Travel: History is a great teacher, but where are the pupils?     

The gate to Auschwitz I is historic for a painful and cruel joke. On the iron arched entrance, it is written Arbeit macht frei. It is a German phrase meaning ‘Work sets you free’.

Shoes of victims seen inside the museum at Auschwitz I camp. Both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, German Nazi concentration and extermination camps, were liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.
Shoes of victims seen inside the museum at Auschwitz I camp. Both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, German Nazi concentration and extermination camps, were liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.

Vijoy Kumar Sinha

We travelled to Auschwitz by train. The express train of Czech Railways takes an hour from Krakow and six hours from Prague to reach Oswiecim, a small and practically unmanned station. Trains stop briefly, giving just enough time for passengers to embark/disembark.

Signalling and route relays are automatic. Ticketing is through boletomat or from on board staff on the train. Trains, though very convenient and cheap if booked well in advance, are not however patronised by many. The preferred way for most tourists is to take a day trip from Krakow by bus or car.

Tourists, of course, come in hordes from all over the world. They all descend there by 10 AM and generally leave by 4 PM. To my mind though, visiting a solemn and an immeasurably sad place like Auschwitz in a group for a hurried tour is an injustice.

For me it was a pilgrimage for humanity. I had read about the horrors of Holocaust when I was barely 17 years old and 46 years later, I was there earlier this year, redeeming the pledge.

Lives are lost in wars. Wars are all about that. Lakhs of people died in Hiroshima also and arguably that too was part of the World War II. But what Auschwitz witnessed was a systemic, planned mass murder, refined into an assembly line operation on an industrial scale, perfected by shocking R&D efforts to optimise the cost:output ratio. It was an unprecedented war crime of gigantic proportions and a permanent blot on humanity. A sin that can never be atoned: a million and a half people killed in cold blood at just this one place!

Christina, my host at the apartment we had booked for our stay, spoke only passable English. At 70 years of age, however, she matched the energy, enthusiasm and efficiency of a 17 year old. She scored a perfect 10 on all counts of hospitality and warmth. She hugged each of us for welcome and at send off; it was like seeing off a close relative. Minor gaps in communication were adequately compensated by her generosity and kindness in accommodating all our requests, reasonable or otherwise.

Oswiecim is the name of the place in Polish. Germans called it Auschwitz. Today the town is known as Oswiecim, while the infamous camps are called Auschwitz. The camp has two parts: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, which is located at Birkenau, two kilometres apart and both approximately two kilometres away from the town. The taxi drivers speak little English, but it was clear that unlike in India, they do not cheat. Taxi fares in Poland are also comparatively cheaper.

Auschwitz I is the older and smaller of the two camps. It is now a museum. We reached there at 5 PM (the museum is open till 8.30 PM) when there were not too many visitors. The entry was free at that hour and one did not have to be part of a group as mandatory during earlier hours of the day.

During peak hours one does not have the liberty of seeing, feeling and soaking in the dreadful history at one’s own pace. As a part of crowd management strategy, during busy hours, tourists are allowed only in a group with an official guide who is always in a hurry.

But guide books are available in a kiosk past the security. The signages in the museum are so good and everything is described in such detail in Polish, English and Hebrew that the official guide is eminently dispensable. I would strongly recommend visiting Auschwitz I in the evening hours, staying in the town for the night and scheduling Auschwitz II (Birkenau) for the next morning.

The gate to Auschwitz I is historic for a painful and cruel joke. On the iron arched entrance, it is written Arbeit macht frei. It is a German phrase meaning ‘Work sets you free’.

Ironically, no one was ever set free here. There was also a sarcastic rhyme about the slogan Arbeit macht frei durch Krematorium Nummer drei which means ‘Work will set you free through cemetery number three’. The gate was made and put in place by the prisoners as part of their work. As a protest, they quietly put the letter B upside down.

The entire camp is fenced in two rows with barbed wire (during the war live electricity passed through them). Many times, those unable to bear the misery of the life in the camp (chronic starvation and forced labour with punishments for anything and everything) sought deliverance by electrocuting themselves.

Walking through these barracks takes you through the history of World War II. The display of pictures, posters, letters and pages of diary are poignant and bring the horrors of those times alive. It has a sobering effect on visitors, who are subdued by the enormity of the tragedy.

No one speaks save in whispers while in the museum. We photographed some of the displays. The confession of Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz I & II in his own handwriting, is one of the historic documents. So are diaries of other officers.

There are also displays of seemingly unimportant things like, shoes. Shoes are shoes and I didn’t pay much attention to them initially till I came across a mountain of old shoes, tens of thousands of them.

