Rememberance in stones

As you walk around the camp you will see at the side of the tracks a railway carriage. It is the same as the carriages that transported the camp inmates to Birkenau.

The carriage is there thanks to Frank Lowy, a Holocaust survivor and son of Hugo Lowy — a Hungarian Jew who was beaten to death by the Birkenau guards when he refused to give up his tallit and tefillin.

He helped to bring the restored wartime railway carriage to Birkenau in 2009 and it now serves as a memorial to the half million Hungarian Jews who died there.

Wooden, with no windows and very little ventilation, the carriage tells its own sad story. Hundreds of people were crammed into each carriage, sometimes in sweltering heat, other times in the bitterest cold.

People were bought into the camp from hundreds of miles away, from all corners and the farthest reaches of the Nazi empire. Little wonder that hundreds of them died during the journey.

The carriage is covered in hundreds of rocks and stones. This made little sense to me at the time but I later learnt that in Jewish cemetries and on graves they do not leave flowers as they are transitory and for the living.

Instead they leave stones. A far more lasting memorial to loved ones.

Haunting faces and abandoned cases

Once inside the imposing brick buildings that seem so innocent from the outside there are several devastatingly simple displays.

One room is completely empty except for a glazed section that runs from one end to the other.  Behind the glass, from floor to ceiling, is an immense mountain of human hair.

Another room houses piles upon piles of suitcases, taken from the prisoners. Many are marked with the star of David, others poignantly say “mit kinder”.

Mounds of spectacles gaze blankly out at you from another while endless shoes are a silent testimony to the thousands of people who, once incarcerated, never walked out of the death camps.

Another of the buildings contains a corridor lined with endless black and white photographs of prisoners. All in the regulation striped uniform, all with roughly shaven heads.

The women seem particularly to have been callously treated, their hair, once a crowning glory now stripped to degrade and humiliate them.

It is a gallery of despair, where every pair of eyes is a mute plea for mercy that never came.

The horror of Auschwitz is not immediately tangible when you walk through the gates, it was not the instant cloying weight, the punch to the stomach that I thought it would be.

It gradually builds, with each room, each exhibit, each photograph.

By the time you end up in the gas chamber, the ultimate symbol of evil, it feels difficult to breathe, your eyes have taken in too much but not really comprehended. It is only later that you cry.

Inhumanity and revisionists.

As you pass under the infamous metal archway that serves as the hideously iconic entrance to Auschwitz 1 you begin to notice the barbed wire that winds its way around the perimeter and the watch towers that are positioned about the camp.

The lines of brick buildings are neatly spaced and perfectly preserved. Taken out of context they would give no hint of the inhumanity that they represent.

The site for the camp had originally served as Austrian army and later Polish army artillery barracks so the brick buildings are solid looking and done with some care.

The first prisoners arrived in May 1940 but by March 1941 nearly 11,000 people were imprisoned there, most of them Poles.

On September 3, 1941, an experiment was carried out on Russian POWs and Polish inmates when they were gathered in the basement of Block 11 – known to the prisoners as the death block – and gassed with Zyklon B.

Following this first extermination a gas chamber and crematorium were constructed and operated from 1941 to 1942, during which time some 60,000 people were killed before it was deemed not efficient enough. The Nazi’s then constructed Auschwitz 2 – Birkenau with its four huge gas chambers.

The majority—probably about 90%—of the victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp died in Birkenau. This means around a million people. The majority, more than nine out of every ten, were Jews.

The gas chamber in Auschwitz 1 was destroyed but later reconstructed after the war and it was here that the feeling of dread was palpable.

The low ceiling room is blackened and claustrophic with holes in the roof where the Zyklon B was dropped into the room. The crematorium, with its reinstated ovens is a place where it still feels hard to breathe.

There is an going debate about the authenticity of Auschwitz 1’s chamber and crematorium by so called “historic revisionists” ie Holocaust deniers. These same people deny the existence of any gas chambers at all in any of the camps.