The Burrows Report
It wasn't the wedding anniversary outing that my wife had perhaps expected but our time in Poland was limited and a visit to Auschwitz was always on our agenda.
We were staying in the historic city of Krakow and the former Nazi death camp was less than 50km away, so we had allocated our first full day to a visit there.
Auschwitz was the largest site for the Nazis' planned extermination of the Jews during World War II and more than a million men, women and children lost their lives there, 90 per cent of them Jews. It has become an enduring symbol of the Holocaust.
The camp - and its associated sub-camp, Birkenau, which, with its gas chambers and crematoriums, was a key component of the slaughter - is now a permanent museum and memorial to those victims.
Auschwitz is visited by 1,400,000 people of all nationalities each year, so we decided to join a tour with an English-speaking guide.
It was, appropriately, a gloomy and cold morning when we arrived at the camp and hundreds of people from around the world were gathering outside the entrance.
On leaving our minibus, members of our tour party were given yellow labels to identify that we were with an English-speaking group. Other visitors with the same tour company, who were presumably non-English-speaking, were sporting blue labels.
I found it bitterly ironic that on arrival at the camp entrance those visitors with blue labels were told to go to the left and those with yellow labels to the right.
More than 50 years earlier, arrivals at Auschwitz were similarly divided: healthy prisoners to the left; women, children and the sick to the right - the latter being immediately destined for the gas chambers and the crematoriums, usually the same day.
It was an eerie feeling walking though the camp gates beneath the infamous bronze sign that proclaims: "Arbeit macht frei" - Work sets you free. It's impossible not to ponder that a million people passed this way into the Auschwitz death factory, never to return.
The five-metre-long, 40-kilogram sign, which is one of the most recognisable features of Auschwitz, was stolen in December 2009. The theft sparked an international outcry, but the sign - cut into three pieces, each containing one word - was recovered about a week later and reinstated.
If it were not for the grim history surrounding the original Auschwitz camp it might, on first sight, even be considered a pleasant place. The mellow brick buildings are flanked by wide avenues lined with poplar trees. But any thoughts of this being an agreeable place are quickly dispelled by the bleak sight of an old guardhouse and twin rows of electric barbed wire fence.
The museum's exhibits are housed in the old brick barracks that once housed thousands of prisoners and it's an extremely chilling collection of artefacts: piles of empty Zyklon-B containers that had been used in the gas chambers; an array of crutches and prosthetics, confiscated from the prisoners; hundreds of shaving brushes; a staggering collection of shoes left behind by the victims as they walked naked into the gas chambers believing they were about to have a shower.
Among the most moving of the exhibits was for me a vast pile of suitcases, each with the name and birthdate of the owner painted on the side. Those suitcases, along with the Nazis' official photos of some of the prisoners that line one wall, personalised the unspeakable tragedy that unfolded at Auschwitz.
Yet even more heartrending is the display containing a mountain of human hair. This is one exhibit where visitors are not permitted to take photographs out of respect for the victims, likewise in the austere concrete gas chambers.
Although Auschwitz's main buildings are not particularly gruesome, the same cannot not be said for nearby Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which is instantly recognisable for what it was: a death camp.
By the time we arrived at the purpose-built extermination centre that is Birkenau there was a bitterly cold wind blowing and rain was lashing the bleak site. Most of the wooden barracks that once housed the many thousands of prisoners were demolished by the SS in a bid to erase all traces of their crimes. Likewise the gas chambers capable of killing 2000 people a day were blown up, but the ruins still remain and enough of the camp survives to give visitors an all-too-recognisable insight into the evil that was perpetrated here.
As we toured the barren campsite it was possible to get just the slightest inkling of what life must have been like for those forced to live in the draughty wooden barracks in the depths of a Polish winter.
We were well clothed and well fed and it was only September, but we were soaked and shivering with cold. It was hard to imagine what such an existence must have been like for the emaciated prisoners who were forced to live here while being used as forced labour at nearby industrial plants.
It was a subdued tour party that made its way in our minibus back to Krakow, and Jill and I were looking forward to a hot bath back at our hotel room.
But I had plans to brighten up our anniversary holiday. The next day I planned to take her down a saltmine.
- © Fairfax NZ News