I'm Ok With Being a Cliché: My Visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau
So today I travelled from Krakow, Poland, to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most lethal concentration camps and the largest extermination sites from World War II. I came here to Poland on my own, because Neil, understandably, was not keen on visiting Auschwitz. I have a bachelor’s degree in History, and much of my studies focused on WWII, and I have never really been near by this part of Europe. So, when I realised how close I was going to be, I decided I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to visit. Of course I expected it to be moving, but I did not expect it to affect me the way it did.
The first thing that struck me about Auschwitz I, the original camp that was previously barracks for the Polish Army, was the size. It was smaller than I expected. Not in the way that the Mona Lisa is smaller in real life than you picture it to be, but rather, I thought I knew of the scale of the killings that had happened here, and it just didn’t seem quite right. It wasn’t until we drove over to the second camp, Birkenau that was built when Auschwitz I was overcrowded, and the original gas chamber was no longer keeping up with the volume of people the Nazis wanted to exterminate, that I really started to get a concept of the actual scale of this atrocity. Birkenau is huge. The barracks go on and on in both directions as you walk by the train tracks that go down the centre of the camp. My guide pointed out that we were about to do the same walk as what many hundreds of thousands of prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau had done when they were here. Unlike the prisoners, however, we would be able to walk back again. It has always been very powerful to me to be able to stand in the same place, touch the same surfaces, see a similar view as someone would have from a significant moment in history; never have I felt that feeling of connectedness to the past the way I did here.
Something that was especially disturbing to learn about at the museum (and that’s saying something, right?) is the deceit of the Jews and other minorities who were brought to the extermination camp. They were told to label their suitcases so that they could find them if they were separated. People were told they had a luggage allowance, they brought dresses and suits for different occasions they thought they might encounter. They brought shoe polish and make up and cooking utensils so they were prepared for whatever new life they would find themselves in. People thought they were going somewhere where they could hope for a tomorrow. Even as they were being brought into the gas chambers, they were told that they were to be having a communal shower. The Nazis included shower heads as part of the design of the gas chambers. Contrary to some Hollywood films, the shower heads weren’t actually connected to anything - they were purely for show, to keep deceiving these people until their final moments. It seems especially cruel to have dangled hope in front of people’s hearts just to stop them from revolting in panic at the last moment.
I felt so moved to see all the shoes that were displayed in the museum. Of course the amount is completely staggering, just gigantic piles of them, and our guide said this wasn’t even 10% of the total of what would have been removed from the 1.3 million people who came through the camp. Most of the useable belongings were recycled and sent on to Germany to be redistributed to the German people to help with their war effort. But the different types and styles of shoes really struck me - of course there were many boots and simple brogues, the sort of shoes that you would expect to see. But there were also summer sandals of vibrant colours, embellished heels that wouldn’t look out of place under the hem of a ball gown, cool boots that you would expect a Newtown musician to wear. I even noticed a pair of braided raffia wedge heels. These shoes struck me so deeply because without realising, I sort of thought to myself, ‘Oh, they’re nice.’ This was a pair of shoes that I would pick up in a shop and feel happy wearing to a summer BBQ. The woman who wore those originally was probably not dissimilar to me - she might have been young, but not so young any more, liked to party and look fashionable, wear clothes that make a statement. And now her shoes are on display in a museum of one of the greatest tragedies of our human race. Every pair of shoes, pair of glasses, prosthetic leg, disembodied braid of hair, belonged to someone who had a story, a life, dreams, likes and dislikes, romances, struggles and successes, and they were taken away. And for what?
There is no way that the Nazis could have done this to the Jewish, Roma, Slavic, other religious and Queer communities if they saw them as human beings. It struck me today as I walked through the site of these horrors that it is dehumanisation that allows people to act so cruelly to each other. And it isn’t just the holocaust of WWII where this happened. It has happened countless times through history, where one group decided that another group is less than human, and asserts their dominance over them. Of course there are clear examples of this, such as the African Slave trade, the Stolen Generation of Indigenous Australians, the Armenian genocide, to name a grim and grisly few. But this happens on smaller scales every day. How could Australian politicians keep children in abhorrent conditions in detention if they didn’t dehumanise them in their minds? How could someone walk into a place of worship and shoot the people peacefully praying if they understood the to be a human in the way they understand that of themselves? Could we really walk past a struggling homeless person or bear to see the bloodied face of someone in a war zone on the news if we hadn’t built up defences of dehumanising, even if it’s just sub conscious, only for a moment in our day to day lives?
I think I probably sound like a bleeding heart, and I know I sound like a cliché. No one is shocked to hear what I have to say about my visit to Auschwitz. But I’m ok with that. My experience this morning made me rethink about the importance of not tolerating inequality; not allowing the little ways that discrimination creeps in around us, especially when it doesn’t directly affect us; not letting ourselves dehumanise the people who are different from us, and not accepting it when other people do it either. Because it might seem like a leap between intolerance and genocide, but I don’t want to have taken any step down a path that not everyone could turn back down with me.