Euro-trip memoirs – Auschwitz 1…Of silent screams and shattered dreams

This is one post that I’ve put off for a while, not out of procrastination or sheer laziness (which let’s admit it I am guilty of like every other human being)…but the sheer weight of this subject is one that I think anybody would think twice about before writing. There are many things in life that have you re-thinking, evaluating and defining your reasoning & approach towards both the simple and complex things in life. This entire subject was triggered while I was being my shallow self and wanting to write a post on Frivolity v/s Substance – A New Age mantra, but, the mind is a mysterious thing. It likes to wander, and when you give it the full liberty of doing so, the things it thinks of just renders one speechless at times…at least mine does depending on which plane of thought it lands up in.

I’m sure I must have mentioned this in posts past, that there was a mini Euro-trip I was going on with my folks marking the official start to my summer break and all those fun things. While I’m starting to think that such a trip was a complete figment of my imagination at this point in time, I actually have pictures that prove otherwise and are evidence that such a trip happened. There might be thoughts or even queries ’bout the adventures on said Euro trip. Well, there were plenty of adventures, in fact it was adventures galore, and well I got some of the best pix of the folks ever!!! So whenever I hit those blues, I just go through those pix, and a couple vids I took on my trusty iPod gadget. Thank you Mr. Steve Jobs for that wonderful creation, here’s to more innovators, geniuses and creators who are not afraid to lead and denounce the automated and sedentary life of being a follower.

Moving on from that sidetrack, this post is about one of the most powerful, life changing experiences I was fortunate enough to experience, visit and feel the full effect of. There are few things in life that we wish we could experience and be part of, and then there are those moments that give us sheer goosebumps at the mere thought of imagining it. I’m not a major history buff, compared to Broda…now, that boy has a passion for history that I think he inherited from the folks, my knowledge and recalling abilities as far as history is concerned is…well…not the greatest. But this piece of history I’m sure each and everyone of you is aware of, because, it definitely is one of the most publicized, recognized and horrific travesties that human kind has ever committed in the history of mankind. Not that brutality and bloodshed is anything new to our kind, it’s some sort of legacy that we idiots have taken upon ourselves to transfer down through to every generation and spread and proliferate. These are the things that make me question the theory of evolution, how is it that the thirst and wont for violence and bloodshed has played such a rampant and dominant part through the ages? Have we really learned nothing from it all? With the ages, we’ve only learned to kill each other off in more efficient ways, we’ve learned and advanced ourselves in the art of delivering unwanted terror and death faster than we have made any medical progress or scientific progress for that matter.

I’d like to share this particular experience with whoever chooses to read this, because, I think it is quintessential that we all have this moment where we stop, question, and ponder what exactly it is we’re doing here, what our purpose is and whether we’re headed in the right direction or not. No these aren’t rhetorical nor philosophical questions, not after this particular experience. These are questions that we should be asking not just ourselves, but our leaders as well, these are questions that will linger, and should linger and be posed to our future generations as well. While this part of the trip was really one of the last things we did before we headed back to HQ where it all began, I don’t think I have enough words to express the exact sentiments that coursed through me during that visit. The last city on our travel itinerary, as well as the first, was the city of Krakow in Poland. One of the things that one just has to do while in Krakow is to visit the concentration camp at Auschwitz…yes the very same one that you learned in those History classes some of you dozed off in, or tuned out in. It’s a place that’s neither for the faintest of hearts nor the strongest of hearts…it’s a place that unifies every heartbeat, every thought and every sentiment of whoever chooses to walk through the gates of one of mankind’s own creation of Hell.

It all started on a very early and bright Saturday morning. The three of us got ready and we didn’t really need alarm clocks, I think internally we were all raring to go because this was the one thing that all of us were really looking forward to. We rushed, scarfed down breakfast and started our road trip to Auschwitz. We did have our reservations with our GPS, the chick (well the voice on the GPS that gives us our directions) would get us sorta kinda close to the place and then have us going in circles while trying to get to our actual destination. Oh Praha was a perfect example of the GPS driving us absolutely nuts. I think my dad has the story and scars to prove it lol, poor papa bear. The day started off nice and sunny, which had us groaning ‘cuz of the cruel and merciless heat beatings that the Sun dished out in Praha. Thankfully this time around, the GPS chick didn’t have us land up in Ukraine or anything of the sort, we got to our destination and then there were wonderful signs telling us how to get to our destination. Our excitement and a certain sense of anxiety and anticipation, crept in as we got closer to our destination…only we were completely unprepared for what was coming our way, and to be honest, I don’t think anyone can ever be prepared.

