The mountain of human hair. A whole room of it. This was the most upsetting part. Mostly black or dark brown, but dotted with the odd blonde curl or splash of grey that would have belonged to someone’s daughter or sister; grandmother or grandfather. This suddenly made it real.
Our visit to Auschwitz hadn’t been as harrowing as I expected – I mean, DIY SOS and Groundforce reduce me to tears. I had been feeling guilty that I didn’t feel more upset. Have I been desensitised to the horror of it all or was it that I couldn’t relate what I was seeing to the brutal documentaries and fictionalised versions of history.
But then, it is a warm, sunny day. There are no guards shouting at us, pointing guns with dogs barking. We have not just been torn from our family, shaved and had our last few belongings taken from us. How could we begin to understand how that would feel?
We are visiting Auschwitz ‘main camp’, also known as ‘Auschwitz I’, and Birkenau camp ‘Auschwitz II’ which lies three kilometres north west of the main camp. Now a memorial and museum, together these were the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps, where over 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives.
As we enter the former concentration camp we walk under the famous arch falsely promising Arbeit Macht Frei (work will make you free) and see the red brick barracks each side of the tree-lined avenue. Clean, neat and bustling with tourists.
Two sets of 8ft high barbed wire fences encircle the camp, punctuated with evenly spaced wooden lookout towers. Ceramic insulators set on the concrete posts and grim signs showing a skull and crossbones evidence that these were electrified.
We follow the crowds on the set journey passing display cabinets of documents and huge piles of suitcases marked with names and dates of birth, brushes, combs, shaving brushes, shoes and used cans of Zyklon B (the cyanide-based pesticide used in the gas chambers). And then the room of hair.
All prisoners were shaved as soon as they reached the camp. This was not due to lice, as I had originally thought, but for money. Everything was done to generate cash for the war effort. Hair was used to make cloth. Prisoners were used as forced labourers in nearby factories and farms. Before bodies were placed in the furnace, gold teeth were removed and melted down. Even the communal ashes from the furnaces were sold either as fertiliser or to the distraught families of the victims. The guide calmly describes each terrible detail.
The main camp was established on the site of prewar Polish barracks but it wasn’t big enough to fulfil the ‘final solution’. So the prisoners were forced to build Birkenau.
A spur to the railway line was added to take prisoners straight to the door of the four gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Much more efficient. We walk towards the camp’s entrance gate with its central watchtower and arch through which the train would bring its terrified cargo.
Again, it is hard to fully appreciate the horror of this place as you look across the flat landscape, yellow wild flowers blooming in the sunshine between the ruins.
As the red Army approached the camps in 1945, the SS set about removing evidence of the crimes they had committed. They burnt documents, set fire to the storage barracks holding property plundered from the victims and blew up the crematoria. You see the remains of these chambers.
Local people also helped to remove the camp by re-using bricks from the barracks to rebuild their homes after the war. All that remain of most are the brick outlines and chimney stacks.
But some still stand. In these, bunks – three tiers high – stand on the mud floor. They housed 1000 men, women and children – eight people per bunk. It feels claustrophobic.
We walk through the ‘hospital’ where Nazi doctors experimented on prisoners on behalf of German pharmaceutical companies and to develop methods for mass sterilisation of these ‘lower races’.
Walking around these buildings makes me question why had I wanted to visit Auschwitz? It is certainly not a fun part of a holiday. It seems wrong as I look around me that this is now effectively a tourist attraction.
The camp was turned into a museum to educate people so that history should not repeat itself. As I look into the terrified eyes of prisoners in photographs and see that shock of grey hair it is a very real, very poignant memorial.
How to get here
Location: Auschwitz is close to Krakow.
When to go: Year round. We went in May
Cost: The memorial and museum is free to visit but you have to get a ticket to join a set tour. There are huge queues for these tickets on the gate and they only issue a set number. So, you might as well pay for a tour company to pick you up, organise the tour and drive you to both camps. There are lots of companies offering tours to Auschwitz from Krakow. We used Cracow Tours which pick you up either from near to the castle or your hotel. The cost was 160 Polish Zloty (£33).