A few weeks ago when I mentioned to my accountant that I was going to Auschwitz she said she went there in February. I thought ‘bravo’. Any person that can take on such a depressing place voluntarily at the coldest time of year deserves an accolade. But then I got to thinking – How does Auschwitz, possibly Poland’s biggest tourist attraction promote itself? The hotels around, do they have billboards or characters promoting their proximity to a death camp?
As for a promo line, here’s what I came up with, with a slight nudge and a reminder.
‘Auschwitz: You Know Why.’
We’ve all heard of it. We know the atrocities, so is there a guilt hanging over us to visit. Do we have a social or historical obligation to go?
With limited time, we visited the concentration camp Birkenau, rather than Museum Auschwitz, which Lonely Planet says is even more shocking. Admittedly, we didn’t take a guided tour that probably would have helped, but Liz said she couldn’t understand what she was doing there. Never had she felt like such a tourist as there. I also struggled to connect with it. As we know the story, maybe it seemed too much like a chance to gawk.
Realising this struggle to connect however reinforced just how lucky we both are for our upbringing and our freedom and without seeing war. We can’t even fathom the deaths of so many for absolutely no reason, even when standing on the very turf.
While the barrack shacks and latrines were bleak and the barbed wire was tall and cold, all these things by no means sent the shiver down the spine as intensely as it should have.
The two most affecting things there is the railway line that enters through large gates and stops, dropping prisoners off at literally a dead end, and a near km long path of pebbles and rocks that mothers and children would have to walk to the gas chambers.
Add to all this, weather-wise we couldn’t have timed it better, or worse. Warm blue skies tempered the chilling atmosphere.
The site has primarily been left as is, with maintenance done when necessary to keep buildings going. Fencing is still high and the buildings are creaking and creepy but the grass is green and contrary to popular myth, birds do fly over top (I always pictured a dozen or so crows on the freedom side of the fence daring each other to take flight).
As our first real stop on our tour of Eastern Europe, it certainly wouldn’t be our only war themed one, in fact the war stories and crimes against humanity would just get more recent.