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A Trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Entrance to Auschwitz I - For all who gone through the suffering here the journey stated with the biggest lie "Arbeit Macht Frei" which means "Work Will Free You"

There is a wealth of information on the holocaust, you read it in your history books, you watch documentaries and movies, and you may even have had the chance to hear from survivors or their lineage. But to provide some context here is an extremely brief and simplified information.

Since their rise to power in 1933, the Nazis built a systematic and organized set up of detention facilities for "enemies of the state." Starting from 110 camps in 1933, the Nazis went on to established about 42,500 camps until 1945. There were nearly 3,000 camps in Berlin alone. These included camps for slave labour, prisoners of war and concentration camps. Concentration camps” were called so, because the prisoners were physically ‘concentrated’ in one location.

During the early days the prisoners in the concentration camps were mainly German Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, Roma Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and persons accused of ‘undesirable’ social behaviour.

There were over 20 main camps, and each had subcamps, bringing the total to close to 1000. Of these, the major concentration camps were Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and Treblinka. The Nazis even went on to give these camps ‘positive’ names like ‘care facilities for foreign children’, or “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work will set you free) while making them more and more efficient systems of mass murder.

The term Auschwitz-Birkenau refers to a network of Nazi concentration and labour camps, established near the Polish city of Oswiecim.

Picture taken at Auschwitz I - Map of the largest German concentration camp comprising Auschwitz I and Birkenau or Auschwitz II

Picture taken at Auschwitz I - This shows a rough estimate of deported Jews, prisoners of war and people from other ethnic groups. In reality the numbers are much higher.

Initially, the camp was set up as a prison for Poles protesting German rule. When the plans for the camp were approved, the Nazi’s changed the name of the area to Auschwitz. The construction of the camp started in 1940. The resident Poles in vicinity of the barracks were evicted or executed and members of the Jewish community of Oswiecim were forced into the construction work. Initially it was one camp which was later called Auschwitz I, the second camp was built roughly 2 miles from Auschwitz I, in the village of Brzezinka, now known as Birkenau or Auschwitz II. This complex went on to become the largest of all the Nazi death camps across Europe and could hold more than 150,000 prisoners at any given time.

Picture taken at Auschwitz I - Showing various location within Europe from where people used to be transported to Auschwitz

The complex virtually sat in the centre of German-occupied Europe. With excellent transportation connections it was easier for the Nazis to bring people from all over Europe to this site. It is estimated that between 2 million to 4 million were imprisoned and murdered here. Those who initially survived the gas chambers, died of starvation, extreme labour, disease, mass shootings and horrendous ‘medical experiments’ which took place within its barbed wire fences.

Entrance to the only existing gas chamber, watch tower and barbed wire fence at Auschwitz I

Those people who were ‘selected’ for immediate death in the gas chambers, were not entered in the camp records and therefore is not possible to accurately estimate the total number of victims.

Those deemed fit enough for labour were registered, tattooed with a serial number, undressed, shaved and showered while their clothes were disinfected with Zyklon-B gas. This saga of atrocities continued until January 1945, when the allied Red Army started drawing closer. The Nazis hastily destroyed documents and burned down most buildings to eliminate evidence of their atrocities. They left behind the sick and forced the rest march out of Auschwitz in the freezing cold in the infamous Death March which killed more people sadly when respite was just miles away.

Along with the partial site destruction done by the Nazis the buildings were also destroyed by the returning Poles who were desperate to find materials to rebuild their homes in a war torn world.

Picture taken at Auschwitz I - The original picture was taken by a Nazi soldier at Birkenau (Auschwitz II) of arriving Jews from Hungary

It is indeed difficult to describe your emotional reactions as you navigate through your own mechanism to absorb all the horror and pain from reading, listening, and watching.

However, for most of us, our mind experiences it as part of history, in every media. Something that happened in the past and is locked up in the past. The fact that this is history is sometimes reassuring and provides an escape route from the emotional turmoil.

We always dig deeper into history when we travel, because it helps us appreciate the place better. So, it was not a question of whether we wanted to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau but rather an anxiety of how we and more importantly our 8-year-old would react to experiencing this part of history that only brings pain and disbelief.

Another reason for this visit was our profession of clinical research or research involving humans. Some 15 years ago, when I had my ‘orientation course’ on clinical research, covering the principles of conducting clinical research (ICH-GCP), I wasn’t expecting anything ground-breaking. But sitting through the course, I remember being puzzled as to why things like free and voluntary consent before participating in research was a topic of discussion, or why research being conducted by ‘medically qualified’ people should even listed as ‘principle’, but suddenly the pages from history became part of our present and soon our foggy brains were reminded of the fact that ‘doctors’ that carried out the most inhuman ‘experiments’ existed, not too far in the past. And that is where it all started to matter! We don’t really think of history as real unless we come to ‘experience it’ in some way or the other. And here I was, starting my career in bettering human health and providing solutions to painful diseases, however this path of future human betterment was carved out from the past. The past that contained the stories of the most horrific atrocities inflicted on humankind. The stories that baffle us and makes us wonder how humans can be capable of inhuman behaviour on such scale!

