Auschwitz and Birkenau

After the recent EAA meeting in Krakow, I participated in an excursion to the former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Before the visit, I had not really known what to expect, but I was struck by the impact of what I saw.

Auschwitz and Birkenau are two quite different experiences. Auschwitz (“Auschwitz I”) was very intense. The halls with the shoes, suitcases, toothbrushes and other belongings of the victims are extremely powerful and thought provoking. The human hair collected from the gas chambers shows the extremity of the crimes committed here in this otherwise peaceful Polish countryside. These most mundane objects become so much more than physical remains. Will it ever be possible to look at a shoe again without being reminded of the trauma and cruelty inflicted at Auschwitz?

Inside the barracks at Birkenau, Poland. Photo: TMK, September 2006.

Birkenau (“Auschwitz II”) is striking because of its immense size and the lines of chimneys, often all that remain of the camp’s barracks. But a visit here is less personal, less intense.

Opinions of the appropriateness of visiting concentration camps differ. And I did find that some of the influence of musealization was rather regretful but it is, perhaps, a necessary evil in this context. Ultimately, I find that there are no more compelling reminders than sites such as Auschwitz and Birkenau that heritage is not always comforting and glorious. Concentration camps and other sites of war crimes are very much part of the history of all Europeans that we need to confront, even when it is uncomfortable and unsettling.

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  1. Your post reminded me of an excursion I made a few years ago, to KZ Neuengamme, near Hamburg. At Neuengamme there isn’t much physical evidence left – more like Birkenau than Auschwitz, probably. But the small exhibition gave food for thought – and imagination. It was an intense, chilling experience.

    I was impressed by the openness of the German students I met at that same trip – how they tried to come to terms with their history and nationality, without closing their eyes for the black pages. Gave me some hope.

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