Last Train To Auschwitz

Notes on a visit to the infamous Nazi concentration camp

My wife’s phone rings. It’s her hairdressers.

She doesn’t take the call.

Well, we are in Auschwitz.

We have just finished our guided tour of the original death camp and the adjacent Auschwitz 11-Birkenau, a major endpoint of the Nazis’ Final Solution to the Jewish Question – the desired genocide of all the Jews they could reach.

We are here with our two teenage children.

My wife shows me the phone ID. We just look at each other: minutes ago we were looking through a glass window in a darkened room, beyond which lay an enormous tangled drift of human hair, some two tons of it, we learned, cut from over 40,000 people here.

Sheared from the Jews, the criminals, the Gypsies, the Poles, the Soviet POWs, and all those considered degenerates by Hitler and the Nazis, and who had stepped down here from their wretched, overcrowded cattle wagons, with a few suitcases containing all they could carry with them of their former lives.

In other camps, these braids, curls and pigtails were taken from living prisoners, for hygienic reasons, and for reasons of abasement and dehumanisation too, but here in Auschwitz, they were fleeced from corpses still warm after succumbing to the Zyklon-B cyanide released into the infamous gas chambers.

The hair obtained was disinfected, sacked and sold to German companies as raw material for everything from rope, cloth, carpets, and mattress stuffing to lining stiffeners for uniforms, socks for submarine crews, and felt insulators for the boots of railroad workers.

That’s how practical and efficient these officers and minions of the Third Reich were.

Dry-throated, bleary-eyed, and not yet capable of coherent speech, I am adding my headphones and radio mic pack to those already collected on the rail provided.

Reminding me of those other collections we have seen inside, room fulls of spectacles, of suitcases, of shoes, and of hairbrushes, saucepans, and other symbols of the myriad lives left behind when their owners entered the complex we have just left.

At first, all I could see was the mound of eye-glasses, the hillock of footwear, but lingering closer, differences in shape, size and design revealed themselves. Each pair of spectacles, each crafted sandal, different and individual.

Not, of course, how most of the Wagner-loving commandants and guards, right from their halcyon days with the Hitler Youth, were trained to see the wearers of these same spectacles and shoes.

So they took their clothes, heirlooms and shaving mugs from them, cut their hair, and gave them flimsy, filthy striped uniforms designed to strip them of all dignity.

Each uniform bore a different coloured badge, depending on the category each prisoner was put into: Jew, of course; political; convict and criminal; homosexual, vagrant, mentally ill, and so on, and so on.

The uniforms were not designed, however, for either the stench and sweat of sweltering summer or the howl and chill of sub-zero winter.

The officers, especially, cultured and educated men, organised atrocities on a daily basis, overseeing the executions and the punishments drawn up by their superiors and their experts, and refined and refined again, and carried out by themselves and their underlings. Embellished by their own peculiarities and propensities.

Through our headphone sets our marvellous guide related mind-blowing anecdotes and chilling facts of daily life for the inmates in the rooms, cells and living quarters we had walked in.

Under glass cases we could peruse the obsessively maintained records of everything these prisoners owned, and which their captors had plundered and purloined, listing them in beautiful copper-plate hand-writing or on the printed pages they did not succeed in destroying even as the liberators marched upon their gates.

The facts and the statistics, and the sheer scale and precision of this operation are recorded, for all to read, but nothing prepares you for actual entry into this infernal place.

Even if we came by an air-conditioned coach with free wi-fi, as part of a carefully choreographed tour party with identifying badges, and would soon be back in our neat Airbnb apartment off the Main Square in beautiful Krakow.

Those facts and the statistics could be piled twice as high as the stacks of hair, spectacles, and suitcases with their names painted on them … and all the testimonies, the books, the documentaries, and the movies read and watched, but it’s almost too big to contemplate.

Or at least that’s what I am feeling now.

It’s overwhelming.

I am left with thoughts and images in my head of what I have seen inside or been told about … the silent yet echoing corridors, the death-row holding cells, the three-rows-high bunk blocks once crammed tight with people, their numbers tattoed on an arm  … the hopelessly inadequate latrines … the place where the camp orchestras organised by the SS played their forced music 

The smiling couple chatting airily in the foreground of one photograph of prisoners being rounded up after arriving on their train … cadaverous bodies hanging from the gallows lining the rubbled paths where emaciated workers, barely able to stand, passed on their way to long hours of forced labour in factories or building extensions to the sub-camps springing up to cope with the sheer numbers …

The heroic priest who took the place of a man condemned to be shot because the man had a family … the book by the doctor forced to work with Mengele on his human lab rat experiments …  the survivor who could only endure his time by abandoning all thoughts of a future, and living minute to minute, plotting how he would survive the next hour …

The head-shot photographs of prisoners lining a long corridor — evidence again of how the Nazis organised and recorded everything so meticulously — taken when the prisoners arrived in the camp, and who had been chosen for work detail rather than being sent for immediate execution.

