Auschwitz: Place of sighs and silence
Every year, around 1,300,000 people walk through the iron gate of Auschwitz, which chillingly reads “Arbeit macht frei” (loosely translating to “work sets you free”). This seven-digit number is lower than the number of Holocaust victims who lost their lives there in the most inhumane of ways.
The hour-long trip from the pretty centre of Krakow was a mix of emotions. Besides recovering from the Polish vodka and beer-tasting tour I attended five hours prior, the minivan I was on was filled with American tourists who seemed to be playing a game of Trivial Pursuit, category: “German history facts”.
Nevertheless, both recovery and silence came upon reaching the sign, and the tour guide’s words, together with the exhibit, silenced us for the remainder of the day. Just like the paradoxical statements that brainwashed London in the world of George Orwell’s “1984”, “Arbeit macht frei” instilled a sense of hope in the millions of victims who entered, believing that hard labour might liberate them.
The victims, who consisted mainly of Jews but also included Polish political prisoners, Soviet prisoners of war and gypsies, were told by the Nazis to pack their valuable possessions as they were being given a chance for a better life in a place where they would find work. This lie would provide the motivation that would drive the victims to unknowingly pack their things and embark the “death trains”. Due to lack of food and water and suffocation, some people would even die on the way to the concentration camp.
The rest, who still believed that they were travelling to “a better place”, had their valuables seized upon arrival at the camp and were then assigned to different categories. The majority of the women and children were sent straight to the gas chambers and told simply that they were going to “shower and wash” after the long journey, while the majority of the men were immediately sent to work. The healthier you looked, the better you were for work, the guide told us, meaning the greater your chance of survival was. For that reason, when women and children were being selected for work, mothers used to pinch their children’s cheeks to look make them look healthier and full of colour.
Merely hearing these stories sends shivers down one’s spine. We made our way forward in a profound silence through the different blocks of the site. We entered a number of halls, each of which was about the length of two buses positioned side by side. Mountains of human hair filled one exhibition case that ran the length of the hall, hair that had been shaven off the victims, weaved into material and sold. Other hall-long displays showed heaps of spectacles, shoes, artificial limbs, children’s clothes and toys and the victims’ luggage, which was lovingly packed in the hope of a fresh start.
Although the piles of belongings shocked me because they so blatantly portrayed the magnitude of the situation, what I found even more moving were the stories about each individual, which allow visitors to “get to know” the victims on a more personal level.
We walked through a hall which, from top to bottom, was covered in portraits of the victims. The photographs were taken upon the arrival of the victims, before they discovered the reality of their new lives. They all looked happy and excited, both young and old, varying from carpenters to doctors. Our eyes moved from each victim’s name, to his smiling face, to his date of death, one similar to that of many others.
We toured the crematorium and the dormitories, where each victim shared his bed with seven others. We went to the gas showers and walked along the railway track. All the while, the group remained speechless and teary-eyed.
The American tourists did not utter a word on our way back to the centre of Krakow. Everyone just stared out of their window in disbelief as we drove by the fields back to our (perhaps, over-) comfortable lives, the very same fields that the millions of victims watched roll past their windows, just as hopeful as we were for a better life.