Pilgrimage to hell – the greatest inhumanity
Written By: John Coulter
Published: February 6, 2015 Last modified: February 3, 2015
Just imagine the 3,000 people who died in the Irish Troubles being slaughtered in 30 minutes – that’s what the Nazis had perfected in their death camp in Poland, Auschwitz Birkenau.
This year marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by the Russians in 1945 during the final months of the Second World War. Although it was only operational for a handful of years during that war, an estimated one and a half million men, women and children were slaughtered at Auschwitz using gas, firing squad, torture, horrific medical experiments, hanging, starvation and illness.
In terms of the Nazis Final Solution to eliminate Europe’s Jews, Auschwitz was Hitler’s jewel in the crown of his murder machine. Hitler’s SS thugs set up two types of concentration camps – a labour camp to supply slave workers, and a death camp, which had only one aim: mass murder.
The tour of the Auschwitz camp lasts around four hours. It will be a roller coaster emotional journey to hell and back again. Having covered the Irish conflict for more than 30 years, I wrongly believed this experience would prepare me for visiting Auschwitz.
I even watched blockbuster movies on such camps, such as Schindler’s List, starring Irish screen legend Liam Neeson, The Boy In The Stripped Pyjamas, as well as the renowned documentary series The World at War.
Our hotel was an hour’s drive from the camp, but I became engulfed by an dreadful uneasiness as we approached it. Then it hit me.
As I walked through the gates with the notorious metal sign – “Work Shall Set You Free” – in German, I had to run out again to vomit in the visitors’ centre. My own personal Auschwitz nightmare was underway.
It was a bright, sunny summer’s day and thousands of people were visiting the camp. But this is not a tourist attraction; this is a memorial to man’s inhumanity to man. Indeed, a visit to the camp is more like a pilgrimage to gain a clear feeling of the depths to which man can sink when it comes to the slaughter of fellow humans.
Out of respect for the murdered, we don head sets to enable us to hear the whispers of the tour guide as we visit the various areas of the camp.
No one shouts; no one even talks loudly. Every building is a piece in a jigsaw of mass murder. And the emotional turmoil for the visitor deepens as we visit each cell, each room, each corridor and each execution yard.
Even inside the buildings I wear my sunglasses to prevent people seeing me weep as I walk the corridors lined with photos of the victims. Then I realise many others are weeping too at the horrors which out tour guides unfold to us. It is not merely words – it is clear images; the suit cases of the victims piled high; the hair cut from the victims; the execution wall where people were shot. Eventually, I am composed enough to get my photo taken with the shoes of tens of thousands of victims behind me.
Worse follows. We travel to the Birkenau section to see the beds where victims were held before slaughter. The Nazis tried to cover their tracks by blowing up some of the gas chambers. We see the ruins as they have been left – alongside the ashpit where the remains of the dead were dumped.
Even worse follows. We are taken into a gas chamber. Although it contains a massive memorial wreath, I look skywards to the vents as if I was expecting people to drop the poison gas pellets down.
Then the door slams behind me and for a few terrifying seconds, I experience the petrifying sensation that this is not a shower room but a room of death. Thankfully, the door is opened and we walk out to see the crematoriums – except the victims’ bodies would have been carried out.
Only one aspect of the camp is off limits – the house of the camp commandant for fear it could become an iconic symbol for neo-Nazis.
But unlike one and a half million other humans, I walk out of Auschwitz. In spite of the warm summer afternoon, my gentle dander becomes a steadily hurried rush as I almost race towards the bus to take me back to the hotel.
I had been given a glimpse of a man-made hell. I still have nightmares every January around the commemoration of International Holocaust Memorial Day.
In spite of the nightmarish experience, it is one pilgrimage which I recommend everyone takes at least once in their lives. It will leave you in no doubt about the evils of racism.