Defenceless In Auschwitz

By Jane Mountain | June 13, 2013

Any visit to this part of Poland will undoubtedly include a trip to Auschwitz. Today was our Auschwitz day.

Like most people, I didn’t really want to visit Auschwitz, but I felt like it was a duty, something you must do.

I’m not going to write much about the actual visit, but I will try to describe how it felt.

In Denial

At the beginning, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. Just the thought of being in a place where more than a million people were slaughtered… I was sure there would be some kind of deathly vibration about the place. But there wasn’t. When we got there, it just looked like any old field full of long wooden barns (if you ignored the double barbed wire electric fences, that is).

In Birkenau, where we went first, I kept having to remind myself that what we were being told and shown was something real, that happened to real people, just a few decades ago. I couldn’t reconcile the idea that human beings could treat other human beings the same way we now treat animals. Worse than the way we treat animals.

Especially in a premeditated way, where there was no “heat of the moment” excuse. It was just cold-blooded, systematic inhumanity.

train tracks at auschwitz

The end of the tracks, outside the gas chambers.

wooden bunks at auschwitz

A typical bed for 3 or 4 people each.

For most of the tour, I felt a little numb, a little detached. A natural defence mechanism, right? Probably the same mechanism that allowed SS men to carry out their horrible duties and prisoners to avoid going completely insane.

This is not happening. It’s not real. It’s not really me doing these things…

And then we entered the building where the personal belongings of thousands of victims was stored. We saw small hills of shoes, plastic combs, clothing, hair… yes, human hair that the Nazis had gathered to make into haircloth. I shut my eyes as we walked through that room. Another defence mechanism.

Pots that prisoners brought to Auschwitz, thinking they would have something to cook in them.

Pots that prisoners brought to Auschwitz, thinking they would have something to cook in them.

No, I didn’t see that. I didn’t.

The room that finally broke through all of my defences and opened me up to the reality of Auschwitz was a room filled with suitcases. Plain, leather suitcases of all shapes and sizes. On each was written the owner’s name.

Hermann Pasternak. Jacob Greilsamer. Klara Sara Fochtmann.

Suitcases that were never to be used again.

Suitcases that were never to be used again.

Such a simple everyday item. A suitcase with a name. Something you pack when you’re going on holiday, or moving to a new and better place.

What Have We Learned?

We say we visit Auschwitz to remember what happened, to avoid history repeating. It’s not really working.

Right now, in Syria, the dictator Bashar al-Assad is killing his own people by the thousands, because they have had the audacity to stand up for their civil liberties. Close to 100,000 people have been killed by Assad in the past year with aid from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Reports say approximately 200,000 people are imprisoned in Syria without trial, without records being kept, and without any hope for release. Syria currently has so many prisoners that soccer stadiums are being used to house them.

Guantanamo Bay is a complex run by the United States government, where more than 60% of the population is on hunger strike protesting against their indefinite detention. They are currently being force-fed by their captors. Both their imprisonment and the force-feeding are a violation of their human rights.

Parwan Detention Facility (PDF) is a United States-run prison located next to Bagram Airfield in the Parwan Province of Afghanistan. Captives which the United States deemed too dangerous, and those who are not Afghani nationals, are kept here without trial or charge, and without possibility of release. The Afghan government claims the United States continues to illegally arrest Afghan citizens and detain them in this facility.

North Korea is known to operate six concentration camps, currently accommodating at least 200,000 prisoners suffering treatment on par with Auschwitz. These prisons are known as Kwan-li-so (control and management centres). They house political prisoners, criminals, and people who escaped from the country but were captured in Burma, China, and the like, and returned. They are imprisoned, without trial, often along with three generations of their family, and sentenced to hard labour in mines, factories, and farms contained within the concentration camp system. Many sentences are for life in prison.

The list goes on… Chikurubi Prison in Zimbabwe, the Laogai in China (an estimated 50 million people in the past 50 years have passed through the labour camps), Nigeria’s recent destruction of entire villages, Rwanda, Serbia, Croatia, Chechnya, Palestine…

Our minds are designed to ignore the horrible things happening around us. Let’s try instead to see them and act.  

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  1. Comment by Andrea

    Andrea June 18, 2013 at 6:50 am

    Powerful post.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane June 18, 2013 at 7:25 am

      Thanks Andrea. It was a powerful experience.

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