Many people might have a question: Why go to a concentration camp when on a vacation? Is it worth a day trip from a lovely European city like Krakow? Shouldn't one just go to Zakopane which is a gorgeous place?
My thoughts were no different. However, I decided to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau in July 2014. Did I regret it? Absolutely not. Did it leave an impact on me? Hell yes! For me, the trip to Auschwitz was one that I will never forget. My exposure or knowledge of the events of World War II was limited and I hadn't even watched movies on the Holocaust. For some reason, I had always avoided this topic. The word was familiar but I had no clue of the magnitude. They say ignorance is bliss and in this case, it certainly was.
When you enter Auschwitz, the first sign that welcomes you reads "arbeit macht frei" or "work sets you free". I think that the Nazis should have reworded it to "Works sets you free from life" or "If you can't work, we set you free from life" would have been better. This was just the beginning of the horror. The atrocities committed on Jews and other prisoners here, were appalling. Before I even get to the atrocities, the statistics will stun you and trust me when I say that from this point onward, there is a lot more shock, sadness and helplessness.
This place is like a well-defined procedure to kill people in cold blood. Think of it like a factory producing cars using Six Sigma, except that this systemic process was used to kill Jews, Poles, Gypsies among others. They were methodically brought in and all their belongings were taken by the Nazis to fund the war. People were then sorted on the basis of their capability to work. If they couldn't, they were asked to strip and sent to a chamber where they assumed that they were going to take a shower except that there was no water. They showered in a deadly gas known as Zyklon B and their bodies were then burnt after removing their hair and teeth. And this included children. The exhibits of bundles of hair, luggage and shoes stare you in the face. This however was one of the better ways to kill people because the other methods included starving them to death by putting them inside a room, making them stand for hours in small blocks, injecting lethal drugs into their system and hanging them on their shoulders till their hands broke.
The Nazis started with Auschwitz and then expanded it to a larger and more efficient Birkenau, a site you must have seen in movies like Schindler's List. What infuriated me most were the tales of German doctor Yosef Mengele. This doctor conducted ridiculous experiments on Jewish and other kids, especially twins. And by ridiculous I mean that they entailed amputating limbs and conducting surgery without anaesthesia (castration and organ removals). But this one tops all his evil deeds:
You might want to think that what goes around comes around, but Mengele was never caught after the war and successfully escaped to South America. I read somewhere that he wasn't even pronounced guilty of the crimes he committed. I witnessed a place that stood testimony to one of the most brutal crimes and took the lives of almost 1.1 million people. It took me weeks to come to terms with it, I still haven't and perhaps I never will. No one should be able to come to terms with something so horrific. As Auschwitz turns 71, my heart still weeps for every soul that was brutally murdered there. I may not categorize this visit as one of my joyous trips but definitely one that will stay with me for life.
This trip was originally published on My travel diary.