IS IT POSSIBLE TO UNDERSTAND WHAT AUSCHWITZ REALLY IS?
In three years of blogging, this has been by far the most difficult yet urgent post I had to write.
The 2nd of September 2015, after more than 8 hours walking non-stop the paths of that hell called Auschwitz, I found myself on a bus back to Krakow, my mind filled with a million thoughts and questions that will never find a rational answer.
As I mentioned in the title, during my visit to Auschwitz /Birkenau I felt mostly nothing. Where the word “nothing” was filled with so many meanings that as soon as I opened the door of my hotel room, I felt the urge to put them into words. Immediately.
Unfortunately, my laptop battery failed me so here I am, days later, trying to express that heavy feeling on my chest. Trying to put into words what that experience meant to me and why I think everybody should visit Auschwitz.
I wrote these few introductory lines so many times, in an attempt to find the right words, but I had to surrender in front of the evidence: I’ll never find the “right” words to describe what Auschwitz is and what it represent.
Maybe the absolute lack of human spirit get close to its meaning, but it’s not even near to encapsulate it completely.
WHAT I SAW AND HOW I REACTED
The morning of my visit to Auschwitz, after a rather agitated night, I was greeted by a gloomy dark sky, with temperatures that had dropped 10 degrees from the previous days.
I quickly grabbed an extra jumper, feeling relieved that at least it wasn’t going to be a sunny day.
I guess that when you’re about to see a place where millions of people were killed, alienated and tortured, a sunny day would have felt just wrong.
I had waited for ages to finally visit Auschwitz, watching as many documentaries as I could throughout the years and cried over Anne Frank’s diary and Primo Levi’s testimony.
Primo Levi was an Italian survivor who documented his year in hell in 2 books: “If this is a man” and “The truce”, putting together such a vivid and detailed narration of the horrors he had witnessed and suffered, that it’s impossible to close these books without feeling a heavy heart.
Given these premises, the idea of actually walking amongst the barracks that Primo Levi describes so vividly, I was sure that my emotions would have taken over my rationality.
To my immense surprise, none of this happened. For a good 90% of the time I spent in the camps, not a hint of emotion run through my veins. At least, not at Birkenau, also named “Auschwitz II”, where the majority of the mass murders through the gas chambers and the crematoriums took place.
I was in shock for not being in shock.
Needless to say, I wasn’t happily strolling around the barracks like nothing had happened in there but, as soon as I saw the infamous sign “Arbeit Mach Frei”, my heart instantly froze and there I was: incapable of feeling compassion, horror or human pity.
I had just passed the gate where millions of people walked to their death, and I felt completely numb. This is how my visit to Auschwitz started.
A LITTLE GEOGRAPHY AND ADVICE FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO KNOW MORE
Even if I thought that I had gained a “vast” knowledge about what was going on at Auschwitz, I have to admit that when it came to the geography of the camps, I was missing the most basic information.
I had always associated Auschwitz to a giant concentration camp, divided in “sections”. In reality, the Nazis built three main, separate, camps:
Auschwitz I – The first/main camp built by the Nazis, used as headquarter for the SS and for the first experiments and murders, now turned into a Museum. Held around 16.000 prisoners at a time-
- Auschwitz II (Birkenau) – The biggest camp, 3km away from Auschwitz one, where millions of people died in the gas chambers and from inhuman living conditions- It held more than 90.000 prisoners at a time and more than 1.5 million people (90% Jewish) were killed in there.
Monowitz (Or Buna) – The third camp, mainly a labor camp now completely destroyed. It held around 12.000 prisoners, including Italian survivor Primo Levi-
1| AUSCHWITZ I
Headquarter of the most calculated inhuman madness in modern history.
Auschwitz I, located near the village of Oświęcim, was occupied by the SS in 1940, where the first prisoners, mostly polish and Soviet, were deported and killed and where the Nazis started the experiments with the Zyklon B gas to kill millions of people.
Our guide told us that the first version of the Zyklon (A) gas was mainly used as a pesticide. The Nazi’s calculated madness was spot on in modifying it to create the Zyclon B version to kill the Jewish, treating them at the same level as insects and parasites.
My reaction so far? Total numbness
Auschwitz was the first and smallest concentration camp built by the Nazis. The one where you can find the infamous sign “ ARBEIT MACH FREIT” –Work will set you free– and it was used as headquarter for the SS.
The whole site looked, how could I describe it? Very “surreal” to say the least. I felt like someone slapped me in the face very hard. No matter how many documentaries I had watched, I wasn’t expecting what I actually saw.
If it weren’t for the knowledge of the atrocities that happened in there, and the heavy presence of electric fences everywhere, the camp itself with its brick blocks and neat streets, could even been considered a “nice” small village.
Total Madness. I know.
