Twelve years ago I began interviewing Holocaust survivors. I have spent countless hours listening to stories of hell on earth. With reluctance, I realised it was time to visit the place where many of these incomprehensible events occurred - Auschwitz.
The books, the films, the first-hand stories of survivors, all rendered the scenes I witnessed eerily familiar - the entrance with the cynical sign Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes Free), the railway tracks, watchtowers, electric fences, crematoria and gas chambers, the displays of tonnes of human hair, thousands of spectacles and shoes of all sizes.
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Stepping through the dark and dank barracks I was reminded of the accounts of bodies packed into three-tiered wooden bunks, like sardines.
One survivor spoke of so many bodies lying side by side, that when one person had to turn, everyone turned. Another recounted her efforts to ensure she slept on the bunk above her mother to protect her. With so many women suffering dysentry and chronic illness, and the inadequate toilet facilities, many accidents occurred.
More than the remnants of the infrastructure of annihilation, I wanted to know what had become of the remains of the victims. The guide led me to a pond where tonnes of ashes had been dumped. While I understood the thinking of those who determined that things should be preserved largely untouched, it was difficult to accept that the remains of thousands upon thousands lay before me in a sump hole, exposed to the elements.
Visiting Auschwitz was as horrendous as I expected. What I had not anticipated was the sense of normalcy that surrounded this camp. I was shocked that our accommodation was a two-minute walk from Auschwitz and that the town of Oświęcim was immediately adjacent. Why were the townspeople laughing, smiling and behaving as if it were normal to have a death camp on one's door-step? Didn't they know what happened here?
Even more disturbing was the advertising in tourist shops in nearby beautiful Krakow, promoting Auschwitz like any other major tourist attraction. Indeed, our guide informed us of the 8000 daily visitors, and Auschwitz's importance to the local economy.
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum certainly takes seriously its responsibility to educate and inform the public. Preservation, restoration and documentation efforts are extensive and laudable. However, we left Europe with a distinct sense that many there have not truly taken ownership of the genocide that occurred on their soil, a short 75 years ago.
I am yet to shake off the discomfort that accompanied my visit to Auschwitz. However, our next stop in Ben Gurion airport provided a much-needed contrast. The vitality and energy of the people, many of whom are descendants of survivors, facing enormous challenges and yet thriving, was refreshing. Attending a joyful wedding was a fitting antidote to my angst.
While in Jerusalem, we visited 92-year-old Auschwitz survivor Dr Giselle (Gita) Cycowicz, a great-grandmother and still practising psychologist. Over four hours, Gita shared the story of what happened to her family - how they were rounded up into ghettos, sent by train to Auschwitz, subjected to the selection process, humiliated by being forced to strip and having all hair shaved. They lived in inhumane conditions, hungry, thirsty, battling cold and disease.
After five months, Gita was sent to a labour camp, until she was finally set free at the end of the war. She described that moment: "We just stood there - terribly, terribly tired and exhausted in every way and manner. Physically, spiritually and emotionally. And we couldn't smile when told we are free and can go wherever we want, because there is no place we want to go. We don't know why we would be going home. We don't want to go home. To the non-Jews. Who never embraced us and never said a word to try to spare us."
Gita, like so many survivors, did go on to live a full and fruitful life.
My visit to Auschwitz was as profound as it was disturbing, a sense made more acute by awareness of the resurgence of antisemitism across much of Europe.
If Holocaust memory were only facing simple neglect the matter might be easier to address. But the greater challenge is that the history of those events is being denied, distorted and universalised.
In 2005, the United Nations designated the day of the liberation of Auschwitz as International Holocaust remembrance Day. Seventy-five years on, remembering is more important than ever.
• To mark the occasion, the Holocaust and Antisemitism Foundation Aotearoa New Zealand will launch a new exhibition entitled Auschwitz. Now. A memorial event and launch will be held in Bethlehem, Tauranga on January 25.
• Sheree Trotter is a co-founder of the Holocaust and Antisemitism Foundation Aotearoa New Zealand and has worked with Holocaust survivors for the past 12 years.