Until the last minute, even after I had boarded the bus to Auschwitz, I was wondering if it was worth visiting the depressing concentration camps. After all, I had watched scores of documentaries and Holocaust movies and had a good idea of the black era of Auschwitz’s history. Wrong. No amount of videos and literature can prepare you for the emotional journey of Auschwitz. It has to be lived through, to make yourself a better person. And the world a safer place.
When I landed at Auschwitz, I was overwhelmed with deja vu. The famous Auschwitz gate engraved with “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free), the wire fences, the watch towers had been etched in my mind by the numerous Holocaust documentaries and movies I had watched. However, failed to feel the horror that transpired here 70 years ago. It was a beautiful day; the blooming wild flowers, the aroma of spring, the blue sky and stream of tourists made it difficult to believe that this was a memorial to 1.3 million innocent butchered souls.
Fortunately, I joined a guided tour with an amazing guide whose family members had suffered at Auschwitz. Her narration brought to life the grim reality of the concentration camps. I could sense the frail prisoners going about their daily chores under watchful eyes of SS with a slim hope of being rescued by the Red Army. Very few fortunate prisoners survived Auschwitz by managing the easier kitchen jobs or the disgusting jobs of handling the corpses. These ‘chosen men’ had to shave the heads of the corpses of their friends and family, break off gold teeth, cut off fingers to collect the sacred rings and finally cremate the corpses and dump the ashes.
As an engineer, what struck me most is the unfathomable amount of brainpower that had been devoted to improving the efficiency of the sinister operation. Everything, from housing more prisoners in rooms to increasing the throughput of extermination in the gas chambers to extracting most of the wealth of the victims had been carefully thought out and iterated upon. There are chambers in Auschwitz devoted to valuables extracted from the Jews for re-circulation in Germany and to fund the war: sunglasses, prosthetic limbs, tons of hair and even kids’ stuffed toys! I knew about these from the documentaries I had seen. However, the feeling that the Nazis viewed the prisoners walking around in Auschwitz as just a body with valuable hair, teeth and rings, that could be used to fund the war, still sent a chill down my spine. No wonder the SS guards referred to these unfortunate people as “salami”!
In Mahabharata, an Indian epic, there is a legend about a military formation called Chakravyuh which is easy to enter; but there is no exit and a large number of enemy forces could be killed simultaneously. The Nazis probably wanted something similar for “the Final Solution to the Jewish problem”. While Auschwitz was a labor camp which also executed prisoners, the sprawling campus of Auschwitz II or Birkenau was meticulously constructed to increase the throughput of gas chamber executions. A number of heroes escaped Auschwitz; but I am not sure anyone escaped Birkenau. Trainloads of European Jews were transported like chicken in cargo cars without heating, sanitation or food. If they survived the journey, they were queued and exterminated in the gas chambers! The rich and poor, the famous and the unknown, everyone met the same fate unless they were unlucky to be Dr. Mengele’s “chosen ones”.
Self-reflection at Auschwitz
A trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau shocks you into self-reflection; at least it had a profound effect on me. I was utterly depressed at the end of the day. Nevertheless, I think, I emerged a changed man; I re-learnt three important life lessons:
- The power of forgiveness: The genocide could probably have been avoided if the ordinary Germans executioners forgave the innocent Jews for whatever it is these Germans assumed their crime was.
- Life is short: The genocide wiped out many accomplished and talented prisoners along with those less gifted. If you wish to attain something, do it as soon as possible.
- There is always hope: At the end of the World War II, Birkenau was a dump with destroyed gas chambers and tonnes of ash. Today, a serene pond and wildflowers have reclaimed the place.
How to visit Auschwitz?
The logistics of visiting Auschwitz is straightforward. A bus from Krakow dropped us inside Auschwitz camp. The bus runs every hour or so. Similarly, there is a timed return bus that picks you up after the visit. You need a minimum of 8 hours for the transit and the tours. While you should take an official tour at Auschwitz to appreciate its history; there is no reason to take an expensive bus tour from Krakow that also includes the transport to and from Krakow.