The main gate to Auschwitz I. The sign reads "Arbeit macht frei" - Work sets you free
Auschwitz is not a place to be visited lightly. The site of the former Nazi extermination camp in Oświęcim, Poland, is a haunting place. Having succumbed to modern-day tourism, Auschwitz sees people of all nationalities come to pay their respects. Walking around the site of Auschwitz I, I found myself mentally detached from the scale of the murder that occured on the ground upon which I walked. Bubbling beneath the surface were millions of screaming ghosts and I chose not to listen to them. It was a natural defense mechanism, one which I think most people would adopt when visiting a place like this. But when I glimpsed a young girl's pony tail on top of a pile of human hair, a shock ran through me. An innocent child, naked, head shaved, had then been pushed into a room with thousands of others and gassed with hydrogen cyanide.
A prisoner barracks behind the fence at Auschwitz I
Then, looking into the eyes of a sixteen year old Jewish girl, her photo placed on the museum wall, tears welling in her eyes as the officers yelled at her to keep still - my defenses crumbled. I found myself unable to control the shield I had raised and it hit me like a wave. I couldn't look in her eyes. Her face was stuck in my head. I had to leave. But, it wasn't over. We went to the "death wall", where thousands of prisoners were shot after having been undressed, shaking in fear, knowing what would be coming next. Hooks on posts were used for hanging prisoners by their arms, until their joints dislocated and they'd be useless for work, then executed. Standing cells with tiny doors where four prisoners were crammed, exhausted, hungry. The starvation cell. The suffocation cell. Millions of individual life stories extinguished. Children. Disabled. Minorities. Elderly. The defenceless. The inhumanity of it all. How can we be capable of something so evil?
In front of the electrified barbed-wire fences at Auschwitz I
The end of the railway line at Auschwitz II - Birkenau is the literal end of the line, where the wagons packed with people were unloaded, herded into the undressing room and immediately gassed. Prisoners were forced to cremate their own in the thousands. An inscription in English, "For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity". May it never happen again. But it has. Serbia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur and more. What the hell is wrong with us? The guide put it like this: "one group of people decided that they were better than others."
The English language memorial plaque at Auschwitz-Birkenau
But aren't we all guilty of that? Are we as a race hardwired for genocide? It's easy to write the Nazi Germans off as psychotic killers. But the truth is, the majority of them were normal men following orders. Remember that.
Empathy is a necessary human attribute. Auschwitz proved to be too much for me to handle. Others may say it didn't affect them like they thought it would. Maybe the presentation was too dry, or the guide not motivating enough. Maybe there was too much reading to do. However, if at least one person on that day exercised their empathy and left educated, disgusted, angry, sad - then the memorial served its purpose. May this never happen again.
"Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it."
The end of the line at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where once stood the entrance to the gas chamber
All photos taken by the author and are subject to Raoow!'s Creative Commons license.