Auschwitz tour leaves visitor numb

England's Jack Butland (L), Andy Carroll (2L), Wayne Rooney (C) and Joe Hart walk through the...

England's Jack Butland (L), Andy Carroll (2L), Wayne Rooney (C) and Joe Hart walk through the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and former concentration camp during a visit by an England Football Association delegation ahead of Euro 2012 in Oswiecim, June 8, 2012. REUTERS/Michael Regan/Pool

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:26 PM ET

OSWIECIM, Poland -- It is difficult at first to comprehend this is one of the most evil places on earth.

There are the walls, the barbed wire and the guard towers that indicate this is not a run-of-the-mill tourist attraction.

The parking lot is full of tour buses, several shops are selling books and refreshments and, on a sunny day, you feel detached from all of the things that have been written about this place.

Yet, this is Auschwitz, a name that has become synonymous with evil and cruelty beyond description, just one location Nazi Germany created as a "final solution" for the "Jewish question" in Europe.

More than a million people a year come to Oswiecim, the Polish town from which Auschwitz took its name. Many come out of curiosity and to learn. There's a certain anticipation about seeing a place one has heard so much about.

But after the first few steps into the infamous concentration camp, everything immediately changes.

For those with any sense of humanity, morality and compassion, feelings of anxiety begin to build while walking under the wrought iron gate at the entrance of the camp.

"Arbeit Macht Frei," it reads. "Work makes you free."

Yet in days, perhaps even hours, those who walked under those words more than 70 years ago would learn what camp commandant Rudolf Hoess meant when he said "the only way out of Auschwitz is through the chimneys."

"Feeling different," said the guide, almost as if she was reading your mind. "That's what the people felt when they walked through here because, remember, many believed they were coming to a work camp. They weren't sure what was going to happen."

You see the barbed wire walkway, nearly 100 metres long and 1.5 metres wide, called the Jewish corridor where inmates walked to their housing blocks. You see the punishment cells. You see the execution wall and the hooks to hang people. Anxiety is replaced by loathing, horror and disbelief that humans can do such things to others.

By the time you get to the gas chambers and crematorium, the last stop for millions of Jews, emotions have been drained. You are left numb, your ability to reason gone, your soul vacuumed from your body by the evil committed at Auschwitz.

Your belief in the human spirit is left badly beaten. If there was any innocence upon entering this place, it was ripped away from you, just as thousands of children were ripped from the parents' arms and sent to die or to be experimented upon.

Auschwitz is not just one death camp but three in the same complex. When Auschwitz couldn't kill quickly enough, the Nazis built Auschwitz-Birkenau I and II.

They are all now part of the Holocaust Auschwitz Museum.

The Nazis grew more efficient in their ability to kill people. A railway was extended so trains rolled right into Auschwitz, speeding up the sorting process.

Birkenau I and II were built specifically as the "final solution to the Jewish question," according to Heinrich Himmler. The two gas chambers were little brick buildings that were gutted and had the windows bricked over. They were called "The Little Red House," and "The Little White House."

About 1.3 million people, most of them Jews, died at Auschwitz. The first prisoners were mostly Polish. They were the intellectuals, the leaders of the country. Also exterminated were gypsies, people with physical and mental impairments, homosexuals and Russian prisoners of war.

On some walls, row upon row of pictures, taken when the Nazis actually cared about registering inmates, hang silently. The faces staring out at you look the same -- haunted, vacant and hopeless.

The numbers are staggering, so staggering there's always the fear they become just that, numbers committed to a history some prefer to forget.

In a place where there is so little humanity, Auschwitz today manages to put faces where none would otherwise exist.

It's the ordinary things, the mundane. There wasn't much saving done at Auschwitz, except for those personal items now on display.

There are thousands of pairs of eyeglasses taken from those killed; the combs and shaving brushes and toothbrushes; the three rooms with shoes of all kinds piled upon each other. Another display has empty canisters where the Nazi prison staff stored the Zyklon B tablets, the gas used in the extermination chambers.

Then there's the hair.

Stored in a room is more than two tonnes of hair cut from prisoners as they arrived at the camp. Commanders kept a running count of how much hair they collected because it was used for socks, ropes, cords, clothes and the stuffing in mattresses and pillows.

You stare mutely at the hair and feel light-headed, without physical structure. It is a symbol of ultimate dehumanization.

Most of the items taken from those who came to Auschwitz were stored in separate buildings and that is where people most desired to work. The buildings were called Kanada (the German spelling for this country) 1, 2, 3, 4.

"Even though it was the worse place because people who had everything taken from them came there, it was the best place because those who worked there found food," the guide said. "Why it was called Kanada? Because they told the people that Kanada was a rich country."

But even hell has a point of no return. In Auschwitz, it's the punishment cells and gas chambers.

These are the creations of the ultimate sociopath. There are oxygen-deprivation rooms designed to suffocate dozens at a time; punishment cells about one metre by one metre where four people were forced to stand for hours, maybe days.

Outside the punishment block is the execution wall. Strangely, it is the one place that offers a sense of hope.

Against the wall are bouquets of flowers. A small rock has a name on it and a small card with Jesus is stuck in the wall. There is a nail, and on the nail are numerous rosaries.

It's a place that represents the reason Auschwitz remains. The flowers mean the people who died have not been forgotten.

"People come to remember their family and make sure this is not forgotten," the guide said.

There is a bouquet of flowers in front of one of the crematorium ovens.

Several teams that took part in the recent Euro 2012 soccer tournament took the opportunity to visit Auschwitz. Team members were greatly affected by their visit, leaving more informed and with a dose of reality imposed into their superstar lives.

When it's over, you are bone weary. It's a tiredness that reaches into your core as you bear the weight of the millions of souls who have accompanied your every step at Auschwitz.

On a day that engraves memories never to be forgotten in the core of your being, one will remain vivid, never to fade.

It's the white bouquet of flowers at the entrance of the crematorium oven.

It represents what the ghosts must tell those who come to Auschwitz now.

Never forget, never again.

 


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