of my neck and the curvature of each individual vertebrae of my spine. Perhaps it was caused by my personal anticipation but the eery chill of death seemed almost tangible to me. We were given headphones to wear so that the tour was almost completely silent, except for the soft murmur of the tour guides speaking into their microphones.
Walking through the gates under the intentionally ironic words 'ARBEIT MACHT FREI' (WORK MAKES YOU FREE) I tried to imagine how the place may have looked in the 1940s, though to little avail. Although the atmosphere was sombre, there is a stark contrast between the silence of respect and the silence of fear. The crunch of the gravel underfoot wasn't march like but pensive - every step was as careful as each person's silent contemplation. The looming bunkers had no character, no personality. They stood in rows, mirroring the uniformity of the prisoners who were contained inside them, staring at the passersby, a constant reminder of the insignificance of an individual under the looming presence of a powerful and oppressive regime.
At first I was too overwhelmed to even think, but after a while, as the initial shock subsided a little, I was able to fully digest what I was witnessing. My first reaction was anger, though surprisingly not at those who had carried out the crimes. It was at myself, for not being able to shed a tear at what I was seeing. I stared desperately at a case containing clothes fit for babies no older than three to six months old, but I seemed to feel nothing. Hundreds of suitcases piled high, one inscribed with 'Petr, KIND' (Peter, child) along with a birthday that made him no more than four years old when he was undoubtedly murdered. Nothing. A cabinet containing uncountable numbers of walking sticks, false legs and wheelchairs. Still nothing. What was wrong with me?
I walked outside and sat down in the glaring sunlight to try and figure out what was going on. 'It's almost too shocking to be sad. You just don't want to believe it's real.', Mitch breathed as he sat beside me. In that instant I realised what was going on in my mind. I wasn't numb to what I was seeing. Of course I was sad, angry, bitter, frustrated but all of this was buried under the utter bewilderment which I was experiencing. The society and people which I have come to know is so far removed from what happened during the Holocaust it was completely impossible for me to understand how those people must have felt. I also found myself contemplating the mental state of those who seemed to believe that they had the right to murder and torture and destroy so many lives. That was the only way I could begin to comprehend the logic behind their actions, they must have been utterly convinced of their right to harm, their superiority over these 'lesser beings'. Even that is difficult for me to fathom. How can one human believe he/she is better than another? That is something I will never be able to understand.
A corridor inside one of the bunkers was plastered from floor to ceiling with photographs of the prisoners, with a brief description of their name, identification number, previous career, date of admission into the camp and the date they died. However what caught my attention were their eyes. Some full of fear, some forced courage but all had lost sparkle with only an empty void of sadness which pierced a hole straight through me. And whether it be terror or determination that accompanied that sadness seemed to have little impact on survival. Most died within a few months, whilst some lived much longer. Which caused me to question whether I would fight for survival or whether the fight would be too much for me? Giving up isn't exactly in my nature but then my nature wasn't developed through extreme torture and degradation. I'm glad I'm lucky enough that I will never discover the answer.
Once inside the gas chambers, I found it difficult to do anything except stand and stare. Looking at the glittering display of candles, flowers and prayer cards at the back of the room, I realised I couldn't possibly put faith in a God that allowed this to happen. Real or not, it would seem that Him and I disagree drastically on certain issues. I placed my hand over one of the handmarks on the wall which had been clawed at in anguish, during an innocents last moments of life. I wanted to be there for them so badly, jump in a time machine, shoot Hilter in the face and hold them, saying that everything was going to turn out fine. But I can't. I can only think about now and work towards the future. Never will I watch suffering and turn a blind eye; terrible things are still happening all over the world from which captives need to be set free and I can only hope that I'll do my best to improve these situations. I promised this to the scarred wall, whilst gently tracing the indentations with the tips of my fingers and finally dragged myself back outside.
The second camp, Birkenau, displayed how the Nazis were able to murder such huge numbers of people. The sheer expanse of the place was mind-blowing. Bunker after bunker lined up in the baking sun, but even the beautiful weather seemed overshadowed by the darkness seeping up from the very ground on which we were walking. The stench of murder, pain and desperation was almost too much for me. I was so full of questions with no one to answer them for me.
My visit taught me two valuable and conflicting lessons. Humanity can be both dangerous and inspiring. Despite the disgusting and atrocious actions which took place at Auschwitz, the beauty of humanity was never completely destroyed. We heard stories of twelve men who gave their lives so that three could escape and a priest called Maximillian who voluntarily took another's place and was starved for two weeks before receiving a lethal injection as a result of his compassion. And the man who's place he took? He lived until 1996. So in a weird way, I learned that despite branding, torture, humiliation, sarvation and a whole host of other degrading and debilitating treatments, some hope still survived. And once again, I can't even begin to comprehend how this was possible, I only know that it is an incredible and inspiring thing.
So would I recommend a visit to Auschwitz? I could say it's not for the faint hearted though I managed it. I'll let you decide for yourselves, as each reaction and interpretation is so individual, it is impossible for me to determine. I'm glad I went though.