Today marks Holocaust Memorial Day.
Between 1941 and 1945, six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. Their attempt to murder all the Jews in Europe, shook the foundation of civilisation. From the time they assumed power in Germany in 1933, the Nazis used propaganda, persecution and legislation to deny humans and civil rights to German Jews. Antisemitism was used as their foundation.
With the Outbreak of World War Two in 1939 Germany invaded Poland, subjecting around Two Million Polish Jews to violence and forced labour. Thousands of Jews were murdered in the first few months of the occupation. Polish Jews were confined to particular neighbourhoods that came to be known as ‘Ghettos’, were living conditions were inhumane and another attempt by the Nazis to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews.
In 1941, the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews began, a plan known by the Nazis as ‘The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’. Death squads called Einsatzgruppen spread through Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, killing Jews by firing squad. By the end of 1941 the first extermination camp had been established. This gave the Nazis their method to continue murdering on a mass scale between 1941 and 1945.
The Nazis targeted anyone they believed threatened their ideal of a ‘pure Aryan race’. The Nazis believed Aryan people were superior to all others. Their devotion to racial purity and their opposition to racial mixing partly explains their hatred towards not just Jews but also Roma and Sinti people and also Black people and Slavic people. The Nazis wanted to improve the genetic makeup of the population and persecuted people they deemed to be disabled (mentally and physically), gay people, political opponents, primarily communists, trade unionists and social democrats, as well as those religious beliefs that conflicted with Nazi ideology, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Visiting Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau
As you come to the famous archway, entering the concentration camp, you are met with the famous words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’- Work will set you free. Upon entering the camp, straightaway you are met with a deadly silence. There could be hundreds of visitors in the camp at any one time but the silence is prominent. The guide will talk you through the history and slaughter via headsets and take you into each of the buildings which display evidence of the horrors.
People who are intending to visit have asked me what do they prepare themselves most for seeing? Honestly, all of it. Within the buildings you’ll witness everything from a pile of human hair to a pile of everyday kitchen utensils, and I can’t describe in words just how big those piles are, there are hundreds of thousands of items in each pile. The victims being brought to these camps took all the possessions they could- they had no idea what they were being brought too.
The one thing that gave me an absolutely sick feeling to my stomach was the thousands of suitcases and luggage. The victims had been told to write their names and addresses on their luggage, so it could be returned to them. At that point you realise the severity of the mental games that these people were put under. By being instructed to do something so small would have enlightened hope into many of them. Each possession and belonging in those buildings is all that is left of those people and their story.
At the end of the tour you are brought through one of the gas chambers and also a room where the ovens are. The atmosphere of the chamber and that room cannot be described in words. The feelings and emotions that hit you when walking through are felt differently by everyone.
Birkenau camp is no different. When you walk along the train tracks and stand in the place were peoples fates were decided there and then, your mind will struggle to take it all in.
At the top of the camp is the remnants of where the gas chambers were ( the Nazis tried to blow them up as they left), the guide will tell stories of escape attempts and the absolute bravery showed by people at different attempts to over power the Nazis.
When you walk through the buildings you will see the sleeping arrangements and hear of the conditions that the victims had to live in. Inside those buildings you will see names scratched into the walls and wood.
These camps are somewhere that everyone should visit at least once in their life. It is an experience that cannot be fully explained in words. Even when you come home, it is a place that will drift into your thoughts daily and weekly. I certainly didn’t feel the full impact of the visit until I was home. The only time I have experienced a feeling close to it, was visiting the Western Front in France and Belgium.
The guides who take you around are fantastic and treat each tour with an absolute respect, each of them have their own family story to tell of the persecution of the Nazis or family that was murdered in the concentration camps.
They make the whole experience very personal and convey the feelings of the victims. For many years after the camps first opened to visitors after the war, it was survivors of the concentration camp that brought them around and told their story. I was blown away by this, to find the strength to do that and come back to a place were you were mentally and physically tortured everyday. But the determination to get their story across was greater.
Of course now the guides are generations after them, but you can see the same philosophy is still very much in place. As a tour guide, personally, I cannot imagine what it must be like to tell the story of these camps daily to visitors.
Krakow Walking Tour and Schindler’s Factory
If you are based in Krakow while staying in Poland, then I highly recommend doing the walking tour which takes in the Jewish Quarter. It is a brilliant opportunity to hear what life was like pre war days and also an opportunity to see inside some beautiful synagogues.
It is also an opportunity to see what was the Jewish Ghetto and the guide will provide a historical background into the timeline which led to the Ghetto. Within the tour you will hear the the personal stories about the inhumane conditions of the Ghetto. You can also see the ‘Krakow Chairs’. These are located in the Ghetto Heroes square, there are 33 memorial chairs of iron and bronze. The chairs symbolise the tragedy of the Polish Jews in Krakow who were imprisoned in the Krakow Ghetto.
Schindler’s Factory, is a must see as well. I recommend watching the film before you go. A visit to the factory really helps to bring together the whole history surrounding the Nazis and the Holocaust victims. The Museum is really well led out and you can literally walk a timeline of events that is brought together clearly during your visit.