This is a place which on one level is familiar to everyone. We have all seen photographs, read stories and watched films about Auschwitz. And yet going there was a completely new experience which was at times quite overwhelming. To be in the presence of genocide was profoundly moving. Because of course whilst we can all possess the rational and abstract knowledge of the ruthless and efficient industrial murder of 1.5 million Poles, Gypsies and Jews, it is quite a different matter to be confronted with the materiality of place which is Auschwitz. For me the most moving item was a small case containing childrens' shoes and clothes. These tiny artefacts spoke with an eloquence that a thousand books and films cannot.
Death camp, tree-lined and bathed in late summer sunshine.
For me the visit provoked some very complex thoughts, which are impossible to crystalise here. On the one hand the existence of Auschwitz now and in the past does not condone Israeli foreign policy. On the other the very disturbing similarity between - for example these events in Scotland in 2005, and these events in Germany in 1933 - suggests that we are all, always, poised on the edge of a very slippery and dangerous slope towards potential genocide. Auschwitz reminds us that very ordinary men and women can become brutal murderers in the right atmosphere. Auschwitz is more than just an historical moment, the killers could so easily be you and I.
Here are some more photos of Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp. Before the war this had been barracks and stables for the Polish Cavalry, but it was enlarged and developed by the Germans from 1940 onwards. At first it functioned as a processing centre for Poles, Gypsies, Jews and other undesirables or political opponents of the regime. Gradually it was transformed into a death camp, the first mass gassing took place here in the autumn of 1941. Once the larger camp at Birkenau had been established from 1942-3, the new camp specialised in mass murder. Auschwitz I remained the centre for medical experiments and for PoWs.
Auschwitz I - typical prison blocks.
Auschwitz I - the gas chamber and crema- torium
Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was designed from the outset as a mass concentration and death camp on the most enormous scale imaginable. It was constructed in 1942-3 and the site was chosen (as with the first camp) because the Polish city of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) was already a major hub of the railway system so that transport from all parts of Europe was easily facilitated.
Apart from the watchtowers and a few huts, most of this site was demolished by the Poles after the war and has not been restored.
View from the watchtower of the most blood- stained railway sidings in world history.
Brick chimneys are silent witness to the events which took place here.
This quote is from the website of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum...
"Historians estimate that among the people sent to Auschwitz there were at least 1,100,000 Jews from all the countries of occupied Europe, over 140,000 Poles (mostly political prisoners), approximately 20,000 Gypsies from several European countries, over 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and over ten thousand prisoners of other nationalities. The majority of the Jewish deportees died in the gas chambers immediately after arrival."
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