Poland: Why I visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp

It's the human hair that haunts me. A dusty mass of plaits and curls piled in display cases in Block 4 in a former barracks inside Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum. This mountain of misery harvested from those destined to die here, was packed into bales, spun into yarn or used to stuff mattresses. "They preferred women's hair to men's", says our guide, Ada. "Because it is softer."

Hair, once thick and vital, now matted and clumped like dead rodents, almost brings me to my knees. Like the rest of my group I stand in stunned silence for the briefest of moments before turning away. In Block 5 we stand in front of a pyre of suitcases, each labelled with names and birthdates. We file past rooms filled with spectacles and prosthetic limbs, hairbrushes and shoes, some small enough to fit into the palm of my hand.

The facts are chilling: During the four and a half years that Auschwitz-Birkenau operated near the town of Oswiecim in southern Poland, the German SS systematically killed 1.1 million people, a million of whom were Jews. While most were gassed by Zyklon B pellets, a cyanide-based pesticide, others died from disease, starvation and exhaustion. Barbaric experiments including sterilisation and manipulation of twins caused immeasurable suffering and death.

An elderly woman begins to weep, draping herself against her grandson like a grieving cemetery angel. Another moans and leaves the room. Why then, I ask myself, do we visit such tragic places? Is it an attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, to bear witness to the greatest crime in human history or, like George Santayana's aphorism on a plaque at Auschwitz I, to learn from the genocide – "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it"?

January 27, 2020 will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration and extermination camp. In a time when the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling and Holocaust deniers are becoming more political and brazen at spreading their hatred, sites such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum are crucial, not just as a memorial, but as a research and conservation centre.

We learn that these hair samples contain traces of hydrogen cyanide, which, together with first-hand accounts, components of the gas chambers and autopsy reports was used to convict Nazi war criminals.

With advances in chemical science, conserving these remains and relics is vital for unravelling intricate details. "Your visit not only honours the victims and continues to spread the truth, but funds raised through donations helps preserve the museum for future generations."

Our tour of Auschwitz I begins at the entrance gate with its iron lettering "Arbeit Macht Frei" – Work Sets You Free". Walking beneath the arch, which frames the orderly rows of brick barracks, feels akin to entering the gates of hell. We see where prisoners slept on three-tiered wooden planks, with four to each "bed", the execution wall, where thousands of condemned prisoners were shot, and the "starvation cell" in the basement of Block 11.

In preparation for my trip I'd visited Oskar Schindler's enamel factory in Krakow and read everything from Primo Levi's 1947 memoir If this is a Man to Heather Morris' 2018 The Tattooist of Auschwitz. How wrong I was to think anything could prepare me for these horrors.

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Worse was to come: a tour of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the second of the three camps, with its forest of crumbling chimneys and gas chambers. Wandering away from the infamous railway tracks I find myself at the edge of a field of yellow dandelions staring down at a plaque with the inscription – "For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity…"

And that is the power of a visit to Auschwitz: to see what can happen when a culture of hatred and racism is allowed to triumph.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/polandauschwitz.org

TOUR

Intrepid Travel offers a selection of European tours that visit Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum. See intrepidtravel.com

FLY

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Krakow, Poland via Dubai. See emirates.com.

Kerry van der Jagt travelled to Europe courtesy of Intrepid Travel intrepidtravel.com

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