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.
How could humans do that to other humans? How could they get away with it?
Time Travel Turtle travelled to Poland as a guest of the Polish National Tourist Office but the opinions are his own.
25 thoughts on “How could they get away with it?”
I definitely agree that it’s a must for everyone.
It’s difficult to describe how you feel going to Auschwitz where such a horrific event took place. I found it so difficult to comprehend how many people were put in there, even walking through a gas chamber which was filled with 700 people at any one point.
One thing that stuck with me was thinking about how at the end of the day, I get to walk through those gates and leave, but millions of people who entered six or seven decades ago did not.
I suppose we’re lucky to have grown up in a place and a time where this kind of thing wasn’t part of our personal history. That makes it even harder to imagine what it must have been like.
Hopefully the world will never see anything like this again – but that’s why I think it’s really important for people to visit and understand a bit more about what happened at places like Auschwitz.
As you know, the biggest gas chambers were destroyed by the Germans when they had to abandon the camps. But the smaller one that you can visit as part of the tour chills you to the bone. Such an awful feeling to be there.
This continues to happen in north korea FYI
I don’t think it’s to the same extent. And not with the world looking on and unwilling to act in the same way. But you’re right – the world is not free from atrocities.
It’s deplorable and I don’t think I’d like to visit.
I know how you feel. I was in two minds about whether to visit or not because you don’t want it to feel like a tourist attraction – and also you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you’ll feel upset. But ultimately it was really rewarding to go and get a better understanding of everything that happened.
I visited Dachau a couple of times and it is very sobering.
I went to Dachau many years ago when I was younger. I remember it being quite confronting. I think I got more out of the visit to Auschwitz, though. Partly because I’m a bit older and was probably looking at it with a different perspective… and also because of the differences in the scale of the crimes.
I visited a few years ago and it had the same affect on me. The numbers, the stories, the people, it’s so horrific to think about what happened there only 70 years ago. How could they get away with it!? I have no idea. But I think visiting places like Auschwitz and making sure to teach future generations about the Holocaust will help ensure it won’t happen again. Never forget.
One of the guides who was taking tours of the camp kept stressing how the Allies knew what was happening there and had satellite images to prove it but chose not to bomb the place because it wasn’t a ‘priority’. When it was put like that, it just seemed so shameful!
I went to Bergen-Belson — the camp where Anne Frank died, years ago — and it was overwhelming. The atrocities. And yes, how did they get away with it? So many people were suffering and the world didn’t know, or care. Great post.
I wonder whether anyone could get away with something of this scale in the modern world. Would communication technology expose it and make it unavoidable to stop? Or would governments and world leaders still ‘prioritise’ when in the middle of a horrible war.
What a beautifully written post. I’ve been to Auschwitz but I never found the courage nor the right words to speak about it. I remember feeling physically ill when I entered Block 15 (or was it 13?) and entered the three different torture rooms. It was all too overwhelming for me. And the question remain – how did they get away with it, and how did it end up like this?
The block with the torture rooms was awful. That, and certain other elements, I chose not to write about because it is hard to explain how you feel and what you think about it (maybe our brains are just unable to compute things that atrocious).
Powerful post – you’ve told the story well.
Thanks, Cam. It’s a hard thing to write about but I thought it was important to get some of my impressions into words.
Your words & photos help make the event real and heartbreaking. Thanks for posting.
Thanks Mary. I think it’s important to talk about these kind of things… painful as they are.
Thank you for this powerful entry. I’m always very happy when I see any entries on Oświęcim/Auschwitz death camp on travel sites and blogs. Especially if they are not written by Poles. I’m not sure if you know it but majority of Polish kids go to this place for a school trip when they are pupils. They might be like 9-10 years old. Not sure about my classmates, but I never forgot what I saw. Auschwitz makes me angry, sad, screaming, restless. Just because I couldn’t rationalize it. And I felt some kind of metaphysical guilt. How come this could happen in the country I live in, just forty something years before I was born? This deep scream is still somewhere inside me. Thank you for this post and for the pictures and for spreading the word.
Thank you, Zof, for your lovely comment. I imagine it’s really difficult for Polish people to accept that this happened on their land – even though it obviously wasn’t them who were so cruel. It’s good to know that schoolchildren are taken there when they are young. Even though they might not completely understand everything, it’s at that age that you are starting to develop and it’s important to see what can happen if you let evil and intolerance go unchecked.
A great article Michael, about a place very difficult to write about. I’ll always remember the feeling I had at the end of the train tracks in Birkenau, looking out over the ruins of the chambers the guards burnt down when they knew they were about to be captured. I’ve never felt such a bad energy in the air, ever; it was more than palpable – I could almost see it.
Places like Auschwitz may attract visitors from all over the world but I highly doubt it will ever feel like a tourist attraction. It’s somewhere where people should visit, to understand what abhorrence some of our race are capable of, and to know without a shadow of a doubt that it must never happen again.
Very well put! And you’re completely right about the energy. I don’t think it’s just that you are feeling so awful when you visit there – I think there really is something in the air or in the ground that reflects the atrocities that happened there. It’s a harrowing place to visit but a really important one.
As regards to Auschwitz – I’m always wondering why – except for Jews – other victims are almost never mentioned. If you go there, please remember about 150 000 Polish victims, political prisoners but also ordinary Poles, caught in street round-ups and sent to Auschwitz only because of their nationality, because in the german nazi undertanding they were “subhumans” who had no right to live. Think about Czechs and Slovaks, sent there for the same reason. Think about Russian POW, who were actually the first victims of gas chambers.
Think also about those who survived Auschwitz but their lives after war were completely devastated as they were never able to get rid of horrible camp memoires.
Very good points, Laura. Thanks for the comment. The Jews killed in concentration camps like Auschwitz are the best-known victims because of the sheer numbers. But, of course, there were many others who lost their lives there too. The gypsys, homosexuals, academics, and ethnic groups that didn’t fit into the masterplan. To see such rampant discrimination based purely on race or religion is so sad.
All of this was done by Germans – such cultural people who love Beethoven music and Goethe literature