Taking a moment

Poland

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There’s not really an adequate way to describe Auschwitz. Words don’t come close to explaining the shock and sobriety of seeing the calculated construction of rows of buildings for imprisonment, judgment, medical experimentation and murder…The small square of light coming into a gas chamber where Zyklon B was dropped in from above. The doors to the incinerators next door, where bodies were loaded en masse to burn – in groups because cremation ‘took too long otherwise’. The sickening sight of mountainous piles of human hair encased in a massive glass room, recovered after the liberation in stacked bales ready for the Nazis to sell. Thousands of shoes from infant to adult piled high, only a drop in the ocean from the one pair per person already burnt or sold by the soldiers. The shoe polish carried in their small amount of permitted luggage, because moving in the hope of ‘a better life’ meant clean shoes would be needed for a new job. The outdoor spaces with gallows, hooks or walls where spectacle was made of hangings or shootings. Seeing the blanked out windows of the buildings where female prisoners were mutilated or killed for the sake of autopsy. And to think that all of that is only touching on the extent of the horrors.

Seeing the sheer scale of the Birkenau camp from its watch tower was literally jaw-dropping, with the rail tracks leading inside its confines to unload the passengers expecting a ‘better life’, who were then stripped of their belongings and lead straight to the gas chambers. The buildings beyond the fence were vast and windowless – the prisoners kept enclosed and unseen any time a train arrived to maintain the guise of a new home as the new arrivals were rushed as quickly as possible to ‘get clean’ before they suspected otherwise. The number of foundations and chimneys mark the beginnings of the forced destruction at the camps by the Nazi soldiers as the impending liberation of these camps threatened the operation. Buildings were razed, along with mountainous piles of prisoner belongings, documents and hair – yet still such a huge amount was recovered.

The extent of the operations and documentation was shocking – the building of crematoriums required resources quoted for by companies and noted in letters; quotes were received for the purchasing of human hair and gold from teeth, to be made into items like carpet underlay and fabric. Was it without question of source? The few illegal photos taken by working prisoners which were recovered show the original method of open air burning of people, before ‘mass’ means were found. The names of soldiers who undertook executions of people on certain days are listed and signed off on recovered documents. To think that those people have generations of family to look back at their history, as we have grandfathers who fought against it.

I took all photos in black and white in a small attempt to convey that this is a place for remembrance, not colourful tourist snaps. It seems that the number of Jews, gypsies and others killed at Auschwitz have become simply that – a number – until you see the evidence of these horrors and the inhuman operation pieced together in front of you. It’s such an important trip for people to make, and one can see why the survivors wanted the sites retained in such a way. It really wasn’t all that long ago, and how easily it occurred on such scale should never be forgotten.

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