#15 Lessons from Auschwitz and Birkenau

Categories Personal Growth
lessons from auschwitz and birkenau

My Girlfriend Took Me To Auschwitz For My Birthday

I was quite scared to go to Auschwitz.

Only a naive tourist could pen such an understatement.

At 7:50am on a wet, grey and cold Tuesday morning, we were collected from our comfortable Airbnb apartment in the Old Town of Krakow. Clambering into the back of a mini bus, we joined five strangers from Canada, America and Norway.

For the next 75 minutes, no one spoke a word. A documentary about the camp played from the ceiling but my thoughts were elsewhere. Specifically, they were with those that made a very different journey to the same place hardly 70 years ago.

lessons from auschwitz cattle-car transport
The cattle-car they arrived in

As a history student, I had studied my share of man-made evil and suffering, in no particular order, beyond the Holocaust: the Armenian and Rwandan genocides; “dekulakisation” in Russia; the Holomodor in the Ukraine; the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam; the plight of refugees in the 20th and 21st centuries.

I had read about the so-called concentration or labour camps and Stalin’s gulags and asked what everyone asks: how do such places come into being?

Few questions demand such attention and there is no shortage of answers.

We know from Stanley Milgram’s famous shock experiment at Yale that they begin with a small taste of suffering, barely registered on the tongue. No one complains at this point, to do so would be trivial—or so you would think. Once started, it is easy to inch along, pushing the dial so slightly that it is hardly noticed.

The slippery slope to hell descends from there.

“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.” – Viktor Frankl

Beyond blind obedience to authority and the compounding effect of evil, Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment would suggest the dangers of conformism and role-play. Good people in bad barrels become bad apples.

In his study of Reserve Police Battalion 101, Christopher Browning exposes how ordinary men became murderers. Hannah Arendt’s famous report on the “banality of evil” arrives at the same chilling conclusion:

The Holocaust cannot be explained away as the work of Hitler and a handful of psychopaths. It was the product of average people in reproducible circumstances.

“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human-being.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

That is why I was scared to visit Auschwitz.

To do so is to face the demons living inside us all.


At the gates of hell on earth

Nothing can prepare you for entering the depths of man-made hell on earth.

guided tour of auschwitz Arbeit macht frei
“Arbeit macht frei” – Work makes you free

Auschwitz I is a ghost town. While the crowds of visitors and the necessary conveyer-belt nature of the tour somewhat detracts from the experience, it helps to shape it too. It is impossible to image the scale of suffering but being part of a collective experience at least conjures up some notion of humanity.

Even as an adolescent atheist, walking around the Vatican was a charged experience. A sense of awe runs through your body.

The stark opposite can be said of a concentration camp.

Horror crawls through your skin.

A sense of collective shame hollows you out.

You trudge around in silence, there but not really there.

What struck me most and haunts me now is just how modern the camp feels. I was not expecting architecture reminiscent of any army barracks today. Naively, I had pictured decrepit shacks not bricks and mortar buildings.

The very bricks and calculated layout of the blocks was enough to deeply disturb me.

lessons from auschwitz and birkenau

At this point, I feel compelled to ask: what can I say about Auschwitz that has not been said before? By survivors themselves and other more qualified authors.

I can only recount my own experience, unique to me.

I suppose my aim, if I might write with one at all, is to urge someone to make the trip themselves, pick up a book on the subject, or, at the very least, take a few minutes out of their day to spare a thought to the events that happened a short 70 years ago.

To the events that are happening out of sight and mind around the world today.


Symbols of suffering I will never forget

Fabric made from human hair

Where to begin when attempting to describe the exhibitions at the Auschwitz museum? I suspect most visitors would start with the same haunting image: those displays containing reams and reams of human hair.

Walking into that room, I could not help but choke. Like many of the displays, its sheer scale immediately hits home, followed with the realisation that its contents makes up only a small fragment of the reality.

To see the stolen possessions of the prisoners is one thing. Without meaning any disrespect, they could be artefacts in any museum of the 20th century. But human hair is another matter altogether. The sight is truly devastating. Only this evening did I visit the barbers and almost shudder when sitting down in the chair.

