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.

Degredation and dispair

Birkenau started to be constructed in 1941. Its scale dwarfs Aushwitz 1, it is said to be around ten times bigger.

Many of the original buildings were destroyed in an uprising in 1944 and as the Nazis fled in the face of the Soviet army, but you can still see where the chimney stacks were, stood in uniform lines, on and on and on, stretching as far as the eye can see.

As it became too time consuming and difficult to build from scratch, and more and more people poured into the camp, the Nazis used wooden horse stables to house them. They were designed to hold upto 52 horses. Here they held hundreds of human beings.

The heat inside these wooden shacks is unbearable in the middle of summer yet tortuously cold in the depths of winter. There is a small oven in each of the cavernous sheds but nothing that would offer any respite or comfort from the harsh, freezing mid winter.

Hygiene was non existent and the swampy ground of the camp meant that many people contracted malaria. Water was filthy and people also had lice, scabies and serious stomach problems.

Here you can see the communal toilet, opened twice a day, where prisoners had to file in, sit, do their business and get up again in a matter of minutes.

Completely against human nature, many did not even sit over a hole, they were in such a hurry they sat between them. The stench must have been unbearable.

The wooden slats in the sheds that pass as sleeping accommodation would not be fit for a dog let alone a human being. The people who could least fend for themselves, the old, the ill, would have one of the lower sleeping sections.

People above them, unwilling to leave the warmth, or ill themselves, would relieve themselves of any and all bodily functions where they lay. This is turn would make its way onto the people below, who were often too weak to move.

It is beyond comprehension how one group of people could dehumanise and demonise another section of humanity to the extent that they could subject them to this treatment.

For me the true, unabating horror was that it was not just the warped ideas of a single, homocidal maniac.

Hitler could never have perpetuated his crimes had it not been for a whole command structure beneath him who were eager to carry out his diabolical orders, and even came up with their own sickening ideas.

You do not ever want to believe mankind is capable of such evil, yet it happened. And it continues to happen. Human beings seem, above all, very good at hating.

Birkenau – the final solution

From Auschwitz 1 we took a short shuttle ride to Auschwitz 2 – Birkenau. One of the largest camps in the complex, it had one main, overarching  purpose – the extermination of the Jewish nation.

It was Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish question in Europe.” In total it is estimated that around 1.3 million people were murdered here.

The infamous camp is instantly recognisable from the moment you see the brick archway with railway tracks running directly underneath it.

You have seen it in countless black and white photographs documenting the horror of the Nazi regime, it has featured in countless documentaries that attempt to lay bare the suffering and degradation of the inmates.

By this point in the day the heat is nearly unbearable and the camp stretches out in all directions as far as the eye can see.

Trying to imagine being in one of the mass transports that regularly delivered people to the site, in this heat, makes you feel sick.

People fit enough were put to work while the others – the elderly, the infirm, the sick and the children, were sent straight from the transport waggons to be put to death in one of the huge crematoria complexes located at the far end of the camp.

The photograph shows the scene as thousands of people are unloaded from a transport on this spot. Many of these people would only make one journey in Birkenau. Straight to the back of the camp and to the gas chamber.