Auschwitz: perhaps the most chilling symbol of World War II, of the holocaust.
I’m here with my 15-year-old daughter and 80 of her class mates. I’ve been in Auschwitz-Birkenau before, 15 years ago. Alone then. As we enter the infamous gates ironically proclaiming Arbeit macht Frei (Work sets you free), I wonder if it will feel different this time.
As many as 80 % were exterminated upon arrival here; all those who weren’t immediately useful to the Nazi regime. Faded black-and-white photos show rows and rows of people, most of whom were brutally gassed to death just an hour or so after the photo was taken: women, children, young teens, elderly.
Anna is an anthropologist and guides groups through Auschwitz. Her goal is to teach people what happened here. But her reasons are personal as well as professional, as is the case for about half the guides here. She had family members in the resistance in this area and is quite proud of them. A student at the University of Warsaw, Anna’s uncle spent three years as a prisoner in Auschwitz, and lived to tell the tale. ‘He was young and he was lucky,’ Anna says. ‘He worked as a carpenter here,’ she continues. Her husband’s relatives weren’t so lucky. Two of them died in the camp.
More than 1.5 million people perished at Auschwitz: Jews, gypsies, gays, Jehovah’s witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, criminals, anti-socials, mentally disabled, beggars, prostitutes. All had their unique distinguishing triangular badges.
Masses of human hair is behind a glass wall; grey with age, dusty, loose and braided hair, cut off, shaved off the dead and used as filling in cushions and the like. Behind another are suitcases, some with names neatly written on them: Frischmann, Hedwig. Adler, Georg. Then shoes: men’s shoes, women’s shoes, leather court shoes, a pair of red open-toed sandals. So oddly personal, shoes. They can’t easily be worn by others. All is too fragile to be photographed.
Cooking utensils are next: pots, pans, jugs in bright red, blue, green. A solitary thermos. Evocative children’s pencil drawings on a wall.
We enter a gas chamber: It’s surprisingly difficult to picture this bare stone room as it must have been during those years, filled with people thinking they were about to clean up, then have coffee and some food after a long train journey. Instead, Zyklon B delivered from the roof. Hydrogen cyanide. A painful death. We walk past piles of empty canisters.
Then the ovens. And the remains of the crematoriums. Outside, we pass chimneys still standing. We stop alongside crematorium no 4. Loose bricks within a chain perimeter is all that remains. Next to it, a hole in the ground, for human ashes.
Walking through Auschwitz-Birkenau is a bit like being guided through an industrial site. And in a sense, it was. Calculated mass murder on an industrial scale – effectively accomplished, with little waste of time and resources. As an example, Anna tells us prisoners on their way to the gas chambers were given bars of soap and towels. Showers had proper shower heads. All designed to prevent panic, as that would interfere with the efficiency of the operation.
What’s unfathomable is how so many thought this systematised extermination of human beings was the right thing to do. Because it wasn’t only one man’s madness. Nor is this idea, this ideology confined to just this period of history, those 6 years of horror. What does it take to reach such a conclusion? How can one come to truly believe in this?
Auschwitz-Birkenau tour for schools
Visiting the concentration camps is a tradition for many secondary schools (jr. high schools) around Norway. We travelled with Aktive Fredsreiser (Travel for Peace), an organisation founded by Helga Arntzen, herself a refugee from Soviet-occupied Berlin. Their mission:
to give young people faith in that conflicts can be resolved and peace can be created, and that their own attitudes are decisive.
Time witnesses have been an essential part of these tours. Sadly, not many World War II time witnesses remain. But perhaps even more sadly, new time witnesses are ready to step in; time witnesses of more recent, brutal conflicts and genocides around the world.
What did the teens think? Difficult to say. They didn’t say much, reluctant to give their impression, perhaps. So I can only speculate. Will it take time to process? (Probably.) Is it too much to take in? Is 70 years too long ago? My parents and grandparents remembered the war, as did many of my teachers in school. I grew up hearing personal war stories and experiences – good and bad – from people who lived through it. For today’s teens, I wonder if it might be so long ago that it’s difficult to relate. And the subject: torture and murder… are we perhaps too far removed from that up in the safe north to understand it, other than intellectually? I don’t know.
At various points along the tour, the kids respond to what they see, what they learn. We are shown the latrines, and told these could only be used twice a day, in the early morning and at night: before and after the excruciatingly long working days. 200 on the latrine at the same time. As Anna describes how there was no toilet paper, and that women on their periods had no protection, I notice girls reacting. This seemingly little detail resonates. Everyday life as a prisoner. That’s important.
These kids are the time witnesses for the future. They will be the ones responsible for keeping this from happening again, as they’re repeatedly told here. A heavy burden on young shoulders, perhaps. But a necessary one.
Auschwitz-Birkenau sees more than 1 million visitors every year. Advance bookings are encouraged. To conserve the buildings and the increasingly brittle artefacts, it might become necessary to regulate the number of visitors.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945) is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.