When the bus dropped me off at Auschwitz II–Birkenau—a former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp on the outskirts of Krakow in Poland—on a summer day in 2012, I was not sure what to expect.
I was no stranger to scenes of debased humanity, having wandered through the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and explored the corridors of Robben Island in South Africa. I knew I would see pain, suffering, and the manifestation of an absolute ruthless version of humankind. But to what extent and how it was mourned 70 years on in Auschwitz II–Birkenau gave me both the jitters and hope. It still does.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Auschwitz II–Birkenau was part of a network of locations comprising Auschwitz I, Auschwitz III–Monowitz and 45 satellite camps. It was the principal and most notorious site of the Nazi Final Solution to the Jewish Question led by Adolf Hitler. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, men and women of all ages, were brought in here to its gas chambers, by train, from all over German-occupied Europe during World War II (1942 – 44). They were killed with the pesticide Zyklon B.
Before their annihilation they were tortured, systematically starved, forced into barbaric manual labour, or used as guinea pigs for warped medical experiments. Official figures claim the death toll to be 1.5 million. On 27 January, 1945, the handful of remaining prisoners within [most of the inmates had already been evacuated and sent on a death march] were ‘liberated’ by Soviet troops.
As I walked down the railway track, past the barracks, I bumped into countless school children draped in the Israeli flag. Further ahead, by the gas chambers, a group of Jewish boys had formed a ring, and were singing songs.
Every year Jewish school children from all over the world come to Auschwitz on field trips to learn about the Holocaust of the European Jews, and pay homage to the departed. And hence, beneath a clear sky amidst barren fields, the stifled ghosts of an entire era are finally laid to rest under the lilting voices and innocent laughter of their descendants today.
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Note: This blog post is part of a series from my travels to Central and Eastern Europe in 2012 covering six countries.