The day I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau was not sunny. Clouds danced close together making a gray sky; fluffy harbingers of rain. Something deep inside of me said that the sun isn’t supposed to shine here. Bright sun and playful cotton-like clouds would feel so wrong in a place that holds so much darkness. Still, the sun reveals to our eyes the story that cannot be forgotten. Clouds make this place suspended in time, while the sun shows that life moves on.
What do you visualize when you think about Europe? Does the name ignite travel desires seeking breathtaking nature, rich history, and the world-wide famous sights of Paris, Rome or London? Sure it does! But Europe is not only about admiring how beautiful the world can be; yet, there are places that are dark. Auschwitz-Birkenau is one place, where you can’t find enough tears to cry.
I arrived at the camp early morning by shuttle bus and I could almost feel raindrops on my face. The potential for rain irritated me. Somehow; I felt insecure as I didn’t know what to expect! I hoped that the wind would dispel the clouds. These two feelings, hope and insecurity, weren’t alien for those who arrived at this cursed place, during the war years. I hoped for no rain, they hoped to start a new life there. When I realized this, I felt stupid. My hopes were so shallow. There are plenty of things worse than rain! People here saw much worse things than wet weather.
Auschwitz’s gate today welcomes visitors the same way as it did in 1940. The difference is that tourists leave the camp after a few hours; they are not forced to work until their death or be mass exterminated. But the gate is still the same. The first thing you see in Auschwitz is the sign „Arbeit macht frei” (work will set you free) above that main gate. However, in this place work did not set anyone free. But those people who crossed this gate many years ago believed and had hope. “Arbeit macht frei” – no other sign on this planet lied more than this one!
The grounds of the camp are full of beautiful trees, in contrast with red-bricks buildings and a firing wall marked with the bullet holes of those executed. The trees are so green, so fresh, so full of life. My eyes focused on them. How many winters do they remember? How many birds have their homes in their branches? I tried hard to pretend that the camp, the death field, did not exist. It was impossible. The camp was here and looked like a factory. In fact, this was a factory; a factory of death.
I was a member of a guided tour but I could wander freely; I had portable headphones so I could hear my guide as I moved away a bit from my group, not wanting people to spoil my photos. I fell upon something. It was a metal fence, a divider of life and death. I was not allowed to go inside, residents of this place where not allowed to go outside. The fence stood like a silent guard. Not an armed guard but no less scary than the ones who owned the death-bringing guns. There were flowers between the wires. Someone put them there in tribute to the fallen. They were in many colours, but most of them were of the colour of blood. Red roses were giving the last breath of their flower-lives somewhere between wires, but no one cared.
A tour of Auschwitz also includes administrative buildings, standing cells, starvation cells, and other torture areas. Inside there are plenty of maps, photos and stories of people who became numbers. Inside, there are no trees, no grass, and no flowers. All you find here are graphic reminders of lives lost; there are piles of suitcases, piles of shoes and children’s’ toys. Next to them, there are heart rendering piles of human hair; and not just a few curls. Piles, and piles, and more piles of human hair. Out of respect, photography is forbidden here.
Silence… only silence can be heard now. Silence is the reaction of most visitors as they walk through these soulless buildings and get a sense of what life was like. It’s hard to call it a life, it was not a life … it was a nightmare.
The silence was broken by the guide. We needed to move on as the time was pressing.I did not feel this passage of time; quite the contrary. I felt that the time had stopped. We finished the tour with a trip to the gas chambers and the crematorium. A painful end of the painful tour, ending in the same place where prisoners had met their life end. But the worst was yet to come. The next leg of our tour was Birkenau, the purpose-built, mass extermination camp, located few kilometers from Auschwitz.
If any place could have been good for a concentration camp it had to be the Birkenau’s grounds. A cold, flat area, located in the middle of nowhere, far away from people. The Germans wanted to destroy people whom they considered enemies, in a place no one would ever care to attack. They found such a place.
Birkenau seems to be different than Auschwitz. There are basically no buildings. The only welcome sights are the green grass, an infamous watchtower and railways. Many, many railways. All of them ending here. Birkenau was the last station on the highway to death. Leaving the shuttle bus, it started to rain. My hope was shattered with the first raindrop. It was shattered the same as the hope of millions of people sent here during WW2. While Auschwitz could mean slave labour, Birkenau meant no hope other than fast death.
The first thing I noticed in Birkenau is the size and scale of this place; it looks never-ending. There was row after row of stables, the gas chambers, the crematoria and the railway tracks. Inside the buildings there were the triple-deck bunk-beds in which some victims met their end, crushed when the wooden structures collapsed. People who no longer had the strength to climb into the bed slept on the floor; they slept in the mud.
And yet, there is green grass. So alive! And yellow flowers! So bright! They grow tall trying to hide a small poisoned lake where the ashes of the children were thrown. Some birds chased themselves avoiding the barbed wires or flew between the rotten boards of barracks. The birds play like children, in a place where real children could not.
Many people visit Auschwitz-Birkenau yearly. There could be 100 people next to me, and I would still feel alone. Alone with history’s ghosts. This place is suspended in time. I could almost hear guard-dogs barking in the distance and still smell smoke in the air. Almost…
Auschwitz-Birkenau reminds that travelling doesn’t always mean seeing beautiful places. Travelling sometimes means seeing things you wish you have never had to see. It is important to visit places like Auschwitz-Birkenau though, to pay homage to all those people whose life ended here. Travelling sometimes gives a person the opportunity to contemplate the meaning of life. Life now and life then. Life moves on, even in the darkest corners of the globe. Eventually, life overcomes death.