I wanted to write about something happy today. But the place that has haunted my thoughts the most since we passed through Poland is Auschwitz, and I feel as though I need to write about it, to talk about it.
We took a tiny mini bus out from Krakow, further than I thought. It was a cold day, and the bare forests that we drove through were misty, the trees ghostly and white, sparse skeletons. When we arrived outside the camp there were tour groups, busy and shouting, ready to be whipped past each heart wrenching sight. We tried to avoid them, ducking through the lines and making our way out into the camp.
Walking between the bare brick walls my skin prickled, as though the horror of that place was tangible, an a ominous hum beneath our feet. We entered one of the barracks, and instantly my eyes stung. Hundreds and hundreds of portraits lined the walls, each prisoner staring straight into the camera.
Those Polish men. Their faces were so similar in their bareness. Head shaved, ears naked, thin flesh hanging from their cheekbones. Most were defiant, but some were half smiling, whether brave or oblivious I couldn’t figure out.
We were told about the women beaten to death with guns to save bullets, and the children tied together and stacked six high, their small bodies slender enough for one bullet to extinguish each of their lives. Countless pairs of shoes were piled in one of the rooms, tiny and scuffed, loved for so long until the day they were no longer needed. The gas chambers silently echoed the screams of the thousands who had died there, scratching at the walls, frantic and terrified and wishing for their loved ones.
There were piles and piles of hair, shaven from each of the women and bundled into sacks for the Nazis to sell for profit. Amongst the sea of matted brown there was one blonde lock, curling in at the bottom. I think that hit me the hardest. I realised that each one of those locks was a life. These people were plucked from their homes and their families, pulled apart and shipped off, on nightmare trains to this place straight from hell.
What was most disturbing was the cold efficiency. German cars, trains and infrastructure are still meticulously built like that – flawless and efficient. The train tracks brought the prisoners straight to the centre of the camp, and at the end of the line were the gas chambers.
There was a mountain of black suitcases, each tagged meticulously and loudly with numbers and names, so desperate were the owners to receive them back again. They never got them back. The women and children walked straight from the train down that long road, and on the icy cold day that we were there I could almost see them, young mothers and the elderly, all trying to comfort the children and stop them from crying, while the Nazis screamed at them to move and angry dogs bit the ankles of the slow.
I imagined the men who could work, the young and fit, forced to walk the other way into the freezing wind, watching their wives and children disappear into the fog never to see them again. Those men worked themselves to death. The beds in the windowless barracks were tiny and infested, and hundreds died there each day. The barracks at Auschwitz-II stretched on forever, the distant barbed wire fence hardly visible under the grey, windswept sky.
There were photos of the emaciated corpses, and the live ones, still only bones after four months of intense treatment after the liberation. The worst were the photos of a little girl, aged only two, curled on her bed with wise eyes that looked at the camera with all the age and anguish of the world. She and her sisters were victims of the experiments of Dr Mengele. Four girls stand in another, placid and waiting for the photo. They are naked, and every rib is visible, their pelvis and pubic bones jut out from their bodies, the pale skin stretched taut across the empty weight. They are ten years old.
Tears fell constantly from my cheeks for the four hours, each sight wrenching more from somewhere. The atrocities are unfathomable, and the sheer numbers of the people killed, degraded, tortured, starved and worked to death churning my stomach, that angry disgust that starts in the back of your teeth.
I couldn’t understand why. I don’t think I ever will. But the faces of those Polish men, and the eyes of that little girl, they will stay with me forever.
To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. Here lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace.