Out of the 1.3 million visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau each year, around 821, 000 are young people. Now that's a heck of a turnover! You'd be forgiven for thinking that it had turned into some sort of ginormous tourist attraction, and in a way it has; it's incredibly well preserved, the tour guides know their stuff and there are many well thought out exhibitions. But it's a lot more than that, you can't walk very far without seeing some flowers, candles or Jewish memorial stones: it's a graveyard.
It's seriously difficult to really explain how I felt that day, I guess the best description of how it felt was haunted. As I walked round the site, they were many unnerving artifacts and the events themselves were, of course, utterly horrendous and it was nothing to do with cold that I was frequently finding myself shaking as I faced certain photos. I'm not going to tell you about everything there, as it would bore you all to tears, although I could easily write a post on each individual artifact or photo! But boring you would take from the harrowing effects of the place, what makes it strange is how certain parts have a massive effect on you and really personalize what happened.
It's hard to think that an event which resulted in the murder of over six million people could ever have a personal impact. Especially when you consider how this well before my time and I have no family connections to the events, yet when you're faced with rooms full of human hair and piles of glasses, it's quite frankly over-whelming, it's hard to think of as real. Yet, when I was in a room full of suitcases I saw one which belonged to a one year little old girl with what translates as 'little child' underneath her name, knowing that she had certainly died on arrival was surreal, and we wouldn't even know she ever existed if it wasn't for her little suitcase.
Without a doubt it was the knowledge of what happened to all those children that really got me. I work in the childrenswear department of a local shop and get incredibly over excited whenever we get a new delivery of tiny baby shoes. To me, their tiny size represent everything adorable about babies, so, as you can imagine, seeing display cases containing tiny baby clothes was absolutely horrendous. Obviously I knew they had killed children, but they become a statistic, squashed together with their parents and everyone else who was slaughtered and that's hard to identify with on a personal level. But when you see tiny baby things, then walk around a gas chamber? Putting two and two together becomes somewhat traumatic.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was a death camp, it's a lot more spread out and most of it was blown up by panicked Nazis in a poor attempt at hiding what they'd done. A couple of buildings still remain however, including where they were registered and had to give up their clothes and identity. It also has a room showcasing an exhibition of family photos found in a suitcase where they had been stowed as oppose to destroyed, painstaking research had lead to many of them being identified and traced. Yet many were nameless, that was unnerving as the photos were your average family photo. Imagine picking a photo of you and your family, then everything else (including you) is completely destroyed, leaving just that one photo...
It's hard to explain something which has to be seen to be believed. It's easy to forget what happened. But seeing piles of prosthetic limbs has really highlighted the importance of remembering the victims of some of the most barbaric crimes in history. In the entrance to one of the blocks is a quote from George Snatayana which highlighted to me the importance of school trips to Auschwitz:
"Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it"