(Notice: the post is a bit long and the words are not light.)
The Holocaust story is repeated to us since elementary school, in every possible and imaginable way. We are bombarded with information, documents, books, images, testimonies… to the point that we believe we know it enough, well even, we know exactly what the horror of those times was.
Except we don’t.
No, nobody can really realize it without visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau.
I felt this myself.
In there you burst into tears. Once out of there you no longer want to talk, you are ashamed of your race. Not white, black, Jewish or Muslim: you are ashamed of the human race.
Any other thought, when you get out of there, seems useless.
The cruelty of that act hits you like a hammer, and then brings you to your knees.
You walk with your head low, just looking at the ground.
But that’s not enough, because the smell you smell there gets inside your head and never leaves you. I have no idea if it’s the same smell as eighty years ago, but I could only find that smell there.
You reach a certain point where you hardly have the courage to raise your eyes, yet you feel you have to do it.
To really impress the horror in your mind, to never forget it.
It’s hard to describe how you feel in there.
You don’t have a particular mood. You don’t feel sad or depressed. You just don’t feel.
In some points you find your eyes filled with tears, and you don’t know where they came from; and you don’t even know why they won’t come down. They linger in your eyes, as if to defend yourself from those images, from those stories.
There is no gentle way to speak about or describe what you see in the concentration camps: the only way to do it is the most brutal, as brutal are the visit and the feelings inside the camp.
I went there in the middle of August, yet the sky was covered with gray clouds and a light rain was falling.
Maybe even the sky is ashamed of that place and keeps it hidden from the sun.
Maybe the rain tries to erase the horror. A horror so great that not even nature can hide. Not even after seventy years.
“Arbeit Macht Frei”
The famous sign that shows at the entrance to Auschwitz, on a black iron gate.
It means “Work makes you free.” Who knows if it was irony for the Nazis. Or just a lie.
Beyond that gate, there are brick constructions called “blocks” and barbed wire.
And earth, and ovens, and prisons, and gas chambers, and walls of death, and horrors.
Not even the guide can give a tone to his words. Her voice is flat, empty. Not because she always repeats the same things, that would still give a bored tone. It is the flat tone of those who would never want to tell those horrors.
The first train loaded with deportees arrived here on June 14, 1940.
A map in one of the blocks shows all the cities the trains departed from, trains where people were crammed like beasts, with no food and no water for days, standing, and just like beasts they were brought to the slaughter. Many did not survive the journey, which lasted up to two weeks. They were the lucky ones.
Those who survived say that those who died in the wagon were left there, along with the living. And that the only memory they have of that moving is children’s cries.
In Birkenau there still is one of the wagons in which people were brought. It’s standing beside the tracks, with a small bouquet of flowers.
A small, harmless wooden wagon, the walls impregnated with screams and tears.
Do you know why Birkenau was built? Because the number of deaths that Auschwitz caused was not enough for the Nazis. They wanted more and more.
Thus four cremation ovens were installed in Birkenau, which worked day and night, non-stop. The ovens were used to burn the corpses, too many to be hidden.
Yes, they hid them, because none of the prisoners knew the truth.
How did it work? The trains arrived inside the Birkenau camp, the survivors to the journey got off on the platform and already there the conscience extermination began. Families were separated: elderly people on one side, men on the other, rows of women on the other side, distant from their children. Many women were shot to death as they clung on to their children, in a desperate attempt not to have them snatched from their hands.
Anyone judged fit for the job was taken to the blocks.
Those who weren’t were taken to the showers immediately, with the excuse of removing lice.
The elderly, the disabled, pregnant women and children under fifteen had no hope.
Each person was holding their own briefcase, with all their most precious memories, the few that they had managed to take while tore away from home. Nazis told them to write their name and address on the suitcase, so that they would have found it after the shower.
They took prisoners to the locker room, forcing them to undress in front of all others while they were mocked and beaten, then pushed into the shower room.
Hundreds and hundreds of people piled into a single room, naked and terrified.
When the shower started, they didn’t immediately notice what was happening. The pain started coming after a few moments.
Zyklon B is a slow killing gas, it takes people 10 to 15 minutes to die.
Ten very long minutes of pain, looking into the eyes of your son, your father, your mother, while suffering the same pain, while dying together.
In Auschwitz, in one of the gas chambers, the desperate nail marks on the wall are still visible.
The sign of pain, of man’s poison.
The shower remained closed for half an hour, and once opened it was first ventilated, then the prisoners of the camp who belonged to the Sonderkommando collected the bodies. They had the task of cutting off the hair, taking off the gold teeth and all those precious things that people hid on them, then they had to burn them in the ovens.
This work was done by selected prisoners, particularly strong, who were then kept in a part of the camp hidden from all the others, so that no one could know the truth.
They were forced to burn the bodies of friends, people with whom they had shared pain and the cruel conditions of the camp. Or the bodies of their relatives.
Because the showers were not only taken upon arrival. Every day there was a roll call, and those who were sick or could no longer work were taken to the shower.
One and a half million deaths in four years in Birkenau alone.
The problem wasn’t just the shower, though: the conditions in which the prisoners were held were exhausting. Hunger, thirst, cold, sickness, fifteen hours a day of work.
In one of the blocks in Auschwitz there’s a wall covered with photos of the prisoners, with the date of internment and that of death.
Sometimes it’s just four days.
There were the prisons, the wall of death, the block n. 10 called the death block, where Mengele carried out his cruel medical experiments, especially on Romany children.
Those who saved themselves from the selection on arrival were stripped of everything: objects, clothes, hair, name … even their dignity. They were completely cancelled as human being, they became nothing more than a number waiting to be killed. The Nazis, in their cruel madness, had also made calculations: whoever arrived at the camp and was considered able to work could survive from two to three months. They didn’t need anything else.
In the first convoy that arrived in Birkenau on 7 October 1941, there were 13,000 deportees.
By January 1945, after the liberation of the camp, 92 of that cargo had survived.
When the Russians and Americans came to free the camp, Nazi soldiers attempted to blow up the gas chambers and burn any possible evidence of the extermination.
But they did not succeed.
So today we have the opportunity to look, learn and remember.
Primo Levi said that at least once in your life you have to go to Auschwitz.
He was right.
You have to go there, you have to listen, look, then tell everything you have seen, down to the smallest detail.
Because each of us must feel the horror of racism, we must understand that the human being is the cruelest of beasts, and we must strive to change, to make sure that this never happens again. Never Again.
They can destroy documents, places, but not memory.
That’s the purpose of Remembrance, of the International Commemoration Day on January 27th.
Remember not to repeat. Knowing, looking ourselves in the mirror and spitting in our own face, and using all of our personal strength to ensure that such a thing never happens again.
Those incapacitated elderly, those children snatched away from their mothers, those pregnant women, those sick men… they were us. We are them.
The Auschwitz Konzentrationslager is 40 minutes by bus away from Krakow.
It is open every day,you can buy a ticket for both camps, but if you want you can enter for free before 10.00 and visit it on your own.
From Auschwitz a shuttle takes you to Birkenau in less than 10 minutes. The total duration of the visit to the two camps is five to six hours, at least.