14.04.2012 - 15.05.2012
Yep, if you're any sort of human being, this word has some pretty serious meaning. The feelings and images that just ran through your head are probably the same that runs through mine. The word alone brings images of death, suffering, cruelty, and incomparable evil. The site of mass persecution and violent hatred, this place has become a symbol for the atrocities that
occurred during WWII. In fact, atrocities is too soft a word. In the past I have studied the events and witnessed numerous films, photos and historical accounts on the infamous concentration camp, and with each time have always felt a mix of emotions. From extreme sadness through to extreme hatred, I would learn the when and hows, and always question the whys, trying to put myself in the shoes of all those who experienced it, but never under the delusion that I would ever come close to understanding it.
And this was the main reason I came to Poland. This place. To match those images that I knew to things I could touch and see for myself. I went there expecting to see this hard hitting reminder of just how cruel and evil humans can be, but it would be the acts of kindness, love and generosity that I would take away most from my time there, as well as probably the most surreal emotional experience of my life.
The journey to Poland wasn’t fun. We left Budapest catching our first train at 6:15am and would arrive at our final destination at 9:30pm. This trip involved 5 trains, each having to be on time to connect to each other, otherwise the whole thing would fall apart and we would be stranded in some random country rail station, which once you see one, isnt a promising prospect. Put it this way, there was some running, sweating, and just a little bit of stressing out. But we made it, and once again, hooray for CouchSurfing!
Our host Kinga, along her father, picked us up from Oswiecim station in pitch black darkness. I guess its easy to say now, but almost immediately we felt comfortable with her. Even late at night, with two smelly, exhausted strangers in the back of her car, she was bubbly and lively and really seemed genuinely excited to have us as her guests. Despite Dad not speaking English, he went out of his way to take the long route home, which would pass around the Auschwitz camp. The first time we saw the fence was pretty sobering. There it was, the wire electric fence that frames the terrifying portrait. And admittedly, up until that point it was a dream, something of legend, but now it became real. And in the middle of the night, it came out of nowhere, illuminated only by the moonlight.
The site was an obvious catalyst to discussion, whether intentionally or not, but I got the feeling that Kinga and her father were somewhat relieved with the realisation that their guests came to visit with the utmost respect and with open minds, which is how we try and experience every destination, but for a native Polish family that was there during the whole thing, I guess you never know what to expect from foreigners, or what kind of preconceived ideas they might bring. But, of course, we were charming as ever, and we got along great. We arrived and met the rest of Kingas family, who again, at 10pm, had prepared their home with food and drink, a beautiful room for us, and a warmth one can only get from being showered with selfless hospitality. Kinga would later downplay it as “Just Polish hospitality” but it really was extraordinary. It would be phenomenal if this was the way people always treated one another, but there is nothing normal about it sadly. Anyway, we ate dinner, wild boar which Dad had killed on one of his hunts, delicious, had some tea and some laughs, then went to bed, waking up to be spoilt again by a full breakfast. The whole thing was really sweet and we absolutely loved spending time with a real Polish family, learning their characters and their history, and experiencing those things you wont find in a hotel or guided tour. It was truly wonderful.
Then it was time for the camp. I'm going to try and not tell you too much detail about the place itself, cause you probably know most of it or can research and look up the facts. But basically, apart from the wire fencing and a few small towers and military remnants, it could be a small modern public housing complex, which is kind of what is was prior to the extermination attempt, except the occupants were mostly prisoners of war. Many of the buildings insides have been turned into a museum of sorts, giving an onsite history lesson in the form of facts, photos and varying paraphernalia. But the rest looked pretty normal, which to me made it feel even more daunting, that the things that occurred, did so in the most normal looking of settings. I didn’t feel the same disconnect that I thought had it been some smoldering ruins, or some fire pit of hell with torture instruments hanging from the ceilings. It felt real.
We were grouped together in tours, one of many that were wondering through the site, and were taken through all the historical accounts, mainly dealing in living conditions and day to day life, through to individual accounts of torture, death and vial oppression. In fact, I think the tour was designed to progressively get more confronting, as we soon approached the solitary confinement cells, the torture rooms and then to the lab were children were experimented on for horrific things such as poison trials to injecting dye into their pupils to try and change their colour. It was then that I was feeling the height of my usual reactions, a mix of hatred, disbelieve and sadness. But then something changed. We entered a square, through a large metal gate, and I felt different. A sort of calm came over me but an uneasy one. At the end of the square was a memorial to the execution wall, where those who were chosen were lined up and shot. And I felt strange. I knew bad things had happened here. Not cause we were told, or that it was assumed, I knew. Like I could smell it in the air. Like experiencing a new sense for the first time I was drawn to parts of the square, random spots in the dirt, certain areas of the brick surrounds. Somehow I was telling myself a story of which had no detail, just feeling.
