This week marks one year since I visited Auschwitz. Since then, I have told scores of people what I saw and how it impacted me. I found that the more people I shared my story with, the more people I meet who have had similar experiences. While we all saw different things, we all agreed that it was a trip that changed our lives.
The passage of time has a way of turning fact into fiction. Time seems to erode the legitimacy of history, either by inflating it to incomprehensible sizes or by dumbing it down so that it is impossible to relate to. This can be said for any part of our world's history, from minor political squabbles to major world changing events. As the years pass, people rely more and more on these stories to piece together the world that once was. Auschwitz, and the legitimacy of what happened here, is one of these victims.
My flight to Europe last year had been delayed. There was an issue on the plane coming from Warsaw to Toronto and the plane had to turn around. While I was trying to get my flights figured out, I started chatting with an older woman beside me. She was heading home to see her family in Ukraine for Orthodox Easter. As we talked about our upcoming trips, I told her my plans to visit Auschwitz. When I mentioned it, the lady waved her hand at me and told me not to expect too much. Over the years, she said, they had cleaned it up so much that it isn't even worth visiting. She told me that when she went there in the 1960s, the smell of burnt flesh clung to the walls of the buildings. But now, many years later, it has become so desensitised that there was nothing there worth seeing.
Days passed, and I tried to brush off what she had said, but as I waited in the rain of Krakow for my tour bus to arrive, I couldn't. Auschwitz has such a strong historical persona associated with it that the idea of it being nothing more than a tourist trap bothered me. As somebody that travels the world, nothing upsets me more than seeing a historical location turned into an outdoor market.
For a moment, I wondered if my whole trip would be a waste.
My thoughts seemed to materialise when I got there. I expected a desolated, empty camp, but I instead saw throngs of tourists. I felt a crushing feeling inside me as if I had flown around the world to see nothing but a skeleton of something that once was. Our tour guide met up with another group and our two groups merged. Our guide then left and vanished into the crowd of people. As the rain continued to fall, we huddled under a canopy of a small shop near the entrance of the camp. There wasn't much in the shop, but they sold rain jackets, so I purchased one. If nothing else, I wanted to keep my camera dry.
After waiting outside for almost half an hour, our guide finally returned and explained what the delay was. Today was a special anniversary, and families of the victims, survivors and representives with wreaths were having a private tour. Soon it would be over and we could get inside, but because of the special day, the camp would be much busier than normal. She continued that there were hundreds of more people than usual at the camp today.
A few minutes later we walked over and joined the queue to enter the camp. When we finally got inside, we each received our own headphones and began our guided tour. At this point I did not know what to expect. Part of me wanted it to be the most heart wrenching experience of my life, but the other part expected it to be nothing more than a simple tour. I was already expecting disappointment.
As I entered the camp, I saw the words "Arbeit macht frei" – work will set you free. These three words were a physical testament to the lies the Nazi party told the people of Europe. These words mark the barrier between what is real, and what they want you to believe. Millions of people died believing these words, and here I stood, in a green plastic rain jacket and black, tacky headphones, wondering if I had been told yet another lie.
We entered Block 4 of the camp and then carried through to Block 5, 6 and 7. Each building were former barracks that had been converted into a museum. Block 4 started off with photographs, quotes and displays. Each of these tried to rationalise how people believed Nazi lies, and how easily they were willing to give up the basic human rights of others.
All the while I felt distant. I couldn't shake that I had held this place on such a high regard, only to have it shattered as an illusion. This was a historical place, yes, and horrible things happened here, but it just didn't have the feeling of dread I had expected.
As we continued through each of the Blocks, the photographs became more graphic. The photographs changed from people unboarding trains to children skipping on their way to gas chambers. From there, there were images of people running through forests naked, chased by dogs and guards, and images of starving people unpacking luggage in Canada I and Canada II.
After that, the images turned into physical relics. There was a display full of suitcases, each with the family's name written upon it. Then there was a hallway of shoes, a pile of over a thousand spectacles, a room full of cookware and a mountain of empty Zyklon B canisters. These all spoke volumes, but I had trouble relating to them. These were just a pile of old things – a reliquary – forgotten by time.
But then, everything changed.
Cameras were not allowed in the final room of the museum so I snapped a picture of the sign heading into it instead. The black sign had three white words engraved into it, and they are three words that changed my life forever. This room focused on "Exploiting the Corpses".
This room held the physical remains of what was left of the victims. After they arrived on the train, their possessions taken away and marched to the gas chambers, these poor souls were shaven and their bodies cremated by the tens of thousands. Their hair was the only part of them that remained, and it filled this room from one end to the other.
You can't walk away from a pile of human hair the same way. A year after I saw it, I still struggle for words to explain it. To see so much of something – something that was once living and what once defined the person who wore it – shaven, rotting and thrown into a pile is incomprehensible. Perhaps Auschwitz had been cleaned and desensitised since the 1960s, but this room holds all the proof needed that this was once hell on earth.
Thinking back a year later, I can see why movies and television dramatised and romanticised the Holocaust. The human mind can only comprehend so much, and the events that occurred here are far beyond that. By simplifying it down, they replace the dreadfulness of it with an inaccurate representation. These movies do what they can to capture the horrors of a place like this, but they only scratch the surface, and instead of educating the viewer, they create Auschwitz into something it wasn't. Auschwitz wasn't just a death camp; it was a place of pure evil. It was here that man forgot who they were and solved their problems with violence and blood.
The tour visited many other disturbing places after the room of human hair. I walked inside gas chambers, past the furnaces where the bodies were burned, past train cars, electric fences, prison cells, torture devices and execution sites. I saw where prisoners were forced to sleep by the masses and walked past wooden walls that seemed to still stench of fear and death.
I rode in silence on the way back to Krakow that day. My brain was both trying to process what I saw, and yet also trying to block it out. I could finally understand why veterans and victims chose not to speak of the Holocaust. I only saw what was left of the horror, and I still couldn't comprehend it.
If I could, I would want everybody to see what I saw. I want everybody to see the electric fences, the gas chambers, the rows of bunk beds, the suitcases, the railcars and the human hair. If everybody saw what I saw, the world wouldn't turn on itself so quickly. Mankind will never agree with itself and there will always be conflict, but there is a line, and I hope we never cross that line again.
If you're interested in what I saw while in Auschwitz, read the article I wrote last year about it, or about the nearby city of Krakow.
And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.