(Translation: Feeling Affected).
(For once the following does not include a single pun. Probably the first time in an extremely long while that a piece of mine hasn’t, as even the most serious have always had at least a handful embedded even if I am the only one that can even unearth them).
(Further note: Vienna is meant to come before this, but as it is in bullet note form still – mate, I’ve been busy ok – and I am brimming with zeal to type this one out, I’ve once again switched up on you. Apologies).
I woke up this morning with a substantial sense of foreboding puddling in the pit of my stomach.
As usual in the first stages of awakening it took me a moment to pinpoint why. Then it hit me and a flutter of winged insects set flight throughout my nerve system; today was Auschwitz, the Polish concentration camp visit.
The inclusion of this as part of this tour was the reason I booked it on an almost whim. Being of Polish ancestry, as well as a major WWII evangelist, going to a concentration camp has always been at the very apex of my life to-dos.
I’ve written a little post about it before, but my beautiful Babcia (paternal grandmother) herself was in a concentration camp as a young girl. Growing up in Warsaw, when WWII came to town, her family was driven out of their home, her father taken away and his life taken, her infant sister passed through the carriage barred window to family friends outside in a bid to give her a better chance of survival (she did make it, though it was a good decade before she was reunited with her family) and her brothers enlisted as soldiers. Babcia was sent to a Siberian concentration camp and then eventually to New Zealand, where she and her mother lived in a big settlement of refugees, mainly women and children.
I have talked to her a little about it, but not at length. My Babcia is a beautiful soul, perhaps the most so I have ever met. She is so gentle and genuine, pious about her faith and incredibly loving of her family. One of my fondest thoughts of her is her ritual of doing a little sign of the cross whenever we say goodbye or drive away; it’s not an all open, stagey act, but a discreet and subtle gesture that I have found as of the last year or so I have adopted myself (on the very d-low. If you are ever for some reason around me and observe, you may catch me out in doing a very inconspicuous little blessing over someone I love).
So why have we not discussed her childhood and time about the war in absolute intricate detail, seeing as I love her so much and am so interested in almost all things historical? Well, I don’t know. A myriad of reasons. One being perhaps that my Babcia is rather reserved; not in a standoffish regards in any way whatsoever, but more in the shy sense. Another being I don’t want to intrude (I know, unlike me; usually I charge in with gusto) and make her relive through things that may illicit traumatic memories and such. And a third – to be completely honest, I don’t know if I could handle it. WWII and concentration camps and atrocious regimes have always fascinated me because of the ability to disconnect and disengage myself from the information being imparted, but to hear someone I love fiercely with all my heart tell of actually being amidst that horror and heartbreak may very well break me.
I don’t usually let a lot of stuff affect me. I’m pretty good at going numb and blocking out the emotions that come with unsettling events or happenings, such as sickness and the like. I mean I can understand the sense of sadness, know it is distressing or depressing or hard hitting, but for the most part I am an oasis of detachment. Aside from my major turmoil over summer deciding of my way forward with the Contiki job and what not, the last time I felt unable to control the tsunami of swelling feelings was through the stages of breaking up with Jaas (and even then for a good seven-eighths of the day I remained closed off and on point).
But today, the tidal wave of emotion engulfed me well and truly.
As I got ready and packed up my stuff (mate, I’m a right superstar at laying tetras with my belongings and cell compression bags in packing my gear) I found myself trembling. As I plaited my hair I was quaking and quivering (fleeting thought that at least for once I had an excuse for not having on point hair). I was all antsy, on edge, and aside from Sheridan I just didn’t want to be around anyone.
It felt like I was going to a funeral and when I said so to Sheri she responded, “Well, we sort of are”. For once I didn’t want to don my Nikes and active wear; I felt the need to dress a little more respectfully was called for.
This whole trip when asked what I’m most looking forward to, Auschwitz has been the instant answer. It’s not “excited” for it, that’s not the word. Nor “pumped”. Not even “eager”. It’s more… I don’t even know. Just “looking forward to”. For once words are full on fleeing fugitive from me.
