|Entrance to Auschwitz-Birkeanu|
(source: Wiki Commons)
Sitting down to write about Auschwitz-Birkenau is hard. I’ve been putting it off all week -- where do you begin?
It is not a place that can be expressed by words. I’d been thinking for a long time before I went about what to write -- maybe about the horror of the place. I expected to be horrified.
But, after going, it was not as simple as that -- not as simple as opening a Word Document and writing.
Sitting in a PRS classroom, we learn all the facts, all the figures, but how can we imagine it? 1.3 million people were murdered there. 90% of them were Jews. We know about the brutal, systematic murdering but we can’t begin to understand it. It is only when you are there that it really begins to take on meaning beyond some long-ago historical awfulness.
Auschwitz teaches you many things: about evil, about war, about how the world is not just black and white but grey, about how the worst things that can happen have been done by men to other men. It leaves you reeling.
|guards at Auschwitz|
It teaches you that these things were not done by the evil, ugly men of German Nazi cartoons, but by men who looked like Ralph Fiennes. It was done by a man in an office planning how many people could be killed by a tablet. Somebody was told to design the gas chambers. A man had to design the poster hung up in the shower room that in 5 different languages told the prisoners not to panic. A man had to organise the train timetabling for the Jews, a man had to design prisoners' uniforms. This is what Auschwitz teaches you -- that it wasn’t just Hitler and his ministers deciding and executing, but thousands of people completing their orders.
As more and more Holocaust survivors are dying, the truth of the Holocaust is going with them. The Holocaust is being edited into this more palatable Hollywood version: Good vs Evil, Hitler vs the Rest, but it wasn’t like that. This is what Auschwitz reminds you.
What took place in Auschwitz was far worse than any classroom or book can teach you and that is why you should visit -- it teaches you a lesson that you cannot learn from a slideshow. And that lesson is different for every single person who walks through the infamous entrance to the death camp. That is why you should visit Auschwitz.
The thing about Auschwitz is that a place that commemorates death makes you feel alive. It makes you realise how small and how insignificant your humanity is but how important it is that you are humane. It makes you realise how fragile life is and that the worst things in the world are both nuclear bombs and guns --the worst thing is what a man can do to another man. That is why you should visit Auschwitz.
|Men, women and children imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau|
Auschwitz makes you appreciative. It makes you grateful for everything --grateful for warm clothes and for never having to want for much, it makes you grateful for a good dinner and good friends and listening to slightly rubbish music through broken earphones on a bus. Auschwitz makes you fully thankful that you are having these experiences, even the tiny little ones, and makes you cherish them that bit more. On the day I visited Auschwitz, the sky was beautiful. At first I felt superficial and silly for noticing and then realised that visiting had made me more appreciative of the sky, something so small that I would normally look at and then dismiss -- and that’s a good thing. That is the importance of Auschwitz --it teaches you how to be a little bit more alive, it makes you notice. It makes you change in ways you don't fully understand. That is why you should visit Auschwitz.
When I get to the exit of Auschwitz-Birkeanu, I have to turn around fully to see the whole place for a last time. Auschwitz is too big for the eye to taken in all at once, bigger than the horizon, staggering out into the distance. It is pitiful and disgusting and rotting, barracks bent in on themselves against the prettiness of the gleaming flickers of salmon-coloured clouds in the grey expense of the sky.