We arrive in Oświęcim by nightfall, hopping over slowly decaying railway tracks as we crossed the street to our hotel. Sticking my head out of the hotel room window, I can make out a parking lot and a fence on the other side of the road. In the morning, the bland Polish sunlight will reveal the gate with the words Arbeit Macht Frei strung over it. I had thought I was prepared, but then there really is no way to prepare yourself for this.
Oświęcim is the kind of town you imagine when people talk about the legacy of the Eastern Block. Grey buildings, roads that crumble around the edges, a dank and depressing bus station where nobody speaks English. What makes this particular town special is that its name translates to German: Auschwitz.
We have arrived on a school trip, all twenty-two of us students, plus two teachers. It is two weeks before our graduation, and we have spent the spring taking exams and reading books upon books about the Holocaust. We are here to spend two days in Oświęcim and one in Kraków, attending lectures and workshops.
There are two camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, which is also known as Birkenau. Our hotel is across the street from Auschwitz I, which is a scattering of twenty-six two-storey redbrick barracks, originally built for the Polish army, later taken over by the Germans. The first prisoners were Polish political activists, but eventually Auschwitz became the extermination camp we all know. It is deceptively beautiful, with tall trees in full leaf, framed by electrically wired fences.
Auschwitz I houses the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Most barracks have been converted into exhibits or memorials, some have been renovated to house lecture halls or offices. In addition to our workshops, we spend half a day touring the camp, walking through rooms with hundreds of suitcases piled up behind a glass screen, or hundreds of shoes, or glasses, or curls upon curls of human hair, still contaminated by Zyklon B from the gas chambers.
Our tour ends in the small gas chamber behind the last of the barracks, beneath a beautiful tall maple tree. This was a small-scale chamber, nothing compared to the two efficient machines in Birkenau. We stand in the small, blackened room, with a hatch in the ceiling where the capsules of Zyklon B were poured in. There is another room, with an oven in it, an oven big enough to burn human bodies.
We walk in and out of the camp several times a day, under that horrifying phrase that never became true for most of the prisoners. Work, of course, did not make anyone free. Most people shuffled back and forth through that gate, to the fields and back, their return burdened by the bodies of those who had died during the day. But we, we are alive and safe. We feel hungry, or tired, or cold, or sometimes bored when a guide speaks English poorly, or too quietly. We buy books at the bookstore, with sombre covers and heavy titles, we buy candles and light them with trembling hands and a sense of futility at the wall of flowers, where they used to hold executions. We down shots at the hotel bar, because none of us wants to go to bed. We feel like crying, but some sorrows are too great for tears, so instead we cautiously crack the most morbid jokes possible, laughter mixed with revulsion. We are beginning to realise that the things we have seen and heard will occupy our dreams for the next few months.
We visit Birkenau on the morning of the second day. Unlike Auschwitz I, Birkenau was built for the purpose it came to serve: extermination. It was never primarily a labour camp, except for those lucky enough to gas people to death, or burn the bodies, or participate in menial labour mostly intended to weaken the prisoners. Birkenau is a whole different world from Auschwitz I, an endless landscape of poorly constructed barracks, so vast you can barely see from one end of it to the other on a clear day. Most barracks have been burned down, some are simply decaying, but all of them are the same: cold, damp, filled with rickety bunk beds that each housed around forty people every night.
On the far side of the camp, near the small forest, are the ruins of the gas chambers, which the Nazis burnt down before fleeing the approaching Allied forces. There are mounted black and white photographs in the forest of the crowds who waited there, unaware of their fate. Hundreds of women and children and old men, those who weren’t good enough for labour.
We stand by the ruins of the gas chambers, near the monument constructed to honour and commemorate the victims. This is one of the largest sites of death in Europe, it is our shared spot for pain and sorrow. This is completely incomprehensible, because Auschwitz is not just a symbol for the Holocaust, it is not just a name in a history book, it is an actual place. We are standing on ground that has seen too much suffering for us to imagine.
This is the most shocking thing you will understand during these two days: this place, of which you’ve read and which you have seen in so many movies, is a place the same way your back yard is a place. It is sunlight and wind and firm earth beneath your feet, and this is where it gets scary. This is when you realise that death and fear and disease and starvation and extraordinary cruelty could happen anywhere. In your backyard, the soil could seep full of blood, the grass could be eaten by people so hungry they will devour anything. Auschwitz is not, as a physical place, particularly menacing. You could wander around this place and feel at ease, if you did not know of the cruelties that were committed here. This is something we talk about endlessly at night in our hotel rooms, the haunting mundanity of it all.
As the sun begins to set on the eve of the second day, we get on a bus to Kraków. I don’t turn to look back at Auschwitz, I stare ahead with relief settling into my bones.
We arrive at the hotel in Kraków at nine in the evening and we have never in our lives felt such relief. Kraków is beautiful after dusk, in the way of old European cities. We dump our suitcases in our hotel rooms and then we go out in search of a bar, because if there ever was a moment for cheap beer, this would be it, with shivers still running down our spines and stories playing over and over in our minds.