Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, Poland
If you consider just the numbers, it’s hard to comprehend. When you think about the individuals, it starts to feel more real. Galka Wladyslaw, inmate number 10557. Wrebski Walenty, inmate number 10410. Libucha Jan, inmate 10743.
Their names, their photos and their numbers line the hall of one of the internment buildings of the German concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz. One has a flower placed on it. Many of these people have faded into history, the names forgotten. Thankfully the crimes have not been.
But for every name on this wall there are thousands more who never even had their photo taken. The men and women with records here were at least given the chance to survive the concentration camp at Auschwitz, however awful that experience must have been. The others never had a hope.
Hundreds of thousands of prisoners were taken by the German guards straight from the train to the gas chambers. It wasn’t until the last moment that they realised what was happening – their fate had been determined long before that, though.
L. Berman from Hamburg. The name is handwritten on a suitcase that is part of a pile on display in one room of the Auschwitz museum. The other collections of shoes, glasses, plates, and trinkets are also all belongings which once had owners. They are the reminders of those who walked straight from a train carriage to their death.
When they entered the room they thought they were having a shower and being deloused. When the pellets of poison were dropped in through holes in the roof, and the reality struck, the guards of the camp were already thinking about rummaging through those suitcases for valuables. They didn’t realise the most valuable thing was written on the outside of the case… a name.
In another room of the museum, the memories of the individuals are blurred into an amorphous tangle. You can see visitors inhale and reel as they enter the room and see, behind metres and metres of glass, an enormous pile of hair. You can make out different colours and different lengths, but they’re all mixed together into a heap as large as a van. The guards at Auschwitz shaved the heads of their prisoners and were planning to sell the hair. These people were just a commodity to them.
1.3 million people. That’s the figure now accepted as the death toll of Auschwitz, although there’ll never be a way to know for sure. There’s a strange symmetry in that number – it’s exactly the same as the number of visitors who now, more than six decades later, pass through the gates to see the site for themselves.
Imagine if every one of those visitors was killed and the last sights they saw were the train tracks, the gates, the smiling guards, the chamber and the screaming prisoners climbing over each other to get away from the poison. Just imagine.
How could humans do that to other humans? How could they get away with it?
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Time Travel Turtle travelled to Poland as a guest of the Polish National Tourist Office but the opinions are his own.