It was -2 Degrees Celsius, and that wasn’t even a cold winter’s day. The freezing cold wormed its way through every single gap in my clothes. I had three layers on as well as gloves, a hat and a scarf but it was still mind numbingly cold and the temperature lowered even more as the darkness of night swallowed us.
That is probably the most physical reaction I had when visiting Auschwitz Birkenau for the day. It was indescribably, unpleasantly cold. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t feel my toes, I could barely move. I couldn’t properly cope with the magnitude of it all. I was overwhelmed by the scale of the remains of the Concentration Camp. I couldn’t see the edges of it – from almost anywhere I stood -it is enormous.
Today the world remembers that those atrocities we’ve seen in films and on TV really happened, millions of Jews and other persecuted minorities; the disabled, gypsies, homosexuals and many more were killed in what the Nazis called “The Final Solution”.
Not easy to see
Seeing the enormity of such atrocities can be a very difficult idea for a person to handle. In Birkenau I walked through a grim museum showing the collections of suitcases piled higher than you could imagine, human hair – scalped from victims – filling a room. This is a subject incredibly difficult for any sane person to comprehend; it just doesn’t seem possible for such things to have happened.
It feels more comfortable in the dry pages of history books or the lessons of teachers; that way we can distance ourselves from the horror of what happened in the Holocaust.
But the subject shouldn’t be comfortable at all, in the past people have criticised the decision to show a documentary (supposedly made by Alfred Hitchock) on the holocaust because in it is footage which is “too” horrifying. Reports speak of images of naked human bodies in piles being thrown into mass graves, of emaciated figures clinging on to life—it won’t be an easy watch. Early screenings have suggested that the intense nature of seeing it on a big screen – one almost impossible to turn away from – is disturbing, both terrible and brilliant at the same time.
From my experience, though, that is the only way to learn about the Holocaust. To truly learn the lessons of such horrible and disgusting discrimination and murder is to immerse yourself in it, ensure that it feels as if it isn’t something which happened a long time ago.
“People are more civilised now, we’d never do that again” is a thought which is easy to think and understandably so, but then the people of the 1930s thought the same—they knew what had happened in the Trenches of WW1 and never wanted to repeat it. And even world wide there is discrimination, there are people being killed for their religious beliefs, for their sexuality, for their political beliefs. Today we remember those who were discriminated against and those who continue to be discriminated against today.
You or I will never be able to fully comprehend what it was like for the people in those camps. But today and other similar commemorations may help to remind us of the atrocities of Nazi Germany as keenly as I remember the freezing cold of Birkenau.
To this day the most horrifying aspect of this biting cold I remember so vividly still haunts me. I was wearing three layers—the victims of the camp wore only cruelly thin rags. A thought I will never forget.