But this morning I didn’t even want to board the bus. Usually I’m first on, claiming seat and pumped to get on with the day’s journey to the next country on the list while listening to the trip anthem of “Lush Life”. But when 7.30am came, I found I didn’t give a fuck about where Sheri and I would be sitting. I didn’t want to listen to the song, I didn’t want to yarn with all around me as per – to be honest, I found everyone to be being extremely abrasive, even though they in no way were – I didn’t want to engage in any interactions. I just wanted to sit and write and pour out that horrible churning of trepidation into working with words (and when all around kept trying to instigate chat with me, I eventually hustled some ear plugs off Kiwi Muff Matt. They did fuck all to block out the surround sound, but my passenger pals didn’t know that an it was a legit excuse to ignore them). (Bless them really, fully bless them. I do really adore most of them and love having convos. Just not today). (Except for Sheri. I told her I could actually hear all and she could talk to me whenever. Literally the only one I could tolerate today). (Kind of gave the game away when a Coldplay song rang out and I loudly commented, “Good song for the sombre sitch”, and all surrounding realised I could actually hear every word that has been uttered around me. But it’s ok, pretty sure from all the snot and snivelling and eyeliner swindling around my chin, they forgive my not-having-a-bar).
IRKSOME. That’s what I was, to an absolute letter after “S”.
The haul to Poland was a long time on the road, departing at 7.46am for out Auschwitz arrival at just before 3pm. I sent the entire time agitated, anxious and overwrought. I felt like I’d chugged back a good 16 long blacks as a chaser of 27 Red Bulls (I don’t do caffeine), and zinging and zanging with unease and tension.
A quick impart of info.
In 1933 Hitler claimed the seat of power in Germany. One of his first major moves was to erect a “labour camp” just out of Berlin, being Dachau. It was a jail for political prisoners and the like, and set the foundations to build from as the blueprint.
Auschwitz came about in 1940, running as a camp for Polish political prisoners. September saw the first extermination of the imprisoned occur, and as Hitler incrementally put more and more laws in place the parameters defining the “parasites” – as he called them – extended to include many more groupings of people. The camp was extended to cope with the ever-increasing numbers of prisoners to consist of Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (a combination concentration and extermination camp) and Auschwitz III-Monowitz (a labour camp with factories). The site became a major location of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question – that is, the extermination of the Jewish people. From 1942 to late 1944, transport trains – cattle carriages – delivered thousands and thousands of European Jews to Auschwitz where they were mass murdered in the gas chambers at the camp. By the time the people were liberated in 1945, more than 1.1million prisoners had been killed at Auschwitz, a good 90 per cent being Jewish. (The other prisoners being Poles, Gypsies, Soviet POW, diverse nationalities and homosexuals).
Auschwitz I and II were made into museums by the state of Poland in 1947, being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
We arrived early for our 3pm slot (they are very strict on timings; if you miss it, that’s it) so we went to Birkenau first. Birkenau is free entry and about a five minute drive from Auschwitz I and consists of the barracks the prisoners had as their “homes”, the remainders of three gas chambers (which upon knowing the end was nigh the Nazis attempted to disassemble and disguise as bomb shelters), and the tracks where thousands were brought in on cattle trains to meet their end.
Sheri and I walked around the muddy fields, the bone-chillingly cold weather with sporadic rain downs extremely fitting for the grave situation. As we walked up to look inside a barrack, a group of men linking arms went by, singing a soulful Jewish song and wiping tears from their eyes. Sheri just looked at me with tears rivuleting down her face and said, “Fuck”.
The barracks were the living space for the prisoners, adapted from the field stables of the German army. They were designed to hold 52 horses; on being utilised at Birkenau, they were the homes of 700 to 1000 people – per barrack. The prisoners slept on two-to-each-bed bunks, and were only allowed to go to the toilet twice a day, being in the morning and before bed. If they felt the urge at night, they had no choice but to just go where they were – if they rose, they would be shot. Standing in the freezing space where it all happened felt surreal.
