Have you ever felt totally and utterly hopeless? Like there was nothing you could do to make your life meaningful again? Like any small act of human mercy was out of your reach forever? For the countless number of people who lived and died in Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, hopelessness was a living reality. And while it is truly impossible for any one of us to even begin to comprehend such hopelessness, I urge you all to visit Auschwitz I & II, and to try.
There are no photographs in this post, because I do not believe that images of the camps have any power compared with actually being there, knowing that where you tread thousands of men, women and children suffered unbearably at the hands of the Nazi regime. Instead I will try to explain why it is so crucially important now, more than ever, to remember the victims of the Nazi party under Hitler. I refer to only one exhibit in this post, however if you would prefer to experience Auschwitz without any forward information about its exhibits, I recommend reading this post after your visit.
I have stated that images of the place would be ineffective to convey any sense of the crushing weight of historical disgrace that pervades Auschwitz I & II, however one of the photographic exhibits there truly took my breath away. Lining the walls of one of the barracks where camp inmates where forced to live are photographs of just a few of the men and women who died in Auschwitz. There must be more than 200 photos on those walls, and they represent a handful. In each photo, man and woman alike have been shaved, clothed in the striped uniform of the camp, and stripped of their identities in any other physical way possible. What is striking about these images is that, even though these people have been selected and sentenced to suffer and ultimately die at the hands of their persecutors because of their differences to them, is that what remains is a fundamental unity – all are undeniably human.
Each photo represents a human life, with its own family, memories, possessions, hopes, fears, and all the other quirks that belong to people. Imagine your own family, friends and acquaintances. Everyone you know could not equal the number of faces on those walls in Auschwitz. And that number represents so few of the people that remain unphotographed and undocumented. It is so easy to forget that the people who suffered so much under the Nazi regime were just that – people. They were not merely statistics to be learned for a GSCE exam. They were not a sub-human race. They did not exist a million years in the past. Their children and grandchildren walk this earth today.
There is so much to be learned from visiting Auschwitz I & II, and historians are learning more and more every year about life and death in Nazi concentration and death camps. But the thing that captivated me most while at Auchwitz was how very possible it is for one group of people to completely and utterly alienate, humiliate, and exterminate another group of people because they see them as different. It needs to be remembered that the fault lies in the fear of that difference, and not the difference itself. In a time when terrorism is a very real threat to life as we know it, I encourage all of you to think before you speak, to evaluate evidence before you make judgement, and remember that we are all human.