Here they were now, in their uniforms, and the information pithily recorded beneath each photograph, of when they had arrived, and when they had died — usually a matter of months later —  my daughter pointing to the faces of two girls who looked around 10, and indicating they were twins …

The gold teeth and fillings extracted from the teeth of the dead …

The wasted, physically and spiritually spent people who could not take any more and threw themselves against the electric fences …

The kapos, those prisoners chosen for their cruelty and compliance and who brutalised their fellow prisoners for a few cigarettes and better living conditions …

The increasing range of “crimes”, all dutifully received, for which prisoners would be tortured and executed … including trying to escape …

The sun is out now over this former army barracks that was taken over by the Nazi invaders, and you look at it all now: the gleaming rail tracks running to and by these red-brick buildings, huts, and sentry posts, all nestled among the swaying trees and fertile fields.

The irony in iron: I look again at the wrought metal legend over the main gate to the original Auschwitz itself: Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free).

Auschwitz was only the first of over 40 concentration camps, and sub-camps, which expanded as more and more people stepped off the train here with the leather suitcases we had just seen, as the regime found better and quicker ways of gassing those deemed unfit for work, and disposing of their worn-out bodies in the adjacent crematoriums.

It looks as innocent as a holiday camp, a Butlins for the mid-20th century masses, when history knows what kind of camp it was.

An extermination camp. A torture camp. An end-of-days, hell-on-earth camp.

The arrivals would be immediately sorted, a crook of the finger from the officer on duty determining who would be put to immediate death, and who would live.

Live, if you call it that, a life of deprivation, fear, torture, and brutal humiliation.

Treated like animals.

But who would treat even animals like this?

I pause as I write now as our beloved Lily clambers up my leg for a cuddle, looking up all doe-eyed, sturdy and eager.

A well-treated animal.

A final thought … the last part of our visit was the International Monument and memorial in Birkenau. Just across from the ruins of one of the crematoriums, a small gathering of Jews, the men wearing yarmulke skullcaps, were praying and remembering the Holocaust, and all that had happened in this place.

So sad, so poignant …

But I could not help either thinking of what is happening in Israel, the occupied Gaza strip, and the stories of the mistreatment of Palestinian people …

I know it’s a bit of a leap, but I cannot help thinking about that, and the lessons actually learned from a terrible history.

I’m thinking it is comforting to think of the demon Nazis and say their ideologies and actions have been consigned to history.

To say they are not like us, and we are not like them.

And then you witness that “Send them home” chanting at a recent Donald Trump rally, and some of the unsavoury stuff voiced online and elsewhere.

And those appalling border detention camps the leader of the free world has defended …

And you just have to wonder.

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61 comments on “Last Train To Auschwitz

  1. What a chilling telling of your trip, you are braver than me, I fear I might break in the midst of such horrible stories. I know it’s not the same but I do wonder about the camps for the immigrants that are set up, the horrid conditions they live in, what they have to endure even today, because they have tried to escape a country in which they were persecuted. But, they are not being murdered and slaughtered on a daily basis, does that make it better?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well better, I guess , in the sense of being less bad. We have those centres here too in Ireland, Anne, and they are frankly disgraceful … crap conditions, not allowed to work, cook or just live proper lives. It’s the first step towards oppression, treating people as less than proper, dignified people, and it lacks proper due respect.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for a great detailed read Enda. Almost in tears here. Never thought before about their belongings or their hair. A trip to remember!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So, so awful, I know a visit would leave me crushed by emotion. Sadly you are right, people don’t really change – even though we think we do.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is hitting way too close to home today. As I sit in my air-conditioned middle-class home in the States, I can’t help but think about the hundreds of children some fifteen-hundred miles away who were separated from their parents at the border and are now being forced to live in deplorable conditions. I feel utterly helpless and many Americans are likening these detention centers to the concentration camps in World War II. Several children have already died because of disease and malnutrition. Yet sadly, too many Americans think we’re being dramatic or too soft-hearted. They don’t see that this is how it starts — locking up brown-skinned children and criminalizing their parents’ desperate attempt to give them a better life.
    It is sickening and beyond disturbing. I can only hope we find a way to rise above this. We are trying so, so hard.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Stacey … you do have to wonder what we learn from history … those border camps really are a disgrace, and yet they are actually happening, and Mr Trump seems to have plenty of support, despite everything he has said and done, and continues to do. Be strong, good Americans, be strong …

