The camp is actually broken up into forty camps, of which only two survive. The principal camp of Auschwitz I is possibly the most well known, and certainly provides the most familiar images. It's there where you walk under the sign that reads'Arbeit Macht Frei' (work makes you free), and where you can see the rooms of hair, spectacles, shoes, Jewish items... The most startling room was the pile of suitcases. Almost all of them had names of them... There is also the familiar lamps along the electrified barbed wire fence, and yes the squat chimney of the crematorium attached to the gas chamber. Much of the camp has been preserved as a museum.
However (and apologies for the history lesson), Auschwitz I was not the death camp. That role fell to the much larger camp of Auschwitz II, or the camp at Birkenau, some two kilometers away. When you drive to the camp, you come round a left hand bend and as you cross over some railways lines you are confronted with the chilling sight of the gate to the camp. It is a distinctly familiar building, a symmetrical building with a watch tower in the middle. Directly under the watch tower there is a large arch, through which runs the railway line. Oddly, the building seems quite small and isolated. It is the only significant structure for some distance. You park your car out the front and you go in. You climb the watchtower and immediately you get struck by the magnitude of this place. The enormity of this place. This place is huge. The railway line, surrounded by a striking beige sand, splits off into three lines which disappear off into some trees. The camp stretches off to your right for about a kilometer, maybe a kilometer and a half, with regular guard towers and a line of low barracks two deep. Beyond the barracks are endless chimney stacks and low brick structures, separated by intermittent wire fences, which you just know are electrified and barbed. These stacks and bricks are all that remain of the hundreds of huts built to house the inmates.
As you walk around the camp you walk into the odd hut, you peer through the barbed wire fences, you see the outline of the SS guards huts. And then you get to the far end of the camp. The business end of the camp. There is a grove of trees behind which are piles of bricks and a small pond. The grove of trees was where people waited before entering the buildings. Where they died. The pond is where their ashes were poured. It is at the same time very beautiful and numbing. The trees are very pretty, but it doesn't take much to think of a famous image of this site that hangs in the main camp. The image shows a group of naked women being forced to run to the gas chamber. Behind the chamber is a pyre of burning corpses. Again it doesn't take much to think of the people who were waiting for their turn. What they must of thought, what they must have screamed. This place is simply evil. Except. Except this conclusion does not hit you for some time, in my case it took days. Maybe it was because I have read an awful lot about this place, and maybe I was too familiar with the crimes committed here. But I found it impossible to comprehend it, even standing in front of the evidence. Or maybe that it was also a beautiful day, the sky was blue, it was hot and the birds were singing. There is a myth that not even the birds sing at Auschwitz, but that is not true, it is just a myth. You do get moments of revelation, moments of understanding, moments of grief, but that was all.
As you carry on from the copse of trees you encounter the second gas chamber. This one was blown up by the Jewish prisoners who worked in it. They blew it up because they knew that their turn was next.
Walking towards the far end of the camp you encounter the 'Sauna'. This was the building that the 'lucky' few got to see. This was where those that survived the selection process got registered as inmates. That is, they were fit for work. You walk along a raised glass floor, passing all the stages of registration (being stripped, shaved, tattooed, deloused and finally issued with the thin striped clothes that are again such a familiar image of this place. At the end of the Sauna is a wall of photos. Behind the wall are yet more photos, which are grouped into families. In the middle of the groups are the stories of what happened each family member. This is not a place that you can spend much time.
Exiting the Sauna it is a short walk past the camps water treatment plant (you wonder why they bothered), past the wide drainage ditches dug by the inmates, past a lone tower, turning left at the fork (the attractive tree lined gravel path leading away to the right leads to what is simply labelled pyres and pits), and to the terminus of the railway lines. Here, seperated by the enormous monument to the victims of fascism, are the remains Crematoria I and II. Away to the right leads the beige and last road that 1.7 million people took. The remains are large but not huge. But apparently they were each able to 'process' 2000 people at a time. Fifteen minutes to die and about as long to be cremated.
Again you just stand and look at it. I didn't know what to think. I just kept my mouth shut. For some reason there was a man with a surveying staff measuring the ruins. And then, for some stupid, Fucked up, reason, I started taking photos of the ruins. Trying to get an arty shot or something. Sitting at my desk at home four days later I can only think to myself what an utterly inappropriate response that was. God, what was I thinking? I have about 50 photos that I took at the two camps. Three of them are below, but the rest, I don't know about them. And in a moment now of pure self-indulgence, I start to think about how I responded and how my responses have messed me up. And then I flagillate myself for thinking about how that was all I have to worry about, something so trivial, whereas this was a place of basic survival for so many. And it makes me conclude that there is no appropriate response to this place. Granted some responses are less appropriate. Which makes me conclude that this place simply messed the world up. It messed up those who died here, it messed up those who worked here (although I'm guessing they were already a little messed up), it's messed up history by putting a great big marker post by which things get measured, as if anything should be compared to this place, it messed up the descendants of those who died here, it's completely messed up the survivors, and it messes up those who visit it.
You simply cannot get your head round this place. But then, who on earth wants to?
There are many questions that Auschwitz invokes. Most start with why. Why? No really, Why? Why didn't the inmates revolt? What provokes a people to do this to another people? (Perversely) Why the hell did the Nazis bother with little soap dishes in the inmates latrines? How did anybody maintain their sanity (perhaps they didn't)? What does 1.7 million look like? How did they not know? Why didn't the Allies bomb the living daylights out of the camps seeing as they knew it was happening? And, what would I have done? None of these questions can be answered remotely adequately, although Daniel Jonah Goldhagen tried in the weighty Hitler's Willing Executioners, and perhaps it's a little naive of me to expect answers.
One of those questions, the one about the perpetrators of the crimes, is particularly hard to answer. Through the camps you are given personal accounts of the victims, but the murderers are always referred to as 'the SS men', as in 'the SS men blew up the crematoria to hide the evidence' and 'when the trains arrived the prisoners went through a selection process where SS physicians determined who was fit to work and who wasn't' (75-80% of new arrivals failed that first and final test). Because of this, you can't see them as people, more as evil robots from Dr . Who or some such, and because you can't see them as people, you can't get understand them. Maybe this is a good thing, I don't know. All that can be seen is short and grainy video clips of guards at their trials, looking unrepentant and, if it were possible, even less human. All that remains is a demonised image of the erect SS officer with his peaked hat, breaches and jackboots. I remember visiting a church in Prague that was the last stand of a group of Czech resisitors who killed Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governer of Czechoslovakia. In the church there is an photo of his body lying in state, with a detachment of six SS guards standing to attention. The camera is looking directly at them, so you can see their eyes. There is not an ounce of humanity in them. But then these people had mothers, maybe sons and daughters, passions, hurts. Like I said, I just don't get it.
Auschwitz gets into your head and results in the weirdest stuff coming out. It is one of the most trippy things I have ever had to confront, certainly the most severe, and I accept that much of my responses are messy, perhaps premature. I'm glad I went, although I wonder about the motivations for going. I can concede that there is a morbidity to the fact that I decided to go in the first place, but I believe it is important that I went. It's said to be a cliche that people go there and come out changed. Bull shit, there's no cliche there. It's a fact. I suspect for many people, like me, that change happens a little bit after the visit.
Maybe over the coming weeks I will have further thoughts. I hope I do. Feel free to add your own thoughts.
The railway lines
The grove of trees
The wall in the Sauna