There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 6 January 2011


Lynne and I visited Poland in July 2002 and I wrote this soon after. I don't claim any new insight - I doubt there are any left - and Auschwitz has been written about many time before by people better qualified and more eloquent than me, but I could not visit such a place and walk away like it was a country house or a museum. I had to write something, if only to try understand what I had seen.

Like all tourists in Kraków Lynne, and I walked up to the castle and the cathedral, strolled along the Vistula, lingered in the magnificent old square and photographed the seminary where Pope John Paul II trained as a priest.

Wawel Cathedral, Krakow

The next day we drove fifty kilometres east to Oświęcim. Oświęcim? The name is hardly familiar. Why make a special journey to this small industrial town?

Every part of Poland has spent long years under foreign occupation. Every Polish town has at some time been Russian or German or Austro-Hungarian and has acquired different names in different languages. ‘Oświęcim’ is pleasantly obscure, but its German name is known throughout the world. Oświęcim was once called Auschwitz.

Today the camp is a museum administered by the Polish government. Beyond the modern visitor centre, we passed beneath the words ‘Arbeit Mach Frei’ in wrought iron and entered the camp itself. All around us shoulders hunched, faces took on thoughtful expressions and conversations hushed in half a dozen languages. I was probably not the only one wondering why I was there. Had our visit any more moral validity than slowing down to gawp at a motorway accident?

Entering Auschwitz under Arbeit Mach Frei in wrought iron

At first sight Auschwitz does not seem terrible. Well-built two storey red brick barracks stand beside neat gravel streets lined with shady trees. I had read that the birds no longer sing here. That is not true.

Once a barracks for the Prussian Army, it was not built to be a place of horror
Entering a building we were faced with photographs stretching the length of the corridor – portrait sized versions of the camp mug shots. They look back at you, some terrified, some defiant but most with carefully guarded expressions. At first the roughly shaven scalps rob them of individuality but moving down the line you begin to see real people staring out from a living hell. Beneath each photograph is a name, an occupation - lecturer, shoemaker, engineer - a date of admission and a date of death. For older men these are often days apart, but generally it took perhaps six months to work a man to death.

Other blocks are as they were in 1944, straw the only bedding, toilet facilities cruelly inadequate. We entered the ‘Death Block’ past the bullet-pocked wall against which those who displeased the authorities were shot. In the basement, where Cyklon B gas was first tested on Russian prisoners of war, a party of Spanish teenagers listened uneasily as their guide explained the events of sixty years before.

Everywhere the shaven headed photographs stared down. Some of the hair was spun into cloth - a bolt of it sits in a glass case at the top of a flight of stairs – but much was stored. It now occupies a gallery in one of the huts. Behind a glass wall is the hair of tens of thousands of human beings. It is impossible not to stare open mouthed. It is impossible not to walk the whole length of the gallery though every step offers the same pitiful view as the step before. When I entered the camp I thought I might grasp some understanding of the suffering endured here, after this I knew I never could. In another hut is a gallery of shoes: men’s and women’s shoes, labourer’s boots and city loafers, broken and lace-less each one a public witness to a personal tragedy. There is a gallery of suitcases stencilled with names and the addresses they would never return to. There is a room of brushes - hairbrushes, shoe brushes, shaving brushes, toothbrushes. There is a mountain of spectacles and a sad display of prosthetic limbs.

Outside there is another world of trees and singing birds. It is hard to decide which world is real. Passing the hospital where Josef Mengele performed his perverted experiments we reached the crematorium. Auschwitz was a work camp, not an extermination camp but for most death was the only release. As the Red Army advanced, the Nazi’s blew up the ovens as though trying to pretend nothing had ever happened.

If Auschwitz is terrible, a two-minute drive took us to a place that is even worse. We approached Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau, across flat Silesian farmland.

Outside the gates of Birkenau life goes on

The gate-tower and forbidding entrance are familiar from flickering newsreels.

The gate tower at Birkenau seen from inside the camp

We climbed the gate-tower and scanned the vast camp, but it is the railway that attracts the eye. Bisecting the camp it leads a quarter of a mile into the distance. At the end of the line are the gas chambers and crematoria. To the west only the brick chimneys and floors of the wooden huts remain...

The railway and the destroyed huts as soon from the gate tower, Birkenau

To the east a section of the huts have been preserved and look much as they did in 1945, except that grass is neatly mown and the people are tourists - well fed and brightly dressed.

Preserved huts, Birkenau

We descended and walked through the camp. A fox strolled past us, as though everything was completely normal.

Fox, Birkenau
We entered one of the huts. If the barracks in Auschwitz could have been comfortable under a different regime with a different purpose, these were designed for misery. At night the inmates huddled on dark wooden shelves, the small stove pathetically inadequate in the vicious Silesian winter.
Inside one of the huts at Birkenau

Birkenau was purpose built for the extermination of the Jewish race. Killing was on an industrial scale. As trains arrived those who could work were taken to the camp where they might survive for weeks or months while the rest - the old, the infirm, mothers with children - went to the gas chambers. If the camp was full whole trainloads were gassed on arrival. In eighteen months two million people were killed. As at Auschwitz the gas chambers were destroyed as the Russians advanced. As at Auschwitz it remains obvious what they were.

The Railhead, Birkenau
The gas chambers and crematoria are just to the right

How did all this happen? The camp forces visitors to face deep questions about the nature of humanity and the presence or absence of God. It would be inappropriate to attempt to deal with such serious topics in a few sentences here.

Back in Krakow we visited the Kasimierz district, home in 1939 to 70 000 Jews.

Lynne outside the Old Synagogue, now a museum, Kasimierz

Today 150 live there but with Krakow’s tourist boom Kazimierz is enjoying a renaissance and restaurants serving Jewish food surround the old square. We sat outside the Café Ariel eating Jellied Carp and Tcholent stew. It was Friday and men wearing yarmulkas strolled in the square greeting friends. As dusk fell they drifted towards the synagogue. I wondered why they had stayed in Krakow. I had neither the language nor the impertinence to ask but I knew that for centuries Poles and Jews had lived here in harmony. Even in the worst days there were oases of sanity, the factory of Oscar Schindler lay just across the river from where we sat.
We dined at the Ariel Restaurant, the square in Kasimierz
As night fell children danced outside the synagogue singing traditional songs in a joyous affirmation of their ancient culture; proof enough that the ‘final solution’ had failed.

I cannot say that I enjoyed visiting Auschwitz, but it was an experience I will remember and it finished with children singing, a note of hope at the end of a dark day.


  1. That brought back grim memories; Alison and I went in 2003 at the start of a holiday walking in the Tatras Mountains. AS you say, not a fun thing to do but important that people go and see the two camps.

  2. Thanks for the update. We are going to Poland in August. We will visit Auschwitz, we have to go for the same reason as yourself. We cannot never expect to understand or even want to understand. However we must go and witness as best that we can.