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Liberty, equality, fraternity: visiting Auschwitz

The site of one of the biggest mass murders in history, it’s 75 years today since the Nazi’s notorious concentration camp known as Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet forces, and which signalled the beginning of the end of one of the most heinous, horrifying, chapters in modern history: the Holocaust. 

It happened, and it could very easily happen again.

The Holocaust was, at its core, a wide-scale and violent persecution and genocide of minority groups – and LGBT people were not exempt. Between 1933 and 1945, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested for homosexuality in Nazi Germany. 50,000 were sentenced for their “crimes” and an estimated 5,000-15,000 gay men were sent to concentration camps like Auschwitz.

The name Auschwitz is synonymous with the worst things human beings can do to each other. The Nazis took a Polish army base in the southern town of Oświęcim, a strategic rail junction that had been annexed by Hitler’s Third Reich, and turned it into a multi-site concentration and extermination camp that practiced mass murder on an industrial scale.

Divided into two main “processing” sites (ring any bells, Australia?), Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of the Nazi concentration camps, where over 1.1 million people were killed. Most were of Jewish extraction but there were also Poles, Hungarians, gypsies, homosexuals and anyone else unlucky enough to catch the attention of the Nazis. And today two of those sites have been turned into a museum, a memorial to those who lost their lives.

If, like me, you grew up sometime in the last 40 to 50 years you’ve probably studied the Second World War at school, you’ve watched Schindler’s List, you’ve read The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. And like me you probably feel like you know about the Holocaust, you know about Auschwitz.

Striped pyjamas and pink triangles: some of the ‘deviant’ prisoners at Auschwitz

But arriving at the place where it all happened and walking through those infamous gates made me realise I didn’t know anything. That knowing the facts doesn’t mean you know the story. And that even the facts take on a different aspect when you’re standing on the spot where the horrors took place.

The most popular way to visit Oświęcim and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is via bus or train from Kraków, Poland’s historic second city, which is some 60 kilometres away. As my housemate and travel buddy Judi and I were on an eight-week inter-railing and backpacking expedition through Europe in the summer of 1992 much of our transport costs was already covered by Interrail passes we’d bought in Italy, so naturally we opted for the train. 

In fact, as we celebrated my birthday in Prague in what was then still Czechoslovakia with a Devonshire girl from Plymstock we’d met at a youth hostel in Budapest (keeping up?), we’d heard on the bush telegraph that our beloved British Prime Minister John Major had just negotiated visa-free access into Poland for all UK citizens starting from 1 July 1992.

Brits, “You don’t need a visa” to enter Poland, which started at the very moment as we crossed the border from what is now Czechia

After checking various timetables of rail lines into the neighbouring country, the three of us worked out that if we boarded the overnight international train leaving Praha at ten o’clock on the Tuesday night, we could time our arrival so that we’d be on the first train into Poland from anywhere on that very day.

A minor feather in our caps but in the light of Brexit and the whole toxic debate on visa-free movement, perhaps a prescient one.

Auschwitz-Birkenau isn’t somewhere you ‘want’ to visit, but it’s somewhere that you should visit, somewhere that is guaranteed to have an affect on you. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will prepare you for Auschwitz.

We visited the site on the 2nd of July, two days before American Independence Day and, bizarrely, three days before we bumped into US President George Bush senior in Warszawa, but alas, that’s a story for another time.

Nowadays, the notorious “Arbeit macht frei” (“work sets you free”) entry gate is located about 2 kilometres from the town centre.

As you go through you are can’t fail to notice how unnervingly quiet it is. This is an area so tainted by human horrors that the birds, if they are any, don’t dare make a sound.

Auschwitz is a haunting place where you can feel ghosts all around you. For obvious reasons I chose not to photograph the inner corridors emblazoned with personal artefacts (spectacles, gold teeth etc) and pictures of the countless victims, and the notorious gas chambers once disguised as shower rooms.

Birkenau is the second camp that was built. It was mostly burned down to erase evidence of what happened. The scale of the site is what is most shocking. We walked down one lane and it took roughly 10 minutes.

Pictures are not enough to describe how large scale and creepily well orchestrated this camp was.

Since most of the camp was burnt down there was not much to see. The few buildings you could visit included the housing quarters for prisoners and bathrooms. The conditions were barbaric. It was eight people to a bed and the bathrooms were simply built for scale. Holes lined up next to each other and no privacy. The scarring part of these buildings was seeing how tight the quarters were and the old smell of the wood and cement still in place.

Any visit to a museum and reminder of this nature is understandably heavy on emotion and you can’t fail to stop a shiver running down your spine. And as the world lurches ever more rightwards, Auschwitz is a terrifying reminder of how easily led people can be, and how it must never be allowed to happen again. But it could.

Defeat tyranny. Defeat nationalism. Defeat popularism.


Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: Auschwitz may have been the largest Nazi death camp but there were over 60 more across Europe. From Ukraine in the east to The Netherlands in the west, the sea of sadism even extended to the Channel Islands, the only part of the British Isles that were occupied during WW2. Located in Bavaria just half an hour north of Munich, Dachau was the first such camp to be opened, as early as 1933.

Stay with me angel
Don’t get lost in history
Don’t let all we suffered
Lose it’s meaning in the dark
That we call memory
Written by The Style Council’s lead singer Paul Weller and released as the B-side to the band’s 1984 single Shout To The Top, Ghosts Of Dachau is about the basic human need for love, even in a place like a Nazi death camp. Weller was inspired by Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, a book about experiences in concentration camps like Auschwitz and Dachau. The singer explained the lyrics to author Daniel Rachel:
“In amongst all this fucking degradation and disgraceful human behaviour there were still people having love affairs. There’s a bit in the book where he describes a guy who’s lost his trousers. He’s walking around semi-naked because there was nothing else to put on, all those kind of images. Whether it sounds right to say but life carried on, in a strange way, in those camps. I thought it was unbelievable, whether it was a strength or a stupidity of human behaviour: whichever way you look at it I thought it was fascinating.’’
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