The group tours started later in the day, but we chose to do the solo tours. As we stepped out of the entrance building, the main reception area and all of the administrative areas…and stepped out into the external area surrounding the camp a certain sense of trepidation started permeating my pores. My senses were growing more aware of the surroundings and my fight and flight sensations seemed to be kicking into high gear as though it was anticipating and sensing some imminent yet unseen threat. The feelings became harder to shrug off as we got closer and closer to the entrance to the concentration camp. The moment we crossed that threshold and entered the concentration camp, it felt as though I was teleported into a different time, a different plane of existence. The hairs on the back of my neck shot up, as did the goosebumps….it was an overwhelming feeling that, to this date, I have not been able to metaphorize nor compare to, and I sincerely hope that day never comes where I actually have something to relate those feelings to. A certain chill crept into my bones, I turned around to see if I had been teleported elsewhere or if it was my mind playing tricks on me…nope there was no teleportation, the world I had left behind at the threshold of Auschwitz was still there; those tourists taking snaps of the motto (that sealed the fate of it’s residents) “Arbeit Macht Frei” which roughly translates to (Work makes one free) were still there. It was as if my senses had stretched out up till the entrance and came rushing back to me like waves possessed by the currents, with a force and power that could knock you off your feet. It was overwhelming, to say the least… As I turned around to proceed walking down the path ahead, I looked both ways at the path intersecting the one I was on, to see just how far the path stretched both ways at the entrance. You see after crossing the gate there’s a path that goes horizontally, it expands the entire length of the compound, and looking both ways all I could hear was the deafening screams and bloodcurdling roars of silence. It was as if every stone, brick, cement block, leaf, blade of grass, barbed wire, glass and tree was sharing and shedding the tears of those at the receiving end of the horrors and atrocities carried within their gates…their eternal curse, their eternal memory. Right then, in that very moment, you realize that no amount of reading, analytical abilities, rationality or logic can prepare you for what you are about to see.

Now, visitors visiting Auschwitz had access to a few of the blocks located within the camp. The Polish Government has converted these blocks into a museum of sorts, that, houses remnants and possessions of the many inmates/prisoners. This way it not only serves as grim reminders of history, but also so that we will NEVER forget exactly what we are capable of. Reading about the atrocities Hitler, the psychopath (such a bloody understatement), committed is one thing, but to actually walk through those corridors, passageways and hallways truly is something else. What’s even more appalling, besides Hitler’s twisted notions and theories, is the willingness and conviction with which people followed him and carried out his orders. Sure you can tell me the soldiers within these camps were threatened if they didn’t follow orders or would have had their families and themselves executed and what not, but, if you know what you’re doing defies common human decency are you telling me you would not do everything in your power to end it? But that is not even a topic up for discussion in this post.

Most of these blocks contained either huge display cases or rooms with maps and documents and presentations about prisoners, the SS guards and survivors of these camps. One of the first display cases was almost filled to the brim with this dark coloured material/substance that looked like unprocessed cotton. Now these display cases were freaking huge and spanned a huge length, they’re almost the size and volume of my living room. Now, this material pretty much lined up almost halfway if not a lot more than the halfway mark of the display case, and as we kept walking towards the end, where the display card next to it said that the material was human hair. Hair shaved off of the heads of women prisoners of the camp….this hair was then sent to factories where it was processed and then used to make fabrics (I believe drapes) and other things…and how this fabric was coveted amongst citizens and was actually worth a lot in monetary value. At that point in time, I think I was thinking how breakfast was such a bad idea….just seeing and reading that had invoked such a repulsive reaction from me…I wasn’t sure if I was going to last the rest of the trip. With each display case and block that we covered a deeper feeling of disgust and an unfathomable and unshakeable feeling of sorrow and loss gnawed it’s way deeper and deeper into my soul. One of the other display cases that shook me to the core of my being, was one that was filled with piles and piles of shoes almost the whole way. The sign next to this display case said that these shoes belonged to all the women and children that were brought to the concentration camps. Usually when people were brought to the concentration camps they were divided into primarily two groups…those capable of doing work and those who were incapable of doing work and were considered useless. That usually constituted 3/4th of the group of people brought to the camp, and the section of the population that fell under this 3/4th category were children, women with children, the old and destitute, and those who were ill. These people upon being brought to Auschwitz, were told to shower and decontaminate themselves…sometimes the facilities were on the train and at other times the infamous gas chambers. The gas chambers were made to seem like actual bathrooms where the SS had placed fake shower heads…and so the prisoners would undress and go to take their showers, which was when the gas chambers would dispense their toxic substances and seal the fates of these unknowing souls. Once the gassing procedure was complete, these SS soldiers would go collect anything of value that might be on the person, such as gold teeth/fillings and things of the sort. None the less, seeing those mountains of shoes that belonged to all those women and children was something beyond heartbreaking. Each display case was just more heartbreaking and soul stirring than the previous one…there was one that housed luggage and prostheses that  belonged to the prisoners, yet another housed the dishes used by the inmates and this particular display case was the size of a basketball court and also the volume of one…yet another one was filled with toothbrushes, shoe brushes, razors/blades, and glasses worn by inmates. Other blocks were replicas of the living conditions the prisoners were subjected to and some rooms had pictures and descriptions ranging from portrait paintings to caricatures, to letters written by inmates and sent to allies. These rooms contained the stories of some of the bravest people the world has ever known, who fought until their drying breath to free others and themselves, even if that freedom cost them their lives.

