July 31, 2013

The horrors of war - study trip in Poland - shaken, sad, upset, but I needed to see this

As long as I can remember – and I have a very good memory for things like that – I have been reading whatever I could get over about the second world war and especially what happened with the people of Jewish decent in the the occupied countries. At an early age I read Anne Frank's diary (follow the link to get to the official website) about the life of a child, later a young woman, in hiding in central Amsterdam during the World War II. I would try and imagine what it would be, being in her situation; She was at the same age, approximately, when she started to write her diary, never meant to be published, as I was when I started to read it. I read my mothers old copy of the book, and I read it again, and again, and again. I read everything I could find about Anne Frank, and I read similar stories. I visited Anne Frank's hiding place in Amsterdam, heard the bells of the church in the square outside, and I would, as I imagine many would, try and imagine myself in that situation.

View over the electical fence and a guard tower
At an early stage I felt the need to try and understand what the people of Europe had to go through during WWII - not just the people who died in the holocaust, but what happened and how it could happen - it has formed who we are, in so many ways, and it is something still so close in time. No-one was unaffected, definitely not in Europe, not even in the few countries that weren't directly dragged in to the war - Sweden was one of the few that remained neutral, but our neighbours were invaded and there was a constant fear we would be too, my grandparents and others have told me.

I have read the stories, met survivors and their children and grandchildren. Met the people that were tattooed and became a number rather than a name, met the ordinary citizens that weren't able to get food for their children, seen the traces of war, the bombed-out churches, the ruins. I have seen the bomb shelters, seen the money that lost value over night. Heard about having to seek shelter in the middle of the night.  The stories I have shocked me, I have cried, I have had nightmares. And yet I couldn't stop reading, because as horrible as it is, I believe it is important to never forget, to remember what happened, and to do our best to make sure it doesn't happen again. 

Due to especially Anne Frank and her diary the holocaust is probably what I read the most about, it is so horrendous, and was done on such a large scale that it's difficult to imagine - it is hard to understand how people can be so cruel, and on such a scale. For as long as I can remember I have felt a need to go see the concentration camps, to see with my own eyes, to try and grasp it. Millions of people sounds like a lot - but how can one visualise such big numbers? I needed to see if for myself. I especially wanted to see the one that I read/learnt the most about, the most horrible of them all. The one who got the name from the little town Oswiecim, in Poland, close to Krakow. Krakow is one of the most beautiful little cities I have seen, right in the middle of Europe, three hours by train from Warsaw, a city I recently visited.

The Auschwitz camp entrance
And here, in the middle of the beautiful green landscape, is Oswiecim. Or, as the Nazis called it - Auschwitz. Here the biggest concentration camp - death camp - is located. Auschwitz, or rather Auschwitz-Birkenau was the biggest camp, focused on extermination, on
murdering thousands time  thousands of people. It consisted of several smaller camps, the biggest and most well known being Auschwitz and Birkenau, which is why the camp is called what it is called - Auschwitz-Birkenau (follow the link to get to the official memorial/museum site).

The Auschwitz part was originally built for Polish soldiers while Birkenau, the largest part, was built up during the war, with one focus and one focus only; To commit the biggest crime ever committed, murdering innocent people; women, children, men. Birkenau is built on marshy land, in an area absolutely flat, with no protection from wind, sun, snow, heavy rain - and Poland definitely has the extremes of all of it - nor from the insects, the mosquitoes, nowhere to get away from the prying eyes of the guards, or the desperate eyes of the other prisoners who were starving, tortured, and more often than not ill with various deceases - without clean water and enough food you have no chance of staying healthy, staying alive. If you weren't sent to the gas chambers you would most likely be dead within months just from what you had to go through.

I could write page after page about all the emotions that welled through my head and heart seeing the thousands and thousands pairs of shoes, the shaved-off hair that was meant for the textile industry, all the empty suitcases that would never again be packed with things, suitcases that showed that no matter how desperate things were, the people who packed them must have had some sort of hope, some sort of wish that there would still be a chance that they could come home again. Most never did. More people than there are inhabitants in the biggest city of Sweden, my native country, died or were murdered in the camps and to and from them.

The train tracks that lead into the Birkenau camp
The train tracks that took the people straight up to the Birkenau camp, where selection was made - if you were lucky; Sometimes there was not even any selection but everybody was sent straight to the gas chamber.

Row after row with simple bunk beds that had to be shared with many people, the “toilets” in Birkenau that you were only allowed to use for a few minutes and only twice per day, the torture chambers in one of the blocks in Auschwitz, where the windows were blocked so you could hear the screams of the others, and listen to the sound of the people being murdered, but you couldn’t see what was actually going on – that's even worse than seeing it, I'd imagine, as you you know you are probably next and you don't know what to expect...

The empty tins having contained the deadly Zyclon B, the crystallised gas used to murder so many - 12 cans were enough to kill 2000 people, that's how deadly it was - the double rows of electrical fence, designed to keep the prisoners from escaping but equally efficient when you had lost your will to live; people committed suicide by throwing themselves onto the fence. Standing there I imagined the ticking sound that must have indicated if the power was on or not. The ash pits where some of the ash from the crematories was spread out, and the area around where you can still see tiny bone fragments, glittering in the sun, white and shiny. I saw them but thought it was just little stones in the gravel. And then our guide told us what it really was - the bone fragments that wouldn't completely burn into ashes, the remainings that had to be crushed - by other prisoners, prisoners that knew that they would most likely suffer the very same destiny.  

Map showing where the people came from
I am not going to say anything more, not now, because no matter what words I use, they will not be enough. I will let the pictures speak for themselves and let you go through the slide show. There is however no picture in the world that can fully describe what happened in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and what happened in other camps. Everybody need to see this, and everybody need to remember it, remember how cruel we humans are capable of being. We have a shared responsibility to educate each other and our children, so that we remember to respect and care for each other, so that we remember that this must not be allowed to happen again.

We are all humans, we all share similar hopes, dreams, fears and fantasies. Let's remember to always speak up when someone is treated badly - because that's where it all starts; Losing respect for each other one step at a time.


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