The last country on our European road-trip, before we head east to Beijing, is Poland. I’m very excited to see Krakow and meet Mira’s parents in Katowice, however before that we’re going to visit a place I’ve wanted to see for a long time… Auschwitz.
Despite what you’ve heard, or read, despite the huge number of students and tourists, nothing can prepare you for Auschwitz.
Originally an army barracks for the Polish, it became operational as a concentration camp for Polish POWs in 1940 as Nazi Germany annexed South-West Poland. Political prisoners, its inmates were largely well educated, and included doctors and scientists as well as politicians. The first exterminations at the camp took place in September 1941, and Jewish prisoners began arriving in their thousands from early 1942 as part of the Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish question”
Walking around Auschwitz 1 the photos of inmates with their date of arrival and death are extremely harrowing, but for me the room where 2 tonnes of human hair – that’s 80,000 scalps worth – makes the horror real. The possessions and suitcases further make the point.
Birkenau is the iconic site, where Sonderkommando units collected the bodies of their fellow countrymen and friends, incinerated them and crushed the bones to ash after Nazi doctors had killed them with Zyklon B, a pesticide developed in the US prior to the war.
Sometimes close to tears, I’m left astonished that only 70 years ago the most unthinkably nightmarish acts were being carried out by humans on humans in their millions.
Saddening though it is, I highly recommend a trip to Auschwitz for anyone visiting Poland. It’s a powerful reminder of the worst that humans have been capable of and just how lucky we are today.