One of the most striking sites, within the camp that has been maintained, is the firing wall. There’s a wooden barricade either side of the entrance and there are windows from the blocks overlooking the firing range. The moment you enter that area, there’s a jolt of stillness that grips you hard and envelopes you and shuts down the screaming silence. As you stare at that wall, where countless innocents met their end all because some sick sycophant thought it to be a worthy agenda, I kid you not when I say that I could almost hear the echoes of the shots ringing out. It’s as if nothing else has penetrated those walls and that entrance since it was first set up. We also got to take a look at the cells where the prisoners were herded if not throw in…there were certain cells that had absolutely no light, some, that were tiny enough so that people could only crawl, and, some where there was only a limited air supply….and then, there were the standing prison cells. These are cells where if one were to stand their heads would hit the ceiling of the cell. People had a little bit of a pit area dug up so that they could stand in them but the pits were neither too deep nor did they have enough of a circumference to allow people to sit, so regardless of what people tried to do they wouldn’t be able to sit, and one can only imagine what it would’ve been like for someone who would’ve been extremely tall. Add to the fact that each of these standing cells didn’t house 1 person but sometimes 4 people to just one of those cells.

With each block we passed, there was this clawing urge to get out and get back to a reality away from this reality, away from the screams, the cries for help, for mercy….Finally unable to see any more, we headed back towards the entrance to Auschwitz…there were a few blocks that we did not visit which were the dispensary blocks that were set up by country/region. The decision to skip the dispensaries/hospital/medical facilities located at Auschwitz 1 was primarily influenced by whatever we had read in the previous block that mentioned Josef Mengele. With all that we had seen, heard and read (as a result of history books, documentaries and later the displays at Auschwitz 1), we were definitely not ready to see any sort of medical evidence or proof of all the sick experiments Mengele deemed fit and a necessity to better understand the human race. I don’t think seeing any visual evidence of Mengele’s experiments with identical twins, or for that matter, seeing evidence or reports of the medical experiments conducted by any of those unworthy blots in the history of mankind and medicine would have been something we could have handled.

Initially we had planned on going to Auschwitz-Birkineau as well, but by the time we got out of Auschwitz 1 we didn’t have it in us to go to Auschwitz-Birkineau. How would the atrocities committed in one place be any different from those carried out at another concentration camp? Walking away from Auschwitz, there were absolutely no words that either of us had, it was a quiet drive the whole way back to the hotel. While we were at Auschwitz 1 the weather had drastically changed as well, compared to how the morning had started out. It had turned cloudy, there was a certain pallor of gloom visible in the skies and the clouds, and while we were at the camp, there was a moment when there was a bit of a light drizzle, that lasted for a few seconds or probably a minute or 3…even the heavens couldn’t bear the sight of such a memoir of mankind’s darkest hours. No amount of tears from the heavens could possibly cleanse or wash away one of history’s starkest and darkest moments.

Just when you think you understand or maybe grasp the extent of what mankind is possibly capable of, you see something that redefines that feeling and that makes you feel so small and insignificant….it reinforces that feeling of just how little it is we know, understand or value our lives or the human experience. I for one know that the entire experience has been burned into the deepest recesses of my memory and is something I will remember and value until the day I die. I strongly recommend that if you do get a chance to visit Auschwitz that you take that chance…if anything, but to experience and see just how low we as human beings can get. Reading about slavery, violence and camps are, as I mentioned earlier in this post, one thing, but seeing and experiencing it first hand is something else by itself. Auschwitz can be seen as the ultimate epitome of human depravity, insanity, cruelty, hatred and evil….but it is also a symbol of bravery, determination, hope, fight, courage and survival. Let us not forget those who died staving off & saving the rest of us from the hands of those hellbent on snuffing the very life out of us. To forget them, their trials and tribulations, and most importantly their pain and suffering isn’t just an insult to their memory but it’s also an insult to our very natures. They gave up pretty much everything in their lives in the name of humanity, so lets not sully their memories. An experience like this makes you re-think all the things in life you spent bitching and whining about, and it really makes it all seem small and futile and worthless. As if on autopilot, your mind starts sorting events and people out based on how much they help you or hinder you, and things suddenly seem clearer than before.

Don’t waste your time with regrets, don’t fill your world with hatred, anger and words and actions you know you can never take back…there isn’t enough time to waste on such things. We as human beings should learn from the gravest and worst mistakes of our past in order to secure a solid foundation of harmony and coexistence for the future. Why are we so hell bent on the trivial things in life? Why are we so hell bent on bringing each other down, instead of standing shoulder to shoulder? Why is there such an insistence for discord based on differences like race, colour and nowadays that biggie called religion? We’re all the same for crying out loud, we all have DNA within us, basic molecules made outta the same damn components/units needed to make DNA, we all believe and wish for the same things…so instead of wasting time trying to separate and segregate you’d think we’d take the time to find out common interests and build something together. Have you ever noticed the following? In a conversation, it’s easier for someone to pick out the differences and things they dislike faster than it is for them to find commonalities and similarities. Sounds kinda ridiculous doesn’t it? Let’s hope the future is one where every other front page headline isn’t about bombings (be them suicide or IED’s) or military coups….it really is depressing when you only read about the ways in which we’re eradicating each other off of the face of the earth. Let the future generations say that we actually paid attention to the past and made the future count.


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