The visit to the countryside of Poland in the spring is quite pleasant, away from the city where I was staying and out to the main camp, the best known, place of modern historical genocide. Preserved buildings and streets like a small and very organised town, tourists on their pilgrimage to a mecca for remembrance. People from across the world, those speaking a dozen languages in separated groups lead by multilingual guides. Headsets connected to short-range radios, allowing the group to hear, over the sound of other parties, the voice of the tour guide. The sense of history, the quiet between words, the methodical grinding of those people killed in this place o nearby. And this was only the first camp. In the day-trip, our party was to visit Both Auschwitz One, the main camp, and Birkenau, the second camp with the famed train station that is common to the photography of Auschwitz and the Holocaust in general.
Of those things to note of the first camp, the quiet, the lack of birds, the mumbling of the tourists broken by cold silences and the walking of our boots on the cold floor in these old buildings. The talking between guests, the tears in the eyes of some and cold wide-eyed expressions from others. The buildings hold a neutral smell, they look much older than they are, and it's like walking through the castles of England with their bloody histories layered over centuries long past. Yet this is not ancient history, this is history in the lifetime of my grandparents' generation. Not a 12th-century affair but a 20th-century horror story, still fresh in the dirt of the land with the ashes of a million souls scattered in the region. The gas chamber, in one piece, restored from its broken parts by the survivors who turned such places into a lesson from the past. a watchtower, the train tracks, the fences and barbed wire, the places where the innocent where shot and the place where the guilty Nazis were later hung.
Birkenau, unlike the town scene, is a camp in a more traditional sense, buildings small and rectangular, many still stand, most are ruins, just the foundations. The large fences extend around, the main building is the train station building, and there is a carriage on the train tracks. The carriage is the kind of thing that would have carried cattle before WW2, during the Holocaust it carried people for hundreds of miles, for days, for what the victims of the Holocaust believed was relocation. They had little idea that they were to suffer a fake unworthy of any human being. They would arrive, be divided up by a Nazi doctor, the workers and those who were too old, too weak, too young, etc. Those able to work when to the cabins, those others were taken to the showers. The workers would shower too, and I'm sure that some wondered if they were to be killed or washed when they began to release what the true situation was.
Guard towers, more wire fences, stretching out, able to hold thousands of people at any one time, and in one of the cabins that we were allowed to enter, the room was small but they could fit fifty people inside. The roof wasn't perfectly connected to the walls, snow and rain would creep in onto those victims of German National Socialism, but there were things worse than that. The cramped starving people under bottom bunk were fouled upon by those above, there were no toilets, no corner suited to the task, and most, by the end, were waiting for death. Meaning the floor would have been most foul. The young and old stuck, waiting, freezing, dying in the night, your warmth next to a corpse not realised until the morning.
The large area was as quiet as death, no birds, and as we saw the rubble of the gas chambers and asked some questions, the guide noted that the ashes of the dead were scattered throughout the areas of the camp. We were walking on the powered remains of Holocaust. The day was dry, the ground was a little soft, the tour guide, who was descended from a survivor, she told us this fact as we stood on a patch of grass next to the remains of one of the gas chambers. Such moments in the day trip gave pause for thought, a glimpse of a perspective of a universe that views human life in an indifferent manner. And the only thing that I found unfortunate was the speed of the tour, too quick for my wishes, and the Jehovah's Witnesses, like birds of prey, waiting outside to hand out leaflets to the shocked and emotional.