“Ladies and gentlemen, come this way,” said the tour guide.
It’s been eight months since I experienced the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and former Nazi German concentration camp, and though time has passed, I can’t escape the tone of the tour guide’s voice, nor his respectful inflection of Ladies and Gentlemen, any more than I can escape the images of the innocent who have been imprinted in my mind. Images of deportees; men, women and children, standing on a railway platform in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, waiting for their fates to be decided, to learn whether they would live or die. They didn’t know they would die. Many deportees were murdered soon after the following photo was taken.
After the liberation of Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, Lili Jacob, a Jew from Slovakia, found an album known as the Auschwitz Album or the Lili Jacob Album, which contained almost two hundred photographs (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum). The above photo forms a part of this collection.
I wanted to write about my experience when I returned to my home in Canada. Initially, I couldn’t write about what I had seen. I wanted to talk about my impressions to friends and colleagues, but I remained mostly silent. It’s a difficult subject, but today, 75 years after Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated, it’s time for conversation and for humanity to remember the atrocities committed here.
A sombre feeling grips you while passing through the entrance gate in Auschwitz. I could have been experiencing a normal community, a community where people like you and I live. But in this place humans didn’t live comfortably. Initially a quarantine center, a death camp existed here with inhumane conditions. The chimneys are silent now, smoke and ash does not rise into the sky. Yet, the stench of death lingers. I sense it. The tour guide reminds our group that we could be walking on lingering ash. Evil doings whisper at Auschwitz, of genocide; starvation, slave labor, torture, medical experimentation, selection and extermination. The death camp survives as a memorial, a cemetery, a place of remembrance and contemplation, and the museum holds the evidence of crimes committed here.
The evidence is overwhelming. Out of respect for the victims, images of ‘the room of hair’ were not permitted, though this evidence is viewable on the museum’s website. If I close my eyes, I can visualize the massive collection of human hair, cut from murdered deportees heads after death. The image imprinted in my mind brings me to tears, still.
“Ladies and gentlemen, come this way… Leave your belongings here and we’ll take care of them for you.”
Auschwitz gives the impression of a normal community until you realize the prisoners were forced to live here against their will. And while a few did escape, those left behind suffered severe punishments, which encouraged other victims to remain obedient to their SS Guards.
Many victims were murdered the same day they arrived, especially if they were considered unfit to work. The elderly. The disabled. Children.
“Ladies and gentlemen, come this way… Leave your belongings here and we’ll take care of them for you. Don’t forget where you placed them…”
When construction began in 1941, Auschwitz II-Birkenau was supposed to be a camp for 125 thousand prisoners of war, but it also served as the center for Jewish extermination. The majority—probably about 90%—of the victims of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp died in Birkenau. Approximately one million people. The majority, more than nine out of every ten, were Jewish. A large proportion of the more than 70 thousand Poles who died or were killed in the Auschwitz complex perished in Birkenau. So did approximately 20 thousand Roma and Sinti, in addition to Soviet POWs and prisoners of other nationalities (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum).
Walking beside the railway line overwhelmed me. My feet ground against the stones, an iron trail and walkway where deportees were forced to walk more than 75 years ago. The surrounding area is vast, quiet, no birdsong brightens the air, and many of the buildings are gone. Yet, the image of Jews arriving from Hungary, a country where my father’s family emigrated from, makes connections in my mind.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Nazi officers committed these atrocities. Like you, they or their descendants could be walking among us now.”
Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army on January 27th, 1945.
I’ll never understand how humans can commit heinous crimes. On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Ladies and Gentlemen, I leave you with this important message:
Historical facts were confirmed through Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’s website. If you are interested in learning more about the holocaust or the Auschwitz concentration camps, this is a good resource.