The year is 2016. The date: 1st of August. The mood: sombre.
We are huddled in groups at the meeting point; an intersection between the streets Wierzbowa and Barksa, Krakow. A colourful crocodile, orange and yellow with razor-sharp jagged teeth looms in the background as wall art. The vans on standby are jet-black, including their windows, tinted in a seemingly sinister hue. They are numbered; our names assigned to van nine which will be our ride to Oswiecim. There’s no curious peeking in; for when you do so, your reflection bounces back at you. From inside, everything outside is viewed through a shadowy prism; colour has been stripped away, like a hearse waiting to ferry us to a dark place in history.
So we go back.
In a span of five hours, we will walk where these ones walked. Our footprints may match theirs, perhaps the same dust will rise underfoot. We will take in quick gulps of the same air; and in our mind’s eye see their clothes stripped away, we will witness them being garbed with prisoner’s uniform, painfully branded like animals; we will feel their desperation; observe the separation of ties that bind; families and friends torn away from each other forever, the barren pangs of hunger and the slavery to exhaustion.
The year is 1943. The date: 2nd of April. The mood: Fear.
Kitty and her mother have finally arrived in the dark of the night. They peer at their surroundings only illuminated by bright flashlights. It’s muddy everywhere, and they see a glow in the distance. The air is thick with a weird choking smell of roasting meat. They get off the train and huge Alsatian dogs fiercely lunge at them, spitting saliva with every bark, just stopped a few feet away, on leashes held by smirking Nazi guards. Ghastly looking figures with shaved heads and moon-like eyes sitting hollow in their sockets, scream in a multitude of languages. They stagger about in deep mud, working under the weight of whips coming down upon their backs.
The family of two are weak, hungry and cold; for the past 48 hours they’ve been standing on a train from Lublin to Auschwitz. Political prisoners. Their crime; holding documents that identify them as Aryan; ‘the master race.’ They are Polish Jews. For that clever exchange, they are viewed as enemies of the Third Reich, their sentence: life with hard labour.
From the get go death seems to stalk them, and in a duel with it’s dark encroaching shadow, they learn to survive. Kitty is only sixteen but in the next two years she will learn that survival depends on where she works, the shoes she wears and having a bowl; a bowl to eat and to shit.
There will be daily roll calls, not only to confirm the presence of the prisoners but to weed out those too weak or sick to be of any use to the Nazi.
It will be a long rocky road of endurance, of testing the limits, of depending on fellow prisoners for bare necessities; but Kitty and her mother will survive the holocaust that swallowed whole, millions of souls forever.
Dr Josef Mengele is the name most synonymous with Auschwitz-Birkenau. He is now remembered as Doctor Death. In those times, he was known differently to different people. A bon-vivant among family and friends, an anthropologist doctor, a gentle sweetheart to his wife, ‘uncle’ to the twins of Auschwitz. To the new arrivals in the camp; he was the sadistic melody maker, the one who thrummed a tune to their destiny, and like a conductor swung his hands from left to right; with first glance condemning some to death in the gas chambers and others to a life of labour or of experimentation.
The perpetrators of these crimes; the largest mass murders in the history of the world were meant to be civilized intellectuals, but in a topsy-turvy fashion let the swastika and all the hatred it stood for permeate their science and all they had been taught. The Hippocrates oath was completely forgotten by SS-doctors, who turned pledges to care for the ill into barbaric experiments and murders.
Historians and analysts estimate the number of people murdered at Auschwitz somewhere between 2.1 million to 4 million, of whom the vast majority were Jews.
Nazi Germany under Hitler during the course of the war and particularly following the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, had developed it’s genocidal capabilities, trying to advance what they deemed to be a ‘superior Aryan race’ by decimating those they felt were unworthy of life, resulting in a continental-wide operation that destroyed mostly Jewish communities in their entirety.
The magnitude of the holocaust should be understood in the context of what was lost. Before the Second World War; close to 10 million Jews lived, worked and grew up in Europe; in different roles, professionals in their fields, Nobel prize winners, Jews with culture and in communities; yet in a span of four years, they had been obliterated, in various gas chambers; though many died from starvation, forced labor, disease, shooting squads, and heinous medical experiments.
Auschwitz is a word that has come to symbolize the place of terror, genocide and The Holocaust. The place is established as a memorial museum to help future generations understand the atrocities committed within it’s fences should never happen again, and to ensure that these ones who lost their lives here are never forgotten.
Disclaimer: Our trip to Auschwitz was made possible by Discover Krakow. Pictures all mine.