The camp has been left almost untouched, just like it was when the Nazi left in January 1945, but trees and green areas have been placed at almost every street corner, where now most of the blocks have turned into a “Museum”.
AUSCHWITZ: THE MUSEUM
The “museum” is a path where each building (or block with its number, to be more precise), has been given a particular name to show the visitors the horrors that took place during the Holocaust with pictures, signs and explanation panels.
There are buildings dedicated to the Extermination plan, to the monstrous medical experiments conducted by Doctor Mengele, mostly on Jewish twins, and a few others where you can see mountains (literally, there are huge, infinite mountains) of shoes, personal belongings, suitcases with names and human hair of the victims.
The rooms with the victim’s belongings were certainly the hardest to visit.
I stared at them for so long that I lost track of time. I focused my attention on a small worn out shoe, unpaired, once owned by a little kid.
I tried to imagine that kid, that life taken too early for no reason at all, but It was impossible.
In one of the many documentaries I watched, a survivor said that understanding the Nazi “logic” would also have meant “humanizing” their madness. Something that not even the victims were able to grasp, let alone the people who just visited the museum.
I withhold a tear from running down my cheek and I continued to the room filled with the suitcases. Each one with a name and a date on it. Each one telling a story of a family torn apart.
I recall the lies the Nazi told the prisoners who had just arrived into the camp, assuring them that they would get their belongings back after “the showers”.I tried once again to picture the scene, but understanding it? Nope.
At Auschwitz, there really is no human logic.
Reading the books had quite a dramatic effect on me, it was much easier to picture and to a certain degree also to feel what the victims were going through, but looking at the real evidence left me without words or feelings.
I eventually gave up once and for all. I surrendered to my mixed emotions, shifting from total numbness to over emotional and continued my visit to the other rooms and blocks along the way.
NOTE /ADVICE: TAKING A GUIDED TOUR OR NOT?
If this is your first visit to Auschwitz, even if you think you know everything about the Holocaust, I strongly suggest you to go with a guide, or “educator” (at the beginning I wanted to visit everything by myself but I’m glad I changed my mind).
I must say that at Auschwitz they choose their educators very well. Their sensitivity is really extraordinary.
My guide, an old and overly kind lady with pale skin and candid white hair, was absolutely amazing.
She walked slowly and took her time to show us the blocks, explaining with a moved, yet firm and soft voice what happened and what exactly we were looking at.
Her trembling emotional voice gave the whole experience a totally different meaning. At the end of the visit, before our transfer to the Birkenau camp, I saw her sitting on a bench, and I felt the urge to hug her, for no reason.
I could clearly see that she had just put her heart and soul in every word she said, even if she probably had given the same explanation to many other people before us.
I wanted to ask her if she had any direct connection with the camp, but seeing her tired eyes I decided to leave her alone with her thoughts.
When I said that I didn’t feel anything, I also mentioned that I was referring to Birkenau, where I decided to leave the guided tour and take the time to walk alone and stay in one site for as long as I needed to.
In Auschwitz I, after the initial numbness, my emotional reaction (also thanks to our guide) was pretty strong. I had to withhold the tears more than once and I couldn’t take my eyes from those mountains of belongings.
What shocked me the most were the giant pictures of the starving emaciated prisoners taken after the liberation. I was shivering with horror. Everyone was.
I think that the strong reaction I had at Auschwitz I came because the guide’s delicate words were able to create a real connection with what we were seeing and the atrocities that happened in those places.
She would briefly explain the pictures of these women and children reduced to bare bones and then gently pause, giving us the time to read and think, in silence.
The sufferance and pain expressed in those images didn’t require many words if none at all.
THREE WORDS: RESPECT. THE. RULES.
During the 4 hours spent in Auschwitz, our group was mostly silent, but unfortunately I had to witness to a few very disrespectful behaviors.
Some of the rooms contain human remaining like the hair of the victims (which I discovered with horror, were used by the Nazis to produce socks and carpets), and it’s strictly forbidden to take pictures of them, out of respect (as they even needed to specify it).
And then, there she was, the most stupid girl in the world waiting for the guide to leave the room to take a smiley selfie with a background full of human hair. I swear I had to refrain myself from punching her right in the face.
What kind of human being thinks that it is “OK” to share something so atrocious with their friends?
Not to mention the adults (not teenagers, I’m talking about grown ups here) laughing and taking selfies in the only crematorium remained after the Nazi evacuated the camp.
A room where thousands of innocent souls, including kids, died… and these idiots were taking selfies with a stick.
People like these should be banned from going in there. I know it’s impossible, but my feeling of rage against these beasts was definitely the stronger reaction I had during my visit at Auschwitz I.
