In Krakow, Poland, it is difficult to ignore the weft of history that threads itself throughout the city’s sprawling market square and cobblestone backstreets that have weathered the ravages of World War II. The autumn days I spent there were mostly wet and bitingly cold, but on an uncharacteristically sunny day, my friends and I decided to visit Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp and memorial centre. It does not only have a binding tie to Krakow – located sixty kilometres away as a former Nazi capital – but all its past horrors have also cemented its place in world history.
The Road to Auschwitz
On the hour-long bus ride there, an image occurred to me: a tight close-up of a Sonderkommando’s impassive expression in the film Son of Saul as he slowly went mad from burning the bodies of victims as a camp prisoner. Another image I was forever haunted by was the ceilings of gas chambers scratched out by the fingernails of victims in the documentary Night and Fog. In Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night, he wrote, “The truth of Auschwitz remains hidden in its ashes.”
CC BY 2.0 | @hnijssen
In my mind, I had already visited Auschwitz before. There are reams of words and reels of film I’ve read and seen that have shaded my impression of Auschwitz even before I have ever stepped foot into its campgrounds. Visiting Auschwitz was a way for me to see if I could find within the austere red brick buildings a glimpse of understanding – fleeting but indelible – of the horrors that have occurred there. Was it even possible for me as a tourist – from a city so far away and a culture so distant and foreign to this place – to attempt to understand what had happened here?
A Heavy Entrance
While making our way towards the entrance, we passed by a field of grass on which lay a blanket of dew sparkling in the morning sun. The weather seemed almost to be a flagrant offence against the sombre mood that our visit to the Auschwitz site required.
Why do we often visit sites associated with death and mass suffering?
As we waited for our guided English tour to begin, I cast an eye upon the hordes of tourists alighting from tour buses. Auschwitz is a popular destination among tourists in Poland, but it can be jarring to confront the reality of it being a mass graveyard where more than a million people were murdered during the Second World War. We quickly got a jolt of this reality as we passed silently under the “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” sign that marks the entrance to Auschwitz I, a chilling German slogan that translates in English to “Work sets you free”.
A Labyrinth of Pain
The Auschwitz site is split into two sections: Auschwitz I, where the camp administration was headquartered and where the central jail for prisoners was located; and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where prisoners – mostly Jewish deportees from all over German-occupied Europe – were exterminated en masse in gas chambers.
Wandering inside the labyrinthine complexes of the camp, we saw remnants of history that had been scrupulously recorded and exhibited by the museum in tribute to the immense suffering that had occurred.
CC BY 2.0 | @kukuborsuku0
I shuffled through each room, collecting more images to add to my understanding of Auschwitz.
The photographs were lining the walls in which starving women stared blankly back at me, their bones jutting rudely from their bodies and giving an appearance of such naked vulnerability that it seemed only polite to look away after a few seconds.
There were the narrow standing cells in the basement that supposedly crammed in four prisoners at once so that they could only manage to stand – a space that appeared claustrophobic and visibly haunted when my friends and I encountered it. We exchanged looks and later described how it had sent chills down our spines.
In a bare subterranean cell, we found ourselves standing in a gas chamber that had been converted from a bunker. Adjacent to it was another bunker that was taken up by large brick ovens, the dimensions of which I caught myself measuring in my head to check if they were roughly the same as that of human bodies. There was a sign informing us to maintain a respectful silence, but it was clear that there was no need for it. Apart from our soft-spoken tour guide, the rest of us were mostly speechless in the face of such clinical and cruel objectification of human life. The chambers were barren, but the air felt heavy and stifling.
The iconic gatehouse at the Auschwitz II-Birkenau site earned a terrifying reputation as the ‘Gate of Death’ by camp prisoners during World War II / CC BY 2.0 | @anneileino
After the Guided Tour
We spent the entire day at the Auschwitz site, returning to the first camp to see the other exhibits that had not been included during the guided tour. By then, the sunlight had grown harsh, and the railway tracks and wooden prison huts seemed to be laid bare before us in the mid-afternoon glare.
I had accumulated a thick stack of images in my mind’s eye, the quiet horror of which had left me utterly drained at the end of the day. Many of the exhibits were aimed at driving home the reality of what had happened so that while I found the attention to detail highly educational and informative, the unsparing meticulousness – while necessary to memorialize acts of war – also seemed excessive at times. I was exhausted, but this did not detract from the fact that visiting the Auschwitz site had been a profoundly moving and valuable personal experience.
A reconstruction of a train car that transported deportees into the campsite at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. / CC BY 2.0 | @MrsBrown
A Painful Amber To Burn Forever in One’s Mind
The weight of history underpins every corner of the Auschwitz site, parts of it having been reconstructed from the ashes of time. As a tourist, I understood that I would probably never come close to fully grasping the depth and breadth of the crimes committed here, but the Auschwitz site lends testament to humankind’s capacity for cruelty so that we shall never forget it and make the grave mistake of repeating it.
And so in my mind, I continue to reconstruct an image of this history, again and again, drawing parallels between my visit and the art I’d experienced in light of it. In Night and Fog, the documentary I’d seen before my visit, the closing lines of the film continue to reverberate, like history itself:
Those who pretend all this happened only once,
At a certain time and in a certain place.
Those who refuse to look around them,
Deaf to the endless cry.