Krakow isn’t your typical choice of holiday destination, let alone Auschwitz. In fact, I would never have gone if I hadn’t been given the opportunity by a local charity, ‘Learning from Auschwitz’. While I was there, I had to keep consciously reminding myself that I’d lugged my camera and lenses around for a reason – taking photos wasn’t a personal necessity, as it’s not an experience I’ll forget in a hurry, but I wanted to share my interpretation of the lessons of Auschwitz with the community in a visual manner.
Auschwitz I, once a small prison-like work camp, functioning as the administrative centre for the concentration camp complex, with the iconic “Arbeit macht frei”slogan emblazoned on the wrought iron gate, is contemporarily very much a museum experience, yet induces an eerie sense of realism that the conventional museum lacks. Although it hadn’t operated as a concentration camp for 66 years, and is mostly a reconstruction, the tour was an experience that can only be described as ‘heavy’.
There were rooms dedicated to displays of items collected from the gas chambers: piles of clothes, spectacles, shoes and even human hair were on display. The Nazi regime was disgustingly resourceful. Hair was shaved from Jewish women’s corpses and used to weave carpets and stuff pillows, while gold teeth and jewellery were removed and melted down. However, the ‘heaviest’ exhibitions were, without a doubt, the children’s shoes, dolls and toys. The sole memory of an innocent child lay wholly in the form of a shoe that would fit comfortably in the palm of your hand.
Block 11, known as “the prison within the prison” was the barrack used for the sadistic experimental torture of political prisoners. Victims of the ‘starvation cells’ were kept for 20 days with no sustenance, and if they survived, were taken outside and shot up against the execution wall. Likewise, the ‘standing cells’ were 1.5m2 and kept 4 prisoners simultaneously. With barely enough room to stand up in, victims died of suffocation, just like they did in the ‘dark cells’, which had no windows, and sometimes had a candle lit inside them to starve the prisoners of oxygen faster.
The execution wall in the courtyard outside Block 11 still attracts mourners. As a photographer, the relentless desire to capture the ‘perfect shot’ sometimes overrides virtue, and I couldn’t help but photograph an old lady, dressed head-to-toe in royal blue, perched on a step, having a quiet moment. The destructive extent of the Holocaust is shamefully lost through statistics; 1.1 million people died in Auschwitz, 11 million people died in the wider Holocaust, 6 million of them were Jews.
Figures that size cannot be visualised, and a look at the microcosm is necessary to value the intrinsic human worth of each of the victims. Every single one of the 11 million victims had a life, a family, friends, a job, a hobby, a favourite food, a passion, a talent, a name. Who knows this lady’s story? How old was she during the Third Reich? How was she affected? Did she lose a parent? A sibling? A friend? She herself may not even know the fate of her loved ones.
The gas chambers seem to be one of the most prominent aspects of the Holocaust. ‘Gas chamber’ is just as much a trigger word as ‘Hitler’ or ‘Nazi’ when discussing the Holocaust today. Nevertheless, I’ve always found that its exposure and fame has undermined the viciousness of mass extermination by asphyxiation. Considering reports show that about 800 people were gassed at once, the gas chambers are far smaller than you would expect – probably a bit bigger than the average classroom.
Zyklon-B pellets were dropped through a hatch in the roof and reacted with oxygen, releasing cyanide gas. 20 minutes later there was silence. Corpses were said to have been found with blotched skin, bleeding from their ears and foaming at the mouth. Scratch marks remain on the walls where desperate human beings tried everything they could to escape. Screams could still be heard over the sound of two motorcycles intentionally being revved outside the chambers in an attempt to muffle the sound.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau is the larger extermination camp, built with the aim of providing, as Hitler termed it, a “final solution to the Jewish question.” Not the vision of hell that it once was, as the late morning sun shone down on the rolling green lawns, I couldn’t help but think that it would be a decent picnic spot. Sensing this, the tour guide was quick to point out that any grass would have been eaten by starving prisoners, who barely survived off of 150 calories a day. Toilets were literally a row of holes; the first whistle meant that you could ‘start’, and the second was a strict call for you to stop. They slept in triple bunks, with up to six people sharing a bunk.
Meeting a Holocaust survivor, Bernard Offen, was a highlight. He shed some words of wisdom and spoke of some of his survival tactics. These included getting the top bunk in the sleeping quarters. Disease spread via contact with human excrement, and being at the top meant less exposure. You probably hadn’t noticed that I used the word “starving” in the previous paragraph. The word “starving” is common nowadays – an everyday turn of phrase. If there’s one thing that will stick with me, it’s Bernard saying, “By all means, say that you’re hungry, but please never tell me you’re starving, because you have no idea what it’s like to be starving.”
I was adamant that I wouldn’t take a bunch of cliché black and white photographs of barbed wire fences, although there are definitely a few black and white photographs, and a couple of barbed wire fences too. Alas, no matter how hard I tried; the photographs I took cannot accurately evoke the eclectic mix of emotions of actually visiting the camps personally, nor can my own experience grant me a full understanding of the atrocity that was the Holocaust. The Holocaust occurred as a result of racial prejudices, materialism and misconstrued Darwinian theory. I left Poland despairing of the human race. It doesn’t take belief in God, shared values or visual likeness to realise that what happened shouldn’t have happened, and should never happen again.
On Monday 14th November, a group of students will be exhibiting a portfolio of photographs and artwork at John Mackintosh Hall, and this exhibition will stay open to the public until Friday 18th November. Be sure to pop by and check it out.
By Jonathan Ablitt