Oswiecim is a small place about an hour and a half from Krakow, in the Southwest of Poland. It is a quiet town, a bit dusty, and, when I visit, bathed in yellow leaves falling from trees. Rows of tour buses sit in a parking lot; people depart from them and walk solemnly towards a red brick building. Groups of school kids stand around outside the building, joking and laughing shoving the way only school kids can. It is a clear day, but there is a bit of chill coming in on the wind. The Germans had a different name for Oswiecim during the Second World War. Auschwitz, they called it.
Upon returning to my hostel back in Krakow, I was asked by a young traveller, “Oh Auschwitz, I’m going tomorrow, was it good?” How do you answer that moronic question. What words do you use?
What words do you use to describe your feelings when staring at mounds and mounds and mounds of human hair, taken from female prisoners for use in the German textile industry? What words do you use when standing in a Nazi gas chamber; a small concrete bunker into which 700 innocent people were crammed at a time, under the false belief that they would be taking a shower, only to be gassed to death. 10,000 people were murdered in this bunker, before it became insufficient for the Nazi’s requirements, and they built bigger gas chambers capable of killing more people more quickly. What words?
What words come to mind when you see a small 1 metre square holding cell, in which four or five men were forced to stand all night, after a hard day toiling in the field as slaves. Stand, shoulder to shoulder, barely able to move, all night, every night for up to two weeks.
What words do you think of when you see footage of children that have been freed, only to be unable to walk because their feet are frostbitten, the result of being forced to stand an entire day in the snow, barefoot. What words can describe your feelings when you see photos of children, head-shots, children who are known only by a catalogue number tattooed on their arms, or if they were too young and their arms insufficient in length, tattooed on their legs. Children with tears in their eyes, staring down the lens of the camera, burning a hole in all those who look back. What words?
At what point do numbers become meaningless? Incomprehensible? In Australia, around 300 people die in road accidents each year. That’s 300 immediate families who have lost a mother, brother, sister, father. 300 sets of friends who have lost someone dear to them. Somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million people were murdered at Auschwitz and the larger death camp of Birkenau, just a few kilometers up the road. 1.5 million.
What words form to help you digest grainy black and white photos showing pits of burning bodies, the result of crematoriums that could not dispose of bodies as fast as they could be gassed?
What words do you use when you see tourists posing behind lines of barbed wire, so their mates can take a photo?
What words do you use when someone asks, in regard to your visit to a Nazi death camp, where almost 1.5 million men, women, and children were murdered, “Was it good?”
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