We went and looked at the cattle carriage standing stagnant on the tracks, actually being a genuine vehicle from the Holocaust. These carriages transported more than 70 people on each to the camp from their hometowns, with journeys being up to three weeks long in some instances – three weeks with no food, water or toilet facilities. Many didn’t even survive the transfer, their bodies left on the carts amongst the alive. As I looked at the cramped, dank and dark space it resounded over and over in my head, How the fuck did this happen?
At 2.45pm Sheri and I headed to the bus where tour guide Tarryn had our tickets. Being in a large group we had to enter through staggered entrance, meaning first 25 in at 3pm with the other two groups timed to enter in the next two lots of 20 minutes later. Of course (it just always seems to happen) I was in the first group. Our driver, Magic Mike, said we’d all meet back at the bus at 5pm. Sheri and I looked at each other in puzzlement; two hours? Surely one, maybe one-and-a-half would suffice? “We’ll probably be able to come back and chill on the coach when we’re done,” I whispered to her. Fuck me, was I wrong.
To pass through to the “museum” we had to go through security screening, much like that of an airport. They checked our bags, we had to walk through a metal detector and they scanned our tickets three times each. And then we were through.
I had originally thought I would make my way around the camp completely alone. I didn’t want to be in a group, nor with a handful of people, but by myself to be immersed in what I’d be seeing. As it turned out, (of course as we are for everything) I went around the whole thing with Sheri. And I am so so SO thankful that I did – it made the whole thing lot more thought provoking, gave us each a bit of support, and made the sometimes unnerving buildings in by ourselves a little less startling.
I need to be honest here, though it absolutely sickens me to say it; Auschwitz is actually kind of pretty. With it all in alignment blocks, red-hued brick buildings, strategically planted trees and chirpily tweeting birds singing their presence, it looks like a little quaint village. As I looked around and that thought hit me, I actually tasted bile in the back of my throat. I truthfully felt ill; I mean, how could I even think that something could be described as pretty that was entrenched with so much ugliness?
As we passed through the gate announcing it as Auschwitz, two American men posed beneath it with big grins on their faces. I couldn’t help but glare at them; it just seemed so wrong to smile. They were joking and jostling once the picture was taken, then one of them spat on the ground. It took all my might not to go up and slap the bastard hard across the face, reprimanding him for being so disrespectful. I settled for the most intense glare I could muster, then Sheri and I went on our way.
I was full of plans to further research and write up some of the information garnered as I walked around, but as since I have changed my mind. Likewise with the photos I took. They neglect to capture the significance of the site, and the images I acquired do not do it justice. Therefore I am only going to share a few that provide an element of insight or further put across what I am – finding it immensely difficult – trying to say.
The first block building Sheri and I entered was a memorial type one for victims. As we started our way around we realised it was all in Hungarian. Framed photos lined the walls of people, their faces illustrating the immense terror they were experiencing with their bulging, bewildered eyes and clenched teeth. Each of their photos was captioned with two dates, some a few months apart and others a few days. After pondering what they represented for a moment we realised they were the dates the person had entered Asuchwitz, followed by the day they had died there.
We went onto the second building which was one dedicated to the French Jews of the Holocaust. The second room was covered in photos of children, laughing and giggling and frolicking about in photos taken of them before the war, forever frozen in time; some were only nine, six, three years old. Halfway along I came across one of a young girl who was reminiscent of a young girl I know that is extremely close to my heart – Neve. The girl in the photo was about her age and had a similar mischievous little look on her angelic face.
You know that expression “choked back a sob”? Well I can now say it’s a real thing. I suddenly thought about the girl in the picture as being Neve and it absolutely broke me. Then I looked around at others and caught sight of one that looked identical to the brother James as a young boy and I fell to further pieces. This wasn’t a movie or book or fictitious tale; these were real people whose lives had been devastated, who’d been discriminated against, and for the most part, had died.
