Auschwitz - Birkenau

In Commemoration: Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau

This is a guest post from talented photographer, travel writer and sometime tour guide Ian Transue. Here he powerfully shares his memories and emotions about a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, in commemoration of the 68th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz just a few days ago on January 27th 1945. Take a look at Ian’s fantastic photography @Wonkypaw.

Visiting Auschwitz Birkenau (pic by Ian Transue)

There is no need for the beasts of fantasy or the demons from hell when the horrors of mankind are already beyond comprehension.

I resided in Kraków, Poland for nearly seven years before I made a trip to the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau only 60 km away. Connections between the Polish city and the Museum are frequent and tour companies have specialised in this excursion for years. This was not the situation holding me back.

I knew the basics of the history of World War II, I had seen the multiple films of the subject, and it was a visit that I did wish to make in my life after hearing from a myriad of peers who had been there of the profound effect it had upon them. I believe I was just afraid to see it all first hand … to personally view this area of unimaginable wrongdoing. It took a visit from a family member to finally persuade me drive out to the city of Oświęcim for the day.

Having heard of the vastness of the Birkenau camp, we had decided to begin there, as I knew it would take up the majority of time. I was only expecting this time to be measured in the distances covered on foot.

What I soon found out upon arrival through that infamous gate, its heart pierced through by the railway line so often portrayed in films, was that the hours you spend there are not consumed by the expanse of land, so unfathomably vast, that you traverse, but by every minute that is drawn out at length with the thoughts and emotions seeping in from everywhere.

The barbed-wired fences, the threatening watchtowers, the countless remains of barracks that housed thousands upon thousands of people considered by the Nazis as impure and deplorable. And as you make your way further into Auschwitz, the unimaginable crematoriums and adjoining facilities with all the terrors they entailed.

These images, these sites and these feelings, they all make you think; but the question that returns again and again is not why. People throughout time have despised others and wanted them destroyed for whatever their self-justified reasons.

The question that remains in Auschwitz, and other places like it, is how. How could any supposedly civilised person do what they did here to another living soul? Not only to prisoners of war, but to the elderly, to women and mothers … and to children.

Everything was so much to take in, and you ache inside. But it is a room filled with photos that brought all that grief and sorrow cascading down at last. These pictures of individuals, families, newly born children, couples just wed were far more potent than the piles of shoes and stacks of utensils … more intense than the furnaces and empty canisters of gas.

Here were the faces of the countless victims, no longer just the unseen ghosts of the previous owners of suitcases and clothing stripped away in humiliation.

These were now the mothers, fathers, lovers and neighbours that someone knew. This was their former selves, their lives, their faces staring back at you from behind frames of glass. These were the people whose ash is now a part of the soil of this camp and whose blood was shed for a lunatic and his perverse ideals. Here were people.

When you make your way to the camp of Auschwitz proper, you immediately realise: Birkenau is as it remains so that the entire concept of what went on here solidifies itself in your mind and comes into clarity. Auschwitz, with its sign resonating their words around the globe, is the educational segment.

This does not make it any less powerful, but with its bookshop, cafeteria, film hall and exhibitions, this is the Museum proper. I do not say this to belittle the suffering that occurred here, for it was insurmountable, but the smaller area here had the air of administration and the elements of a prison. Birkenau was only death and sorrow … and you could feel it to your bones.

As a tour leader for a company years later, I brought a group for their visit to the Memorial Site. I gave them the basic history on our journey to the Museum, but upon reaching the entrance to both camps, I found that I could not enter.

I gave care of my lot to one of the phenomenal guides who knows so much more about this place and who has the strength to lead visitors through this area repeatedly for many months at a time.

I had seen this dark spot on the Earth once, and my mind will forever have that experience etched upon it. I took away in my thoughts what the purpose of preserving this camp is for … to always hold in memory those who perished here at Auschwitz-Birkenau, those that liberated the camp and those that survived, so that their story is never forgotten and so that no one will ever repeat these atrocities ever again.

By Ian Transue

Have you visited somewhere like Auschwitz on your travels? How did it make you feel and do you think it should be on tourist itineraries?

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  1. Some places just have to be experienced.

  2. Yes, I’ve been in Auschwitz-Birkenau. For some reason, what I remember the most, is the room full of hair.

    I think it’s important to visit places like this, and also those from more recent years. Sadly, it seems we never learn…

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