So please, even if there are no concrete traces and, instead of the mountains of bodies on the streets, the only things left are their belongings, ALWAYS REMEMBER WHERE YOU ARE. Pay respect to all the people who died in there.
A FINAL NOTE ON AUSCHWITZ I
I still can’t describe the alienating mixed up feelings and the overall numbness I felt when passing the gates of Auschwitz.
I thought about it over and over and I think that no one can really be prepared or know for sure what their reaction will be. You need to experience it first hand to understand how difficult it is to even start explaining it.
Some people are completely numbed, some react with a mix of emotions, whilst others simply walk around being able to remain completely detached. No reaction is a bad one in my eyes.
Just the fact that you are there is enough to pay the due respect to the victims, and to be aware of what human beings are capable of doing to each other.
There is one sign at Auschwitz 1 that hit me more than the others, it’s very simple and it says:
“THOSE WHO DO NOT REMEMBER THE PAST, ARE CONDEMNED TO REPEAT IT”
2| BIRKENAU: AUSCHWITZ II
A huge black hole without a soul.
If talking about Auschwitz I was difficult, mentioning my feelings, or I’d better say, my “non-feelings” during the visit at Birkenau it’s going to be a nearly impossible mission.
Therefore, I decided to start by quoting a passage from Primo Levi’s book “If This is a Man”. Even if he was sent to Monowiz (the third camp, which can not be visited as there is nothing left to see), he explains very well what people at Birkenau had to endure.
“It is man who kills, man who creates or suffers injustice; it is no longer man who, having lost all restraint, shares his bed with a corpse. Whoever waits for his neighbor to die in order to take his piece of bread is, albeit guiltless, further from the model of thinking man than the most primitive pigmy or the most vicious sadist”Primo Levi - If This is a Man
With these words- and many others from his book- engraved in my mind, I found myself in front of the Birkenau gates. I got off the bus and instead of rushing inside the camp, I started walking on the opposite direction.
Randomly, I decided to follow the rails that from the outside “normal” world, years ago, let those trains full of desperate people inside the camp.
I went as farther as I could from the entrance of the camp and sat on the rail, looking at that gate from far away. For some inexplicable reason, the feeling of numbness here was devastating. I just stared at that gate for more than one hour. My mind was completely empty.
Birkenau, probably even more than Auschwitz 1, is the most infamous place where the worst bestialities took place. I knew that, and I took my time before I was ready to enter the camp.
TRYING AND FAILING AT FEELING EMOTIONS IN BIRKENAU
In front of Birkenau, I finally started to feel the cold. Cold coming from the outside, but mostly from the inside. I covered my head with the hood and I slowly forced myself inside the camp.
I hadn’t uttered a word since the moment I enter Auschwitz I. I decided to visit the camps by myself and when I finally saw Birkenau from the inside, I’m sure that even if I were in the company of a friend, I would have reacted exactly like I did: I was speechless.
First of all I wasn’t expecting the camp to be so MASSIVE. Wherever I laid my eyes, all I saw were countless identical barracks on my left, extending for kilometers, and just a few barracks and countless destroyed buildings on my right.
In front of me only empty spaces and the rails that finally stopped at a dead end, where the main crematoriums and gas chambers were built and then destroyed by the Nazis in an attempt to cover their atrocities.
I tried to remember the details so precisely described by Primo Levi in his book: people screaming when separated from the loved ones. The pile of corpses spread everywhere when the Nazis evacuated the camp in January 1945. The stink, the people reduced to skeletons trying to survive yet another day in the snow with only thin striped uniforms on.
I saw nothing, there was no trace of the ghosts I was expecting to see. No feelings, just emptiness, matched perfectly by the physical emptiness of that immense camp.
I was shivering for the cold and I couldn’t relate to anything I’ve read on the books. My mind was filled with only two questions.
Why I can’t even feel the evil of this place? Why I can’t feel ANYTHING at all?
These were the only thoughts that went through my mind for more than 5 hours when I started walking around all by myself, getting lost amongst those barracks, looking inside the dormitories, the lavatories, and the common latrines.
Nothing else. Just that “nothing”, two questions without an answer and the cold, so much cold, inside and out.
In Birkenau, without a guide, NOTHING really made sense. I was walking on a ground where millions of people died horribly and I couldn’t feel a single thing.
Once back at the hotel I had a long conversation with a friend on why I felt this empty. Was I a heartless person? Was I protecting myself from feeling too emotional?
The most rational explanation I could give to myself was that looking at that desolated, silent land, nothing made sense. I knew what happened, but looking at it 70 years later, somehow I couldn’t believe it really did.
No trace of the atrocities was left intact in there. Thinking about the unthinkable is simply impossible. The barracks and the latrines were spot clean. I can’t say they were nice places to see, but I couldn’t connect the horrible stories told by the survivors to…THAT.