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you. It’s good to know most of the rest of the world is on our side. Sometimes it feels overwhelmingly hopeless. I’m trying to remember that love wins. It just plain sucks being in the midst of hell.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved this post . . . the haunting details, the horrid picture painted – yet so beautifully written – as always!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very moving and maybe some labour people should read this! X #dreamteam

    Liked by 1 person

  8. That must have been so intense but yet so interesting to hear. Thanks for sharing it with us. #anythinggoes.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve been to a number of the camps in Europe. Auschwitz and Dachau were the most visual, Terezin (Czech Rep.) the most mind-blowing. And Salaspils (Latvia) the most haunting. The degree to which others have been maintained or forgotten speaks volumes about our willingness to remember. Each was a stark reminder of how much we take for granted and how little attention we are paying to what’s going on in our worlds. We have no excuse for being caught unawares. The signs are there. Just today, two men in the 20s were arrested in Hungary for painting swastikas on walls. A friend told me of seeing a young guy wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words – Hitler on Tour, 1939-1944. When I was in Auschwitz, I visited the bookshop to pick up two copies of survivors’ stories – one male author, the other female. The saleswoman insisted I buy a third – by an SS soldier who’d been on duty there. It’s important she said, to hear what every side has to say. It’s a lesson that stuck with me. The day I was there, one of the guides, an elderly man, was giving a tour to a group of German tourists. He was a survivor – he’d lived through the camp. What strength.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes … it’s funny how many people have said to me, ‘I could never go into a place like that …’ I can’t help but feel it is easy to say that, but it felt so important that we made this trip when we could. I will never forget it. Yes, the signs are there, so many of them … and we are getting more and more experience of false news, and the denying of facts, and flouting of the normal rules … it’s like a systemic desensitisation, and that is scary


  10. It really does have to be seen. Such a horrible place. And yes, that corridor of faces brings me to tears now. How can nan do that to man?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I think what shocked me was that so many of them (in Auschwitz 1 especially) were local Polish people. Not just Jewish. But teachers, lawyers, local politicians. People who didn’t agree with what was going on. And I think THAT should be a lesson looking around us in current times. #KCACOLS

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Jo … I was shocked too at the range of people who ended up there, including, as you say, local Poles. It just showed no-one was safe under that monstrous regime. And yes gain, we should be warned


  12. This is such a poignant post. I felt goosebumps as I was reading this. The details are hauntingly vivid. Thank you for sharing this, Enda. You are an amazing writer.


    Liked by 1 person

  13. I don’t really know what to say if I’m honest. An interesting trip but it must have taken a toll on you all. It’s an important history to learn #bloggerclubuk

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Enda, you definitely touched a raw nerve with this post. I just finished reading “Night” by Elie Wiesel. For some reason, I had not read it when I was in school. The cruelty and detachment of the Nazi guards are just unimaginable. And yet, in my own country, we have Donald Trump tweeting “send them back” and his mindless followers parroting this at rallies. Camps with asylum seekers exist with inhumane conditions – little children sleeping on the concrete floor, no hygiene, not enough food. I don’t recognize my own country any longer. At least we aren’t at Auschwitz levels of depravity. Yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Laurie, this cruelty really is hard to fathom … but I think we can gain some understanding of watching what Trump and his acolytes are doing, first demonising and making certain sectors less than human … that’ s what the Nazis did .And those detention centres … and its interesting to observe his narcissism, and compare it to that of a certain little corporal …

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I really believe that everyone should visit Auschwitz because it is impossible to understand what it is like until you go. It’s really hard to picture the scale until you see the collections. It was the shoes that really hit me hard. I just hope that if people keep visiting places like this and keep learning that we will never see such atrocities again. #KCACOLS & #ABloggingGoodTime

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that it really takes an actual visit to gain some measure of understanding of what actually took place there, especially those collections of hair, spectacle, shoes and all sorts of ordinary domestic utensils


  16. madelinelittlejohns

    Beautifully written. This is somewhere that I both want to and don’t want to visit in equal parts. I struggle to get my head around what happened there, and I’m not sure if visiting and seeing it for myself would make it make more or less sense. #KCACOLS

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Good post. We were talking about why it was important to visit these places (and to see and be reminded that it can happen, and how easily it can happen). In Australia we are not winning in the Human Rights stakes – not of citizens (the LBGTQI kind) nor refugees. It’s a shameful stage in our history. #KCACOLS

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lydia. A lot of shameful stuff happening around the world… and buggers like Trump and Johnson to take advantage of it all


  18. loopyloulaura

    Love your reminder at the end that the depths of humanity are bubbling just below the surface of acceptable behaviour at all times. We must never let it erupt again. Thanks for linking up with #globalblogging

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Well, I’m bawling like a baby now. I’m not sure I could ever handle visiting the site. #GlobalBlogging

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you are ever there, I recommend you do, Heather. A sobering experience, but I believe so educational, if that’s the right word. It just shows how nationalism and racism can have such terrible consequences, and why people like Trump have to be seen for what they are. And how his supporters aren’t just the crazies, but ordinary folk, misguided and misled, and their baser tendencies indulged.

