People planning to visit us in Poland usually run their draft itinerary past me. And at some point, they almost all pause and sigh. “I suppose I should visit Auschwitz, shouldn’t I?” they ask. I always wonder how I should answer.
Should you visit Auschwitz?
Nazi concentration camps are certainly something you can choose to visit when you’re in this part of the world. The Second World War began with the Nazi invasion of Poland, and several towns in Poland have found their names transformed into some of the most chilling words in the world’s history books: Auschwitz. Birkenau. Treblinka. Majdanek.
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I visited Auschwitz. I walked under the arch marked “arbeit macht frei”, a cruel trick of the Nazis to make people think that they could actually be freed if they just worked hard enough. I filed past the cases filled with hair, shoes, suitcases, and silverware. Removed, collected together and catalogued with inhuman precision. Each item with a history. My eyes pick out a high heeled garden party sandal. Red. Someone, somewhere, packed it in a little case once and imagined wearing it again in the summer. Instead, it ended up here. Where’s its pair?
I visited Birkenau. Its rows and rows of wooden barracks that once housed thousands upon thousands of men, women and children, who had paid bills, learned the violin and shopped for new dresses. Most went on to be herded into huge, cold, concrete buildings that were pumped full of poisonous gas, and left to die a horrible, painful death. By other humans, who enjoyed good wine, had a pet dog and worried about their daughter’s new boyfriend. In many ways, also normal people. What would I have done, if I’d been asked to do these things?
I visited Majdanek. Only a few barracks here are left; most have been destroyed. The rest of the site is now a large open field, just a few minutes from the middle of the regional centre of Lublin. You can see it from the top of the town hall tower. Did people not realize what was going on? Here in their own backyards?
I wandered around in the slight drizzle, through fields of green grass and dandelions. I came to the old crematorium, where they burned the bodies. To make ash for the fertiliser that has helped the grass to be so green and the dandelions to grow. And to warm water to heat the showers. The ghosts feel strong here. There’s still ash in the crematorium ovens. The wind stirs and some dust gets into my nose.
I visited Treblinka. It’s about an hour from Warsaw. A fake train station greeted the arrivals, including time-tables, a ticket counter and even a clock. It was fake, too. A guard set the hands before every arrival. People from all over the country arrived, undressed, and in most cases were immediately taken to chambers where they were gassed with carbon monoxide. The stench of the rotting bodies could be smelt for 10 kilometres. Why have my travels taken me here now, and not then?
Much of this 50 hectare site has been reforested. The day I went it was winter and the snow lay deep on the ground. The birch trees held the mist over the land. The whole area seemed peaceful, quiet. Beautiful even. I walked around the memorial, but I couldn’t feel it. The anguish of those arriving. The horror of what happened here. How can somewhere like this be so peaceful? Shouldn’t you feel the evil always?
There’s virtually no trace of the camp left today. The Nazis bulldozed the whole site and ploughed it into the ground. Then they built a house and installed a Ukrainian family and some cows there. As though that’s how it had always been. And when the Red Cross inspectors came, the Nazis said, “Death camp? What death camp?”
I thought of my own husband. What would we have done, if it had been us? Would he have left me to fight? Would we have tried to stay together, no matter what? Why have we been lucky enough never to have to find out?
Should you visit Auschwitz?
Some questions just have no good answer.