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.

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.

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." – The horror of man’s inhumanity to man

Cambodia is a beautiful country, with some of the most welcoming people with the widest smiles of any place I have visited before or since.

But it is a country with a past so horrific, so recent, and so terrible that you wonder how people can ever move on.

From 1975 to 1979 Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, a party, lead by Pol Pot, based on communist ideals that ultimately resulted in the mass genocide of its own people.

In just four years over 2 million people are estimated to have died in waves of murder, torture, and starvation, aimed particularly at the educated and intellectual elite.

Our first stop was at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school that was turned into the Khmer Rouge’s most infamous political prison.

Here prisoners were detained, tortured until they confessed to their “crimes” before being sent on their final journey to the Killing Field.

Classrooms became cells, crammed full of people, tiny rooms, with metal beds and shackles were still in place, left as they were found. An estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. Only seven are documented to have survived.

Most victims were from the previous regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc.

Later, the party leadership’s paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.

Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest.

The images that will stay in my mind forever were the final rooms in the museum, empty but for row upon row upon row of black and white photographs of the prisoners. From tiny children to frail elderly people, they stare into the camera lens as if it is the barrel of a gun.

One photograph shows a young woman, a single tear falling down her cheek. Her tiny baby is in her arms.

You know that not one of these people survived. Whether from torture, starvation or being taken to the killing fields, they all came to Tuol Sleng to die.

And you can see in their eyes that they know it too.

Then it is onto Choeung Ek. This is the best known of the sites that became known as killing fields.

The sunlight shone over a field of green grass and butterflied flickered up and down, children played and laughed and it was only slowly that you started to see the mounds, and the bundles of rags under trees.

When I asked the guide what they were he told me they were the remains of the clothing of the people they had bludgeoned to death and pushed into mass graves. If you look at the paths you are walking on, he said, you can still see teeth and pieces of bone.

In the middle of the field stands a Stupa full of skulls. There are over 5,000 human skulls. Many have been shattered or smashed.

I debated long and hard about whether to take a photograph of this. I heard many people say they would not, it seemed wrong, or distasteful or they did not want a reminder of it.

I decided, on reflection to take a picture. If people are horrified so be it, if they recoil then good. History cannot be swept under the carpet and avoided because it is too terrible. These events happened in our life time. These people deserve to be remembered.

In order to save ammunition, the executions were often carried out using poison, spades or sharpened  sticks.

In some cases the children and infants of adult victims were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of trees. The rationale was “to stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parents’ deaths.

As we left the site our guide Mr Sun, a cheerful, talkative man was silent for a while. He then told us the story of how when he was five, there was a knock at the door in the night and they took his mother away. She was a teacher. They never saw her again.