Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau

I’m glad I went to Auschwitz. I’m still processing what I saw, what I heard. Most of you will know the histories of the dreadful death camps.

The weather was appalling today. Double speed windscreen wipers on the way there. I was cold and wet. But I was well-clothed and shod, I’d had a good breakfast, and soon I’d be warm and dry. The inmates of Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau had their one and only pair of never-washed louse-infested pyjamas and next to no food inside them. They wouldn’t be going somewhere cosy for a change of clothes and a nice hot drink in a couple of hours.

I’ll just share two vignettes. Imagine a long narrow room, with a display case on each side running the length of the room. Each is filled with human hair. This hair comes from the heads of women and girls exterminated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. A very small proportion of the total. This is the hair of some 80,000 women.

In the next, similar room are shoes. Thousands of shoes. They belonged to some of the thousands of murdered Jews.

I took no photos in Auschwitz. It seemed disrespectful to take snapshots of those glimpses of real lives, real tragedies. I’ll just include one familiar image of Auschwitz-Birkenau, with the train lines which transported people to their almost certain deaths.

I’m glad to have gone because I left with a certain feeling of optimism. The custodians of these camps and the guides who bring those dreadful days back to life are passionate about sharing the stories, to try to make sure, against the odds, that they are never repeated. Our young guide told us he had been trained by an Auschwitz survivor. He clearly saw his job as no ordinary responsibility.

Today, and every single day, thousands of visitors take these lessons away with them.

My visit there does deserve a more considered post. Just – not yet.

37 thoughts on “Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau”

  1. I’ve been thinking about you today. Very touching that the young guide was ‘trained’ by a survivor. Can’t help wondering what the training entailed.
    Big hugs. Xxxx

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  2. I had the impression that it was training as we all understand it with the incomparable difference that he was with people who knew, in a way he could never totally understand, what it was like. It made this young man truly passionate. This has been quite an emotional holiday. Well, ‘holiday’ may not be the right word. Thanks for the hugs! Xxx

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  3. I visited Auschwitz this year also. And like you I found out that it is somehow disrespectful to take pictures in face of so much sadness. The pictures never really portray what a person feels beeing in there and imagining oneself in the place of those who died. Thank you for posting.

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  4. We visited the Anne Frank House whilst in Amsterdam last week. It was hard to know quite how to feel there, because in some ways hers is an inspiring story of survival: the two years they managed to live successfully in hiding in the Secret Annex, and the fact that her diary survived and has been so influential. But then, of course, it turned into a story of betrayal and separation and certain death. Her father Otto survived Auschwitz, but he was the only one.

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      1. I understand. The news of the present seems like a foreshadowing of the past. That’s why optimism is so important – if we can’t see and believe in something better, it’s harder to find it.

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  5. I can understand the difficulty in writing about these places. A visit to Buchenwald over 25 years ago has not been forgotten not least my shock at its proximity to Weimar less than seven miles away. After the overnight election results and the shocking news that the AfD now has seats, more than ever the lessons of history are needed. Optimism and hope is in short supply indeed.

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  6. I’m not sure whether I agree that death would be preferable to surviving but based on the experiences of a late family friend I believe there was a lot of survivor guilt and permanent mental scarring, and that was from a POW camp, not a death camp (although some of her closest family died there). She went on to be reunited with her fiance, to marry and have a family and was one of the most interesting, generous and occasionally acerbic women I have known. That’s just one instance of course so it would be wrong to generalise. I admire you for going and I’m glad you took something positive away from the experience. Linda x

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  7. You’ve been on my mind – the Holocaust is unthinkable. How could humans perpetrate such a crime against humanity? We have a Holocaust Museum in our area – it’s small but it serves the purpose of remembering the past so the past does not repeat itself. In my visits to our museum I’ve learned that of the 6 million Jewish people who were murdered in the Holocaust, over 3 million were from Poland. Visiting Auschwitz is on my list of things I want to do in my lifetime. I hope you are able to see the beauty of Poland after seeing the worst. Enjoy your trip and teh days you have remaining enjoying Poland. Peace.

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  8. You were brave to go and brave to write about it–what to say, really?? How does one do justice to such horror in mere words? I’m encouraged by the tack you took–looking for the positive and optimistic in such a forlorn place . . .

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    1. It’s strange how I did feel positive as I came away. As we left, we passed the crowds waiting to go in, chatting among themselves.
      We were all totally silent, reflecting on what we’d seen.
      I think that says it all.

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  9. Margaret, you have captured the solemnity and magnitude of your visit and I thank you for it. I can’t know if I would have made this visit had I the opportunity. I’d like to think that I would, but who can tell until the chance is presented? You have given me cause to reflect.

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