The tour continued on out of the square and around the next corner. The tour guide was silent and walked ahead. I froze. At the foot of the barbwire fence and the opening that led around the next corner, I found myself unable to take a single step. Everything around me went blurry and I realised that now I was seeing through my tears, which had, unnoticed, started delicately flowing down my face. I didn’t feel like I was crying. There was no sobs, or change in breath. Just tears. I was afraid to walk further, my legs moving only at the slowest speed. Again this new sense was in control, yet now it was a thousand times more intense. I once again knew what was around the corner. I felt a fear that was old, borrowed from another as though we were breathing the same air. Standing there, trying to move forward, there was some sort of dimensional shift that occurred around me. Those people that were in my group past me as shadows, but those who normally went unseen slowly made their presence known. My now detached body crept inch by inch forward, face drenched in the tears that had been left to run, with no attempt to wipe them away. My mind was sharp, focused almost, but it seemed a passenger, somehow being led. I remember hearing “bad things happened here” running over and over again in my head. I knew they had. I felt them. I say I felt but really it was like I empathised extreme sadness and extreme fear. Empathised because they were not for myself, I wasn’t scared, but I could feel the feeling of being scared. At this point, in a state I've never been before, I heard a young girls voice, reassuring me that it will be ok. She said that they were things I had to see, that this was something everyone had to see, to experience. Somehow she was almost begging that all people have to know what went on here.
Of course I was coming up the last surviving gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz 1. The brick building built into a grass mount was the terrible place that hundreds of thousands of people, mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, brothers and sisters, drew their last agonising breath of Zyklon B gas, the poison eating away their insides in a excruciating process that would take 20-40 minutes to slowly and painfully eat the life away from its victim. It was also the place, where their naked and contorted remains were shovelled into giant ovens like coal, to be reduced to ash and dirt.
The group moved silently ahead of me, through the entrance into the chamber. Silently out of respect for the dead, but also unacknowledged by my current psyche. In this state of sub-concious being I moved into the main chamber, feeling what I can only describe as the support of a thousand faceless souls. The tears that had never stopped continued to flow, but now the emotion had intensified. I started feeling the shortness of breath, the heaving of the shoulders. My body seemed to curl into itself as I felt the scratches in the walls, the fingernail marks on the floor, and hole in the roof where the cans of evil and hate were dropped through to consume any light of hope. At this stage I had lost all control. I started to feel like a prisoner myself, being forced to feel these emotions, to see the images that were flying through my head, to feel pain and fear for loved ones that I did not know. I was then taken into the chamber with the ovens, where in front of me I could make out the rusted relics of body disposal, but in my minds eye I could see them in full use. Piles of bodies upon bodies being heaved around like rag dolls. The scrapping of shovels on cement, the roar of the fires, the slap of dead flesh against the iron, I could see it all in front of me.
Although I could feel the ones driving me, I had little idea of my surroundings. I couldn’t tell you if anyone else was in that room or even how long I spent there. It wasn’t until I was outside that I found Mel, who wrapped her arms around me as I crumbled into an emotion mess. I had regained myself, but the feelings were now my own and they weighed me down hard. Mel and I stood there for a while, not saying anything. I'd say it was after about 15 minutes or say that I stopped crying, and the feeling like I had been punched in the chest started to dissipate.
Now, some of you may think its strange, but this wasn’t my first encounter with spirits from another world, that wasn’t the weird part for me. The hard hitting thing was actually feeling their emotion. I often can sense what they are feeling (mostly confused or shocked if you're interested) , but never had I had such empathy. It really cut me to the core. And really, whatever you choose to believe from this, whether you would like to psychoanalysis it, describe as the brains way with dealing with stress, maybe high imagination, maybe I told myself I would get emotional prior and this was the outcome or you may just think its bullshit, either way you cant base this stuff on merit. The truth was I felt something, and whatever it was was a deep and personal experience, that I am now trying in some way to share with you.
Fuck me, how did that happen? I told me myself I wouldn't write that much. To me Auschwitz is a place without words, but I seem to have blurted many. If you read from the start, you may remember I mention acts of kindness, love and generosity, well they will have to wait for the next entry. So to wrap up, I still think that in no way will we ever know exactly what those people experienced. I was never under any delusion that I would. What I can take away from being there though was knowing that I got just a little bit closer, that now its not just a photo, or a nightmare set in a far off land, that I have stood there where they stood, felt the same dirt at my feet, the same air in my lungs, as they suffered in a way I wish no one to suffer.
So I guess I will leave you with a few photos. They really pale in significance to the actual experience, but hopefully it helps give you an idea. As you will see they don’t have people burning in them, and I didn’t process them in black and white to add dramatic effect. This is the place as it stands now. Dirt, brick, trees and wire. A place I went to learn more about the past, and ended up learning more about myself.