As we went onto the next block, being a memorial to the Dutch Jews, Sheri tapped me on the shoulder. “This may be very naive of me,” she said. “But I had never even thought about the fact that there were Jewish from all the other countries.” I nodded wildly. “Me too,” I admitted. “I’d never even considered it. I’d always just had this notion it was just the Germans and Polish and such. It brings a whole other few levels to the immensity of it all, doesn’t it?”
We went through the other blocks for other nationalities then headed to block 11, the Death Block. It had a long line of people snaking up the steps to get in, so Sheri and I joined the queue.
The first room on our left on entering (glassed off so you couldn’t actually go in) had a plaque stating it was the meeting office for the Gestapo. The room where they put together plots and plans for the extermination of the people imprisoned. The room where those in power sat, laughing as they talked of the walking skeletons they were killing slowly day by day.
A ripple of hatred zinged through my body and I literally curled my fists. (Sounds so literary and over descriptive but it was truly the way it was).
We went on through the rest of the Death Block (seeing the standing cells, hanging cells and imprisonment cells) before making our way through the others lining the street. I went through waves of detachment intermingled with moments of overwhelming grief as I read through the information boards, studied the framed photos and observed the actual rooms where monstrosities took place.
There’s so much I could say here from all I saw and read, but I feel it’s something that could never come across with my words. Plus I feel I don’t have the, almost authority to be telling of it. So I will add only a few photos, and just mention a few bits that really struck me.
In one of the blocks was all the belongings of the Jewish prisoners found after the liberation. Massive window displays of clothes, eye glasses, shoes, suitcases, kitchen cutlery and such. Some of them were in cages a good three metres deep. It was surreal. And then I hit the hair.
Fucking hell. Two huge, expansive window displays of hair. Human hair. Female human hair.
Upon arriving at the camp, the locks upon the heads of the women were completely shaven off. I always assumed this was to lessen the chance of lice, maybe partially to remove their femininity and render them “sexless”, but the major reason for doing so? To sell them.
Yup. Selling the hundreds of kilograms of female hair to use in the textile industry. After the war’s end examinations on a number of furniture pieces and woven fabrics showed the presence of hair, along with traces of the chemicals used in the gas chambers. Meaning that upon women whose hair had for some reason not been shaved or had grown back being sent to their end, the guards shaved it off once they had passed. More than 1,950kg of hair was in the windows, with a plaque telling that the SS sold it as a raw material to the German textile industry for 50 pfennigs per kg.
I definitely needed a few moments to gather myself together after that.
Another was a sign outside yet another block complex (10), noting it was the sterilisation and experimentation building. The cellblock was where the men and women were used as experimental subjects for German doctors, ranging from skin testing to dissections of the body. Then the building a little down the lane said on its outside sign that it housed several hundred women prisoners in the two upstairs rooms where a German gynaecologist conducted sterilisation experiments on them, most of them dying from the drugs administered. I felt sick. Nauseous and light headed and disgusted in people as a whole.
When we passed the square of concrete with a sign announcing it as the roll call area I actually shuddered. On the bus beforehand Tarryn had been telling us about the roll calls, where the prisoners were made to stand as every single person was checked off as being present. If anyone was missing they had to remain standing for seven, ten, twelve hours on end until the absent one was found. This included anyone that had died, meaning the prisoners would have to carry anyone that had perished during the day over to the area to lessen their time having to stand.
The Polish block really got to me, and not just because of my Polish roots. I don’t even want to impart what I saw in there, but I will just include a few photos of some boards and quotes that got me to the core.
We flew through the last few blocks trying to take in as much as we could in the limited time and at 4.56pm went to head to the exit. However just before we went through the turntable we saw a cluster of people gathered to enter an ugly stone structure off to the right. Sheri and I immediately ran over to have a look.
It was a gas chamber.