I am usually very skilled when it comes to “feeling a place”. Every time I enter a new country or I visit a new city I have a strong gut feeling about it. Not in Birkenau. My gut was empty and silent.
I couldn’t sense the evil nor the pain and the suffering. Probably because the people who lived and died in here didn’t leave any trace of human feelings. They were de-humanized, both the victims and the oppressors.
This is what I told my friend:
“Birkenau completely lacks a “soul” not even an evil one, and what’s even more incredible, this place is still able to suck out your own soul, exactly like the black holes do with light”.
Image Courtesy: yougotthepoint.online.fr
Primo Levi, as a survivor, is certainly one of the best persons to explain what it means to be de-humanized. Below are his words:
“Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so.
Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we ill have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.”
― Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz
People who know me very well are aware on how easily I get tremendously tired when I walk, due to a minor genetic deficiency of my blood cells.
That day I didn’t eat (it’s not allowed inside the camps and I wasn’t even hungry), I was cold as hell and I walked for hours at end but I wasn’t tired at all.
Birkenau stole my soul in every possible way. It left me speechless and without any emotion or even physical feelings or pain, except for an unsettling heaviness on my chest.
I went from barrack to barrack like a robot, sometimes joining an English speaking group hoping that their explanations would bring me back to my usual self. But nothing could shake me from that numbness.
I probably won’t ever be able to express in words the “nothing” I felt at Birkenau.
It’s humanly impossible to even start imagining the pain, the suffering, the hunger and the emptiness of the people who died in there. This is something that not a sane human being would ever understand completely.
WHAT I WILL REMEMBER OF MY VISIT AT BIRKENAU
Despite the numbness I felt, Birkenau still haunts my thoughts every single day. I remember every detail of the desolated road that lead the women and children to the gas chambers.
At the beginning of that road, surrounded by thick electric fences, there are a few pictures of old women and kids unknowingly walking their death path.
I stood there, in the middle of that very long street surrounded by destroyed barracks -where only the chimneys remained- for hours.
The camp is so huge that it’s very easy to find yourself completely isolated, even if there are hundreds of people walking around.
Everything was unbelievably surreal to say the least and yet again, there are no words for it. Silence. Cold. Emptiness.
All I know is that, even if there was not much to see (the barracks looked all the same to me after a while), I only left the camp because I was about to miss my last bus.
WHY IS SO IMPORTANT TO VISIT AUSCHWITZ ?
The only “normal” (or might I say “human”?) thing I did in Birkenau was lighting a candle I found on the ground and placing it outside the barrack n.25 : The “death” Barrack (shown on the picture above)
I wanted to visit the camps to feel a connection, to understand better. Since I “failed” my mission, all I could do was to pay a tribute to the people who fought for their life every single day, to those who froze to death in their “beds”.
Will I ever understand what this really means? NO. NEVER. All I know is the importance of talking about it.
WHAT I THINK AUSCHWITZ CAN TEACH US
As a traveler, but most importantly as a human being, I felt the responsibility to see things for myself and talk about these places.
Auschwitz/Birkenau is a tough place to visit, but it’s important to keep the memory alive, to learn from the past and to stay alert as similar things are still happening today.
It’s probably easier to commemorate the millions of victims of the Holocaust after 70 years. It’s a lot less easy to look around and realize that we are surrounded by refugees treated like animals, desperate people with no help nor hope.
Isn’t that the same thing in the end? Don’t these people have the same right to justice and happiness as the Jewish had? I think we are all guilty if we choose to ignore these things.
The last passage I want to share in here is from the first page of Primo Levi’s book and its main message can be easily projected to many tragic situations happening in the world right now.
This is the main reason why I think everyone should visit Auschwitz: To learn from the past and keep the memory alive.
“You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home.
Consider if this is a man
Who works in mud,
Who knows no peace,
Who fights for a crust of bread,
Who dies by a yes or no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair, without name,
Without the strength to remember,
Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
Like a frog in winter.
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Repeat them to your children”
Primo Levi- If this is a man”
USEFUL INFO AND LINKS TO VISIT AUSCHWITZ/BIRKENAU
Getting to Auschwitz/Birkenau is fairly easy from Krakow.
You can book a daily visit in any travel agency in Krakow or plan the trip by yourself.
Here is a very detailed article where you can find all the information you need to plan your trip:
For my Italian Audience, you can read this: OurGenocides
This is another article written by a Polish couple and how they reacted to their visit: Auschwitz Concentration Camp – an Awful place you should visit.
If you want to know more about the Concentration Camps, make reservations and read more about the Museum and the camps, you can check out the official website:
Have you ever visited Auschwitz/Birkenau? Leave a comment if you feel like sharing your experience or if you have the desire to go.
Thanks for reading.