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A day in Auschwitz
Oswiecim reads the sign outside the station. The Germans called it Auschwitz. It looks like any other peaceful Polish town today. People walk to work and children play in the park. But almost no one can forget that it was in this camp that the Nazis murdered more than a million Jews as well as thousands of Poles, Soviets POWs, and gypsies. Many also died of starvation and the appalling sanitary conditions.
As one walks through the gates with the cruel lie of a sign that says 'Arbeit mach frei' (Work makes you free), an ominous gloom settles down on what was, just a few minutes ago, a smiling group of tourists. In the beginning, some people pose for photographs and talk on their mobile phones. Slowly, silence falls and people avoid even looking at each other. The electrified, barbed wire, grim brick buildings and brooding watch towers are still menacing after years of abandonment. One can almost imagine the tramping boots, the barking dogs and the shouts of the guards.
Block No 5 is where the tour starts, but for millions of Jews, it started on a cramped train, packed like sardines with no ventilation, no food and the bitter cold. When they arrived on the platform in Auschwitz, there was the infamous selection process. Says the guide, "With a flick of the hand, the SS decided the fate of a person. Women and children were separated from the menfolk as were the old and feeble from the young and strong. " They were all asked to mark their suitcases containing their prized possessions and leave them on the platform. Many were promised a warm meal and a shower but gassed on arrival. The 'lucky' ones were assigned a number and their photographs taken. After some time, even this was discontinued and the prisoners were tattooed.
Block after block, the guide takes us through the horrors. On the walls of one room are mugshots of men and women who had just arrived in Auschwitz, looking at us with charcoal eyes, some beaten, others filled with hope and confidence. Under the photographs are two stark dates: date of registration at the camp and date of death. Our guide tells us the story of one visitor who wanted a picture of a woman on the wall. She was his mother and he did not have a photograph to remember her by. A copy was managed from the archives. There are also images in black and white of anonymous masses. There is art by survivors who created scenes from their memory. There's an especially poignant one of two escaped prisoners who are re-captured and made to stand under a sign in German which says, "Hurrah, we are back. " But there is worse to come: a section of tiny clothes and booties.
And then there is the hair - a mountain of braids and tresses and curls, once blonde, brunette and auburn. The hair, found by the Soviet army after it liberated Auschwitz, was used by the Nazis for lining clothes and bags. When the hair was analysed after the war, traces of poison used on people were found. But it was the pile of shoes that reduced one to tears. People who came here but never left. Every pair a life snuffed out, a dream lost. Sturdy ones, children's footwear and leather belts. Another exhibit has mountains of spectacles, artificial limbs, shaving brushes and a pile of luggage marked with initials and dates.
Also on display are empty cans of the deadly Zyclon-B cyanide gas pellets. It was in Auschwitz that the Nazis perfected their method of mass murder. They even tested out methods of quick sterilisation, so that healthy Jews could be used for slave labour but prevented from breeding and crowding the "living space" for the Aryan race.
Next up is Block 11, the 'Death Block'. Outside is the Black Wall of Death against which hundreds of prisoners were shot by the SS guards. Walking through the claustrophobic cells, the story of Father Maxmilian, a Polish priest who died to save another inmate, is the only ray of hope after seeing humanity at its worst. This block has starvation cells where people were left to die, tiny standing cells where as many as four prisoners were held for long periods.
Next is a nondescript looking building with no windows. Inside are the gruesome gas chamber and furnaces that burnt corpses daily. Even the presence of the gallows where the commandant of the camp and the sunken-eyed deputy to Adolf Hitler, Rudolph Hess, was hanged doesn't make one feel like justice has been served.
Auschwitz does not prepare you for Birkenau or Auschwitz II (three miles away) which is about thirty times bigger than Auschwitz. The sheer vastness of Birkenau is bleak and numbs the senses. A landscape punctuated by barracks, rows of chimneys, a converging railway line and barbed wire fences. There are bouquets of flowers placed on the tracks, fluttering in the chilly wind. One can't help thinking how the inmates managed without any warm clothing.
Inside the barracks, which were modelled on horse stables, are bunks, or rather wooden shelves, stacked three levels high. People slept here crammed like livestock. Our guide says that the people on the top bunks were the lucky ones since those lower down bore the brunt of rampant disease and diarrhoea. Toilets were just stone slabs with holes that inmates could use just once a day. Only the ruins of the gas chambers remain as the Nazis destroyed most of the chambers and crematoria when the Red army approached Auschwitz.
Why was the world quiet as this mass murder went on? Our ears ring with these unanswered questions. The guide's voice booms, "Don't say it was a good tour or that you enjoyed it, the point is that it will disturb you. "
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