An actual chamber where thousands of people met their end. Where they were herded off to, told they were going to be “disinfected”, then murdered by poisonous gases unleashed through the supposed shower heads. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the fear they would have felt, sense the terror of those who stood where I was eight decades on – but how could I even try to elicit the emotion they would’ve felt? You hear about it, read about it, sympathise with it and sometimes be distressed by it, but you could never summon anywhere near the feelings that those there would’ve experienced.
We hurried back so as not to miss the bus, the last two to board. Tour guide Tarryn stood at the top of the steps awaiting our arrival, her eyes a compassionate “Are you ok?”. I couldn’t even bring myself to respond, just went to my seat, pulled my hood over my face and wrenched out my laptop to unleash the torrents of words whirring about my brain.
Part of me feels empty. A vacant hollow of I-don’t-know-what-to-do-or-think. But it is being overridden, more and more as I stew over what I’ve just seen, by a feeling.
How do I feel?
Fucking livid. Enraged. Gutted in the human race. Devastated even.
There is that undercurrent of sorrow. Intermingled with desolution and depression. But for the most part I am furious.
I thought I’d be beside myself with grief. Balling my eyes out and hugging everyone around me and doing the Babcia-blessing on all. But Im not in the slightest. I’ve gone hard. Whenever anyone goes to clap me on the upper arm and see if I’m ok, I’m just nodding with not even a terse smile, pulling my hood tighter around my face and staring straight forward with narrow eyes.
It’s all very well to say something has changed you for good immediately after it has occurred. It’s usually the case that people do, then two weeks, one week, three days, an hour down the track that sense of modification has dispelled and you’re back to how you were before, that sensation of transformation all but a ephemeral memory. But I really think this has shifted something in me. And I don’t want it to shift back.
I want to bottle this sentiment up and spritz myself with it anytime I feel myself slip into shallowness. My mind is whirling with thoughts and moods and reactions and I just want to capture them all to reread and re-experience whenever I lose sight of myself.
On the wall of one of the blocks was a quote that I have always unaware-ably said myself in a paraphrased way. “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, uttered by one George Santayana. And I think that’s an important note to end on.
Walking around the rooms and seeing the photos of men, women and children going off to their death; considering the seas of shoe polish that belonged to the imprisoned in the camp; reading the captions denoting the women who gave themselves up for experimentation in a bid to get an extra piece of bread for their children, in exchange for empty promises for their offspring’s safety; it is harrowing. It is emotional. And or some (such as myself) it instills a fierce sense of fury.
But that doesn’t mean tomorrow I should sit in my hotel room and brood over what I have seen (tonight is fully acceptable, however). It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t go and live, see Krakow and be allowed to laugh. Bt it doesn’t mean I should tick it off the to-do list and never ruminate about it again.
It’s curious to note when you undergo a massive turmoil or emotional experience who you want to talk to. I think it really shows the ones who mean a great deal to you, with the people on mind sometimes rather surprising. (And this doesn’t mean the ones you don’t feel the urge to talk to mean any less; not at all. Sometimes you go-to may just not be who you may have thought).
Right now, I don’t want to talk to anyne for a bit. I want to write and reflect and just be alone. As soon as we get to Krakow I’m going to go for a run, shake this hard sensation off a bit, then I’m going to come back and just send a message to a couple of people I’m just really pulled to contact. One is most defeinitely a little message to my Babcia. Another being my Uncle Adrian. And the third is someone special that I didn’t perhaps realise was that, well, special.
I know the anger will subside. I even just cracked a slight smile at Nic across the way. But right now I want to stay with it and let it not just go to town, but charge the city in me.
As I said, Auschwitz detonated an absolute guttering in the human race for me. But in considering the re-rise of the Polish culture, the ability of people to survive through such atrocities and go on to live fulfilled lives and seeing people around consoling and showing concern for other obviously affected by the displays sows a little seed of hope.
Let’s cross phalanges that this buds and blooms a bit so tomorrow morning I awaken more hopeful and encouraged. But for now, I’m just devastated.
So Auschwitz? One thousand per cent affected.