Human hair sheared and collected as a textile material. Turned into fabric and sold to middle-class families. Nothing better illustrates the commoditisation and dehumanisation of the prisoners. No room felt more like a graveyard.

A sea of artificial limbs

If any room came close, it was this one:

lessons from auschwitz the artificial limbs

I struggle for words looking back at this image. When staring at the cases full of hair, it was difficult to process what I was looking at. Dehumanisation had been achieved so completely. The above display has the opposite effect. You can attribute each limb to an individual in a way that you cannot separate the masses of hair.

The saddest realisation is that every single owner would have met almost immediate death upon arrival at the camp, considered not fit to work and therefore valueless.

After travelling for up to two weeks in a cattle-car packed with 70-80 people or more, aching and bent over upright on their sticks, they would have disembarked with some relief, perhaps with optimism, and yet this was their fate.

The end of the line at Birkenau
The end of the line at Birkenau

Other prisoners would have been forced to collect up these artificial limbs, how I cannot bear to imagine. Each object tells the story of a life of discomfort and hardship long before arrival in the camp.

None could have imagined its final chapter.

Cabinets full of spectacles

I have to apologise for the poor quality of this image.

It strikes me though that it was not the sight of the spectacles that moved me so much as the symbolism behind them. Any child knows that glasses are associated with wisdom and intelligence.

What a horrible irony to see these twisted frames and smashed lens.

lessons from auschwitz pile of spectacles

The above image makes me think of 10,000 playground bullies pushing 10,000 helpless children to the ground and crushing their glasses underfoot. The reality was not so different, if only 100 times worse.

How much more frightening the camps must have been to those blinded and made all the more helpless. They might not have been able to see but we see them now.

A mountain of steps not taken

Perhaps the iconic image of Auschwitz is that of the displays of shoes that are stacked high and wide around entire rooms. As with the spectacles and luggage, the everyday nature of these objects is most unsettling.

lessons from auschwitz and birkenau mountain of shoes

As you know every pair of shoes belonged to an individual, you cannot help but attempt the macabre maths. But these cabinets go on and on.

It is an impossible task.

I found myself picking out particular pairs and imagining who might have worn them. Every so often my eyes rested on the most chilling sight of all: a children’s shoe smaller than my hand. What is there to say about that?


Lessons From Auschwitz and Birkenau

What lessons can be taken from visiting hell on earth?

Firstly, it is as paramount as uncomfortable to remind ourselves of the cruelty man is capable of inflicting upon man.

When you read the statistic of 1,100,000 human beings perishing in that camp, it is impossible to imagine the reality.

It is not until you hear first-hand about how the SS guards told prisoners to remember where they left their belongings before entering the gas chambers, that you get a sense of unadulterated evil.

Not until you can place yourself in their shoes and relate that to your own childhood experience stashing away clothes in a busy locker-room.

It is not until you read the name of every single woman pictured in photographs hanging around a camp block, looking her in the eyes, that you can begin to see past the meaningless numbers.

Hundreds of mothers, sisters, aunties and grandmothers.

Only a fraction of those stolen from loved ones.

Of course, to do so is to turn your back on the men facing out of photographs on the opposing wall. How could anyone choose? I am sorry.

lessons from auschwitz memorial slab

Humanity has been to Auschwitz once and we must recognise that we could well return. The road of intolerance ends with the tracks at Birkenau and it has never been more important that we change direction.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl


Call to action: If you have the opportunity to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau for yourself, I cannot encourage you enough, and please do share your experience.

I would highly recommend reading Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a truly inspiring (and optimistic) account of the psychologist’s own experience in Auschwitz. It might be the most important book you ever read.

Finally, I started listening to the audiobook version of The Tattooist of Auschwitz on the plane back from Krakow. This unique story of Lale Sokolov has only just been published after 50 years of silence and his passing. It’s well worth checking out.

If you liked this post, you might also like How To Be An Everyday Hero.

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