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Jill Worrall: Auschwitz

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The Auschwitz barracks. Photo / Jill Worrall
The Auschwitz barracks. Photo / Jill Worrall

It's so difficult to write about visiting Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp; perhaps the most infamous of all their World War II extermination camps, many of which now lie inside modern-day Poland.

What can I add to the millions of words that have been written about it, the images captured or rivers of tears that have been shed already?

When it comes to visiting the Auschwitz museum there's also a very fine line between what could so easily become ghoulish sightseeing and facing up to our collective and often deeply painful history as human beings.

But, these experiences are just as much part of travel as the sipping wine in beachside restaurants, the thrill of seeing one's first puffin, the sound of Georgian singing (more about that in the weeks to come). Personality wise I'm not a cynical traveller, perhaps I'm just too intellectually shallow to take a Paul Theroux approach to the world, or just still too enamoured with the whole business of exploring it. But whatever the case I don't often venture in words into the darker side.

And almost nothing that the average traveller can encounter in her or his travels is much darker than Auschwitz. I don't know what compels all of the more than a million people who visit this site every year to do just that- for some it will be a deeply personal family pilgrimage, for others it might simply be a place to "tick off". All I can tell you is that I just felt I should go. It's sometimes easier to distance ourselves from suffering and tragedy and maybe that's not always a good thing.

The drive from Krakow in southern Poland to Auschwitz takes about 90 minutes. On the way in our mini bus we watched a DVD of rare footage captured by a Russian cameraman taken at the time the camp was liberated in 1945.

Auschwitz was established by the occupying German forces in 1940 in a prewar Polish army barracks. At first it served as a concentration camp for mostly Polish prisoners but by 1942 it had become the largest of the Nazi death camps and most of its prisoners were now Jewish. During the war an estimated 1.1 million people died here, either killed in the gas chambers, or through starvation, disease, forced labour, individual executions, or medical experiments. About 90 per cent of this total were Jewish people, the others included Poles, Gypsies, Russian prisoners of war, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Auschwitz is more properly known as Auschwitz I as just a few minutes' drive away is Auschwitz II or Auschwitz-Birkenhau, which if anything has an even more notorious reputation than the former. This was the camp designated by the Nazis as the "final solution to the Jewish question in Europe" and from 1942 to 1944 Jews from all over Europe (including as far away as Norway and Greece) were sent here by train to be gassed.

"There is one thing I need to emphasise before your visit," our escort said, as we pulled up in the carpark. "We Poles are very, very upset that President Obama recently called these places Polish death camps. We had nothing to do with them, they were built in Nazi-occupied Poland. There was no Polish nation at the time and many thousands of Polish people were killed here too."

Whether as a result of this gaffe or not it was noticeable throughout the tour of both camps that the guides frequently referred to the number of Poles who had been murdered there.

Because Auschwitz I was originally an army barracks it at first belies the awful nature of its final use. Beyond the archway with its infamous and pernicious lies - Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free) - brick two-storey buildings separated by poplar-lined lanes seem just institutional rather than sinister.

But this is only the first step of what is to prove a harrowing journey back to some of the worse atrocities of the 20th century. The site guide first of all explained the degree of overcrowding in the barracks building, the food rations (little more than above starvation level) and then leds us into one of the buildings that contains some of the personal effects that once belonged to the prisoners who came in through the gateway, most of whom either never left it alive, or if they did, only to march to their deaths.

Despite the fact that I knew in advance what the building contained it was deeply traumatic and, although there was a constant steady stream of visitors filing through this building, one feels totally alone with one's thoughts. I was determined not to cry which I felt somehow would trivialise what had happened here.

My resolve held past the piles of suitcases with their labels hinting at happy prewar lives in far-flung European cities and towns. Even as we filed by a display case full of crutches and walking sticks I was holding it together but without even meaning to I found the tears flowing as we shuffled past a case of baby shoes. The metres-long glass cabinet of human hair (the Nazis sold this for use as mattress stuffing among other uses) was so horrifying it numbed the senses.

Progressively the group I was with became more silent, no-one wanted to make eye contact. I was ashamed of my tears until I noticed even young men were sniffing into their scarves. We were taken next to the prison building, a place of torture and summary execution. Only about half the group made it through the torture cells, I wasn't among them. My husband emerged looking wan and didn't want to talk about what he'd experienced.

Beside this block was the wall in front of which thousands of Poles in particular were shot. The last stop on our tour was Gas Chamber 1, which was in use until 1943 when the larger crematoria at Birkenhau were completed. We filed through this, including a provisional gas chamber, in total silence. This was a place where walls do speak, although in this case it's more a cry of despair and agonising death.

By now a freezing wind was blowing and driving rain was sheeting through the camp. It had turned into a downpour by the time we arrived at the entrance gate to Auschwitz-Birkenhau, which having been photographed countless time and features in so many films, is eerily familiar. Beyond lie the foundations and in some cases reconstructed wooden barracks. They were freezing inside, especially the totally open plan toilet block with its two lines of toilet seats. The weather was appalling but it brought home to us the almost unbelievable hardships of those who were kept alive here long enough to work as slave labour in neighbouring factories until they could work no more and were gassed.

The railway line that brought the hundreds of thousands of prisoners to the camp runs directly into the centre of the complex and it is possible to stand in exactly the place where the camp officers made their selections (as pictured in photographs of the time) - the elderly, many women and almost all children being drafted into a line leading straight to the gas chambers, the more able-bodied to the huts (where death usually still came, just a little more slowly). By August '44 about 90,000 people were imprisoned here.

At the far end of the camp are the remains of four giant gas chambers - the Nazis had attempted to blow these up just before they evacuated the place in January 1945 but they were unable to remove the evidence completely. Among the broken jagged piles of concrete are a series of memorials from nations around the world, almost all covered with fresh flowers and reminders of recent commemorative ceremonies.

We walked back to the bus past the barracks used by Josef Mengele and others to carry out "medical" research into twins, mass sterilization, infectious diseases, experimental operations and new drugs.

By now we were numb with cold but even more numbed with grief and shock. There was no conversation on the trip back to Krakow; we stumbled back to our room and ran a bath. Outwardly it was to warm up but it also seemed a way to symbolically clean away the evil. It certainly wasn't to wash away the memories - they will be there to stay, which is as it should be.

- nzherald.co.nz

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