Unlike Auschwitz I – it was very clear when you reach Birkenau that the purpose is not the same. There are no tour guides or entry points at the building. It isn’t a museum like Auschwitz I. It is a field. There is a set of train tracks running through the middle beside a main road. The camp is divided into quadrants, each a mirror image of the last, allowing them to put different groups of people in different quadrants.
The thing that makes Birkenau so different is that this camp was built to hold over 100,000 people at once. When you look out on to the field they seem to go on forever. The houses, in order to speed up building time, were often build in wood instead of brick. Because at the end of the camps life time the Nazi’s wanted to cover up their actions, they set fire to many of these buildings – so all you can see are the brick chimney’s remaining.
The point of this camp was to become efficient for killing. It was built to be an extermination camp, with 4 well oiled gas chambers located on the property. When the trains came into the main road way, and people disembarked, they were initially evaluated for their suitability to work. Anyone too ill or weak was immediately sent to one side down a large uneven walkway towards the 2 gas chambers at the back of the property and killed immediately. The rest were placed into the orientation area and taught the rules of the camp, before being assigned to one of the quadrants.
Just like Auschwitz, they were extorted for their labour until they had nothing left to offer, and then killed. The prisons, experimentation, shooting walls and hanging platforms were all gone. The gas was the way to kill effectively and in large numbers, and that was what this camp was built for….death. And you can feel it in the air. I can’t say I believe in ghosts, but walking through this camps I felt like I was walking among the millions of souls that were lingering there. The ground, red from the clay of the bricks, feels like you are walking through their blood. The ground is uneven and difficult, and with my sore hip, it was long and painful to go down the 1 – 2 km road towards the gas chambers. But there I was, walking as they walked. And it was long. And I was tired. And I just wanted to stop, and sit down and cry.
And in the background, I kept hearing the whistle of a train. But I couldn’t see a train anywhere. It could have been one nearby, but not that I could tell. And every time I heard the train behind me I could imagine a new train load of Jews arriving behind me, being prepared to be sorted. I didn’t need to close my eyes – I felt it. I could see it in my minds eye. I felt like I was walking through it. This camp didn’t make me angry as the first did. This camp tore into my soul and branded a mark that I will never be able to let go of. It rests heavy on my shoulders. I opened doors to the remaining barracks and could imagine the faces of the people. I walked through the bathrooms, which are but holes in a piece of cement, and I saw the brick beds in the houses that survived. I walked the length of the gas chambers, from the rooms where their clothes were removed and shoes collected, to the room where they were gassed. The roof has collapsed now, and isn’t in tact like the rest, but you can imagine it just as well. I placed my hand on the train cart that they came in on, now collecting rocks from those who have come to pay tribute. I walked the train tracks that they entered in on. I walked up the road, down the tracks into their houses past their deaths and down the long mile that led them to their slaughter. I stood by the memorial that said in simple terms that this can NEVER be let to happen again. And I wanted to throw up. MILLIONS. MILLIONS died on this ground. The dirt is soaked with their blood. Their are frozen pools where their ashes were burried. We walked where they walked. There are not adequate words to describe what it feels like to drag your feet through the mud. And it was mud. The ground was wet and soggy. The fog was setting in and the air was a cold and we could see our breath. And as we walked over rocks and red soil we would sink into puddles of mud. And I said to say “I feel as though I am walking on the graves of the dead.” And wasn’t I?
My heart aches for them. Everyone of them. And my soul carries them with me. And that is why that place exists. They deserve to be honoured. And we need to learn from them. We cannot allow their deaths to be in vain. Let us be strong in our sorrow. Let us carry their bravery into this century. And while this was hard, and sobering, I believe it is important to go. To see. To know. So says my heavy heart. For today, that is all I can offer. A heart that carries this burden, but is resolved to turn it into something for a better tomorrow. Because that is all I can do.