I felt a need to visit Auschwitz when then opportunity arose, both to honour my (fairly distant) Jewish heritage and to pay respect to those who died there.
Much of what we were told I had heard before, but in fragments, from novels, movies and far-distant history lessons, but this was the harsh reality with exhibition cases filled with shoes, spectacles, kitchen utensils – even human hair, some still in its plaits. I was unaware of the degree of paperwork kept by the Germans.
Although there was a constant stream of visitors and it was a beautiful end-of-summer day, the respect with which the guide spoke and the sobriety which people exhibited, many choosing not to take photos, meant that the horror was not trivialised or turned into a tourist show.
The recreated and original buildings contain display cases, showing the household effects thatPeople had brought with them . The most moving for me were the case filled with human hair – much of it still plaited and with thousands of shoes and pairs of eyeglasses.
Heads were shaved and the hair sent back to Germany and used instead of animal hair for blankets and hats. As people got off the trains they were eyeballed by the medical doctor who with a flick of his finger sent people to their death or to work in the camps. Those saved were mainly men aged 20 to 40, who lived in converted barns sharing beds, with primitive toilet conditions and basic rations (1500 calories/6300 kj daily – about half what was needed). Each morning they would wake knowing others had died during the night, and with survival at a premium, the slightly stronger often stole bread from those too weak to protest.
Nations have risen up against nation since time immemorial, and continue to do so. The museum of Auschwitz reminds us of humanity at its worst. Those who are prepared to tell the story day after day, week after week – some 700 guides – in their determination to keep the story alive, can only be commended.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”