It suddenly hit me hard. They were the shoes removed from people before they were sent to the death chambers. Shoes suddenly acquired a special significance. They were the last of the personal possessions of the victims: rooms full of razors, mugs, photo frames, cups, combs and hair, yes, hair. Women were shaved before being sent to the gas chambers.

Every single item, albeit of minimal value, was removed before killing them. Teeth with gold fillings were pulled out from the corpses. The proceeds went for the war chest. The sight of the display of an infant’s dress made me suddenly feel very sick.

The evolution of Jewish persecution was in stages. Besides the Biblical basis of anti-semitism, over the years a narrative was created that Jews were the root cause of all that went wrong including German humiliation in the First World War.

For all problems, real or imagined, Jews were held responsible. Getting the world free of them set the agenda for the war. The first stage was ghettoisation, the next was labour/concentration camps with the goal of killing them by forced labour and starvation.

Initially killing was for troublemakers or those unfit for labour like the disabled, the elderly, children and women. To this list were added Poles, Russians, Gypsies, Romas, Jehovah’s Witness, communists and gays.

When Hitler came up with the ‘Final solution to the Jewish question’, there was a need felt for extermination camps. As per Hoss’s confession, Auschwitz was selected to be the first death camp by the Fuherer. This page in Hoss’s diary with highlighted text is displayed prominently in the museum.

Next to the courtyard where the execution took place by firing squads is the notorious medical barrack. Once humans were declared expendable, they became an opportunity for medical experiments.

Under supervision of a monstrous physician, Dr Josef Mangele, inhuman experiments were carried out to find ways for mass sterilisation and the fastest way of killing besides other ‘research’.

There are books available on these horrendous medical experiments and on Mangele himself at the camp’s souvenir stores. I would recommend a 1970 novel, QBVII, by Leon Uris, with the most heart-rending description of the horrors of this barrack (with all names changed, of course). It was here that killing by Zyclon B — an insecticide — in a closed chamber was researched as the most efficient agent for mass murder.

Killing a person is the easier part of extermination. Disposal of the dead body is the more difficult one. A gas chamber and a set of crematoria were made just outside the barbed fencing. A visit to these is the culmination of the tour and it was gut wrenching, sweeping visitors with an overwhelming feeling of disgust, leaving them to wonder what human beings are capable of inflicting on fellow human beings.

As we came out, the final item of the museum comes in sight: Rusted short drop iron gallows. It was here that Rodolf Hoss, the commandant of the camp, having been sentenced by the Polish Supreme national tribunal, was hanged to death on April 16 1945 on the gallows made especially for him.

The visit to the museum at Auschwitz I is a necessary primer for a visit to Auschwitz II.

The entrance is not regulated here because it is a vast stretch of land, stretching over eight kilometres, enclosed by a barbed wire fence, punctuated by a massive brick and mortar main entrance. The entrance signals the scale of operation of this death camp.

Through its central vestibule traverses a railway line, to take the train loads of deportees directly in. As Auschwitz I was felt to be too small for mass extermination; Auschwitz II was created at Birkenau. It was a massive complex consisting of a rail ramp, scores of barracks, four large gas chambers and a row of crematoria.

At its peak in 1943-44, the gas chambers were estimated to be killing as many as 5,500 people every day.

The barracks were wooden with a fireplace made of bricks and an iron chimney for kitchen and heating. When the fall of the German Reich became eminent, practically the entire camp was burnt, to destroy evidence.

What is left today is a vast expanse of barbed, fenced land with rows of fireplaces with chimneys jutting out. Some barracks have been reconstructed for display of the hellish living conditions. To one corner lie the dynamited remains of the gas chambers.

The railway line leads to a ramp with an additional engine escape line, where a solitary closed wagon, modified with a sentry post stands as a mute witness of the holocaust.

It was at this ramp that arrivals were divested of all their possessions, medically examined to segregate those fit to work from the rest who were to be sent to death barracks directly. Beyond the ramps some distance away is a neat solemn international memorial to commemorate the dead in all European languages and in Hebrew.

It reads, “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mostly Jews from various countries in Europe.”

As we come out, barely able to speak, ahead of me is a special visitor, a blind man with a cane and an escort. He came all the way from North America to visit the museum through the eyes of an escort and the end of his stick!

I wondered how ordinary people like us could be brainwashed so easily to inflict unimaginably cruel and inhuman torture to people like us. People who pray differently from us, eat different food, think differently or were simply born in a different place or community —are they sufficient reason for killing them?

The fault lines persist even today and newer ones are being created through imaginary narratives.

I left with a silent prayer, hoping that such a thing never happens again.

“History is a great teacher, but where are the pupils? ”

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