      Liked by 1 person

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  23. Eloquently said. I’ve never been to Auschwitz but friends who have tell of the same emotions and feelings of horror and revulsion that you describe. Sadly, we never seem to learn from history, do we?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is scary how demagogues and narcissists can manipulate so many …. and cause mayhem, Clive

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed. We see it every day with Trump, and Little Britain Trump is going the same way here.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Boris seems to be just another variation on the showman as politician phenomenon, Clive. He and Trump have a disdain for the truth, perhaps best demonstrated by BJ having two alternative newspaper articles ready for the Brexit result; he scrapped the anti-Brexit one when the other side won!

        Liked by 1 person

      • They are similar in many ways, I think. Both on the far right of the political spectrum, both with ambitions and opinions of themself which far exceed their abilities. And both are dangerous for their countries.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Correct on all counts Clive!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sadly, Enda, I fear that I am.

        Liked by 1 person

  24. Oh gosh, that’s quite a read Enda. I’ve got the shivers and a painted picture of everything you have described. It’s got to be a real eye opening and unnerving trip to make. The hair has really done it for me. I hadn’t realised the extent of how it was stored and sold. Shocking and scary to think that society could do this. Thank you for sharing with the #dreamteam

    Liked by 1 person

  25. twicemicrowavedtea

    I visited Auschwitz about 20 years ago and reading this has just brought everything back. I have never visited a place since that has had such a profound impact on me. What terrifies me most is how easy it could all happen again and it angers me so much that people in positions of power seem so ignorant to the fact. When I watched Trump’s supporters begin their chant of ‘send her back’ at his rally a couple of weeks ago, I felt utter disbelief. How could anyone with even a basic grasp of history consider such chants to be acceptable? And when I saw Trump allowing the chants to continue, I felt sick. What I think is important to remember is that the Holocaust did not happen overnight. The average person did not suddenly become able to commit horrendous atrocities in Auschwitz and other concentration camps overnight. It was a gradual process beginning with the gradual dehumanisation of a people. So when I read what Trump has said about immigrants from Mexico and Central America, when I see what is happening in the camps at the border, and when I hear the leader of a country allowing (if not encouraging) his supporters to make hateful racist chants such as ‘Send her back’, it makes me very fearful for the future. #kcacols

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s all so true Karen. And how frightening it all is. And so revealing of the biases and prejudices that are so close to the surface in so many of us … waiting to be activated. It’s also amazing to look at the likes of Trump and consider how transparent is their pomposity and narcissism but yet in positions of authority they somehow instinctively know how to play off the masses and use them … Making them feel they are part of something when really they are serving these monsters

      Liked by 1 person

  26. We visited Auschwitz in March and I have to say it really struck a chord with me. Even my partner who isn’t much into anything but his job and games was disturbed. It really was a lot scarier than I’ve heard people describe it, and the gas chambers really got me. Being able to see the fingernails from where people tried to claw their way out was terrifying.
    The problem is you look at what happened there and think about about what is happening elsewhere in the world and it becomes real; It’s all repeating itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Chloe. I think that is the scariest bit of all … you consider what is happening in places around the world, and it is not hard to imagine things like this happening again and again.

      Liked by 1 person

  27. This post bought me to tears. Of course I know how horrid these places were and the awful things that happened there, but reading this, and getting a deeper insight into how things were there really made it hit home. Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS. Hope you come back again next time

    Liked by 1 person

  28. I have never heard of this before now. You wrote such a wonderful piece about this. #KCACOLS

    Liked by 1 person

  29. chasingephemeral

    Loved your reflections on your visit so much. I too felt very extremely overwhelmed by this place. Didnt even want to blog about it for awhile because it was such a depressing topic to revisit. It’s one thing to read about Auschwitz in history books, but quite another to at the site of so many horrors itself. What struck me most was the way the Nazis talked about murdering jews in terms of EFFICIENCY. who talks like that!?!? really showed how dehumanized the jews were in their eyes by then.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi. It really is an incredible, sobering experience to visit such a hell on earth, and yes, I too was struck at the cold-blooded way the Nazis set about getting better and more efficient at killing people, and the manner in which they dehumanised the Jews.


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