We had the context, and we had our reasons, but what we didn’t know was how to ‘prepare’ our 8-year-old. We looked up the museum website and their recommendation on appropriate age is 14 years and above. Well, we were going, so we watched some videos on Polish history for kids together and we reminded him that it is important to learn and understand history for history to not repeat itself. So, with all the ‘preparation’ and reflection we felt ready to start our journey of experiencing this bit of the human history.

Prisoner barracks and electrified barbed wire fencing at Auschwitz I

For our visit to Auschwitz, we took a train from Krakow Central Station to Oswiecim and were diverted to a bus journey mid-way to Oswiecim. From Oswiecim train station where the bus dropped us, we walked around 20 minutes to the entrance of Auschwitz. We hadn’t booked in advance and just queued up and got entry tickets. We were only required to pay for 2 adult tickets; however, we were disappointed to find out that because we had only 2 tickets, they wouldn’t provide us with 3 audio guides. In most places you can pay separately for audio guides, so this was a surprise. Anyway, we booked the English tour and figured out that the only option would be for one of us to walk close to the guide to hear her speak without the audio guide. Once we collected our audio guides we were met by the tour-guide of the group, a nice young lady, who told us briefly about what we will cover during the 3-hour tour. It was easy to follow her description, which was factual and not too fast, which is very important in a place like this.

Number at entrance of a prisoner barracks and washroom where female prisoner were stripped before execution at Auschwitz I

As we started walking behind her, we started to look around and her words started weaving a story. From what appeared as an old historical site slowly started to come alive. We entered the buildings and walked through the rooms and saw neatly framed pictures of the people who came from their homes across Europe. The story now had characters, we knew their names, we saw their faces up close, we even saw when they came and then got startled to read when their lives ended – for one person it was 5 days, our eyes hastily moved to the next and the next and the next… it was the same story, hardly anyone had a span of more than a few weeks or months. Some only last a few days. Looking back at us through their pictures, were faces of people from all walks of life, children who had their entire lives in front of them, elderly who deserved a peaceful and comfortable life, families that had just been formed. But their lives were ruthlessly destroyed by other humans that had their own children, partners and parents.

Shoes of victims of holocaust at Auschwitz I - Behind every pair of shoes there was a human life and a story

We walked through the rooms with huge glass panes containing piles of suitcases, spectacles, shoes, a mountain of human hair, heaps of shawls, clothes etc, and as the guide talked through the life or the lack of life in these premises, we unwittingly read the names etched on the suitcases. It is hard to not become part of that time and feel the fear in that moment, frozen, as your mind starts to unpick the stories pouring out of these everyday lifeless ‘things’, stories of excruciating pain and trauma.

As we walked out, we saw windows that had been boarded from outside, so that the prisoners wouldn’t see the mass shootings that happened outside. One can only imagine the horror of listening to the last screams of people every day…

When you walk around in Auschwitz you experience the reality of the history, then you take a bus ride and go to Birkenau.

Entrance to Birkenau or Auschwitz II

As you enter inside Birkenau you experience something else – the vastness of Birkenau, the watch towers, miles of barbed wires just hit you with the scale of this horror. It is the exact opposite of the ‘freedom’ you experience in a vast open land; this is something that psychologically destroys any remaining signs of hope…

Original cattle car used to bring victims of holocaust from all over Europe to Birkenau

Walking through the vastness you see a train line marks its presence as you enter Birkenau. The story comes alive yet again as the words from the guide fill in the disbelief in your head. Each time a train packed with prisoners arrived, “selections” were conducted on the platform. In a matter of seconds, the ‘doctor’ classified the people as either fit or unfit for labour. Those in the second category (the elderly, pregnant women and children) were sent straight into the gas chambers. The ‘final walk’, as the weary travellers thought their long and tiresome journey came to an end, indeed it did…

One of the main original brick barracks of Birkenau

As the tour guide sensitively concluded her talk, we stood there for some time, trying to come to terms with our feelings. It is hard to describe, as you listen to the words of the tour guide, see your surroundings, you feel that the place is still livid and breathing, that it really isn’t ‘history’, you get transported back in time, and suddenly get jolted back into the present when you realize you are part of a ‘museum tour’.

Inside of a barrack at Birkenau where victims of holocaust lived under appalling condition

It is a strange concoction of reassurance as well as helplessness… people react in different ways, we saw people hugging each other and crying, others with moist eyes, some just burying their focus on the facts written everywhere, and it is also important for us as humans not to judge people in these situations. A lack of emotion may just be the shock of experiencing something. A person busy taking pictures may just be trying to navigate his feelings behind the lens…

I looked at my son’s face and he just said, ‘why didn’t they spare the children, why were they so nasty?’ I didn’t have an answer, I hugged him and just prayed that humans remained humane in our present and future world…

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