August 06, 2009

A harrowing reality check

The main reason we headed over to Krakow was to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp, but when we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised to find a pretty Prague-esque town, minus the million and one tourists.

There were the usual medieval treats – a castle, a big square and cobbled lanes – and culinary ones, too, namely giant pork knuckle and lard smothered on bread.

Though compared to the experience of visiting the now-famous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, these things seem rather trivial.

Physically being in the buildings and walking the grounds of the place where over 1.1 million people died in the Second World War really puts things into perspective. There I was losing sleep over petty problems like how to get to Greece from Croatia, when these people were taken from their homes, stripped of all their possessions, forced to live in horrific conditions and faced certain death, whether it was from exhaustion, starvation, firing squad or gas chamber.

We opted to do a three-hour tour of the camp, starting with a 15-minute video showing footage of the survivors being liberated, many of whom were in such poor physical condition they had to be carried out. We were then taken through the gate of Auschwitz, which bears the motto, 'work brings freedom'. We were shown cells, photos of the prisoners, prisoner's possessions (thousands of shoes, suitcases, brushes), a gas chamber and, perhaps the most shocking, a gigantic pile of human hair which the Nazis took from the dead to turn into products like blankets.

Over at nearby Birkenau, we saw the wooden horse stables which were used to house thousands of prisoners at a time (five to a bed), and the remains of the gas chambers that the Nazis destroyed in a bid to hide the evidence.

It is incomprensible to us how human beings could have possibly treated fellow people in such a disgusting, immoral, cruel way, and even more shocking to think these crimes took place only 65 years ago.

At the end of the tour, our guide left us with a poignant quote/poem, which I am going to leave you with now:

'First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

'Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

'Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

'Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.' РMartin Niem̦ller