An hour's ride West of Krakow is the small town of Oswiecim, or to spell it the German way Auschwitz. Just on the other side of town (and hard to find because there's precious little in the way of signposts until you're right on it) is the camp Auschwitz I. We park our bikes next to some others, including two or three UK registered Harleys, and walk over the the main entrance. There are loads of coaches and most of them seem to contain (or have contained) teenage school children. There are a lot of people here, which is somehow a surprise, although I don't know why particularly.
We walk through the official entrance building and debate going on the tour. We decide not to.
We walk along the front of the site and come to the first challenge: probably the most infamous gates in the Western world: 'Arbeit Macht Frei'. I found it quite daunting to walk through.
The first serious impression I have is "its so small". Auschwitz I's brick blocks may be one of the archetype images of Nazi concentration camps but its not overly large. It was a Polish army camp before the War and the Germans didn't do too much to it to turn it into a concentration camp. The funny thing is that in the minds of many the images that come up when you say Auschwitz are of lines of gas chambers and railway lines and people starving to death in low wooden huts but none of that's here - all of that's actually at Birkenau. Part of the overall Auschwitz command but nearly a km away. Auschwitz I was a labour camp, not an extermination camp - not to suggest that lots of people didn't die here, but not on the scale of Birkenau. Nothing is on the scale of Birkenau.
Auschwitz I is perversely neat and tidy and the buildings don't look too horribly uncomfortable. Until you go inside. They've been turned into museums. Some were set up during the Communist regime and some by other nations after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Its here you find the wall of women's hair, a huge collection of sorry looking little children's shoes, piles of pots and pans and other such 'collections'.
One of the most upsetting things was the corridors of photographs, both walls lined three deep with pictures. Not homely pictures, oh no. Those Nazi bastards photographed and documented every one of the people they brought there. I guess it just seemed the right thing to do in their well-ordered, neat and tidy little fascist minds. These records survived and its these photographs, in uniform and just after arrival, that line the walls. Walking along, faces leap out at you. What a squint he had, you think, then read the note underneath: arrived such and such a date, died this day or that. What a pretty smile she has! She lasted almost a whole year. How old he looks; how young she was. And there's just no end to them, no end at all.
We walked around the Nationality museums. Some are average, the Italian one is an absolute disgrace but the Dutch one is something the country should be proud of: it is very well put together and very moving, using a clever contrast between information and quotes from non-Jewish Dutch people about conditions in Holland and what they heard about the fate of the Jews and others sent here. In the French exhibit there was a office sized room completely lined with pictures of children, floor to ceiling. The small plaque read "these are some of the French children that died in Auschwitz".
Jerry and I have wandered separately round much of the camp, taking out time to read the bits that interest each of us. We meet up close to the exit and agree that we need to move on. We've been here three hours and really only scraped the surface. Out through the wire and away.
We ride the km or so out of town to Auschwitz II: Birkenau. This is approached by one narrow road, following close to what was the railway line. There are houses to both sides of the road right up until we are within 100 yards of the site. What must it be like to live with this place so close?
The railway line actually starts some way out from the site, meaning that the infamous image of the entrance to Birkenau remains. As I ride up, it fills my view. Very unpleasant indeed.
As we park up the bikes, the sheer scale of the place becomes even more apparent (although in fact we're still unable to see the real size of it until later). Can you see the end of the wire? I walk back a fair way to try and make sense of the frontage but as you can see, its just so big.
Its an open site. We just walk through the gates and are in. At this point I nearly have to sit down in the dirt. Its not big, its fucking huge. You just can't see the end of it, not in any direction. This place could swallow the population of a city. But then, it has.
Over to the left of the entrance are some brick huts and the signs seem to suggest we start there. These are the huts built by (and for) the very first prisoners - the people forced to build the rest of this place and who died whilst doing so. They are quite different from the rest of the camp. We read the sombre words on the sign outside and then venture in. Its bakingly hot outside but cool in here, which is an odd contrast to the emotional charge of the place. The shelves erected for multiple occupants are sad reminders of those that were here. I find it a chilling place.
This is where the original political prisoners were sent to labour for the State. These people were deemed too dangerous to be allowed to be free and were sent here instead. Every State imprisons its undesirables and as I write this in the first decade of the 21st Century our out-of-control Western governments seem to be veering back towards the concept of political prisoners without much consideration for these examples of the recent past :(
As we walk from hut to hut and then back out to the road towards the back of the site, we realise that this place feels terribly empty and alone but actually has a lot of people visiting. Its not just that its so large that hides them; the place has a feel about it that dwarfs individuals or small groups. In my mind I know this place was crowded not so long ago but now it seems to be the embodiment of loneliness. The lines and lines of concrete posts for the barbed wire are chilling beyond belief. They just don't seem to end, no matter where you look.
Walking to the back of the compound takes about 30 minutes at a reasonable pace. We walk and don't really talk.
When we reach the end of the path, we realise we are to the left of the enormous, stone memorial. Spaced along the front are plaques all bearing the same message in many different languages. The one in English is far to the right and by the time I've walked there, I'm eager to know what it says.
Turning round shows an awful view. Along those dreadful railway sidings to the main entrance and administration block, so far away from where I stand. Using the camera on maximum zoom just emphasises the distance - and the number of people it would have taken to fill this terrible place.
It hits like some sort of moral shock. What the hell did they think they were doing? And the shock isn't the question, its when I realise the answer: they were applying the latest in modern industrial and administrative processes to the task required of them."Go do this" they were told and they went about it just as well as they could, using the best practice of their time, somehow choosing not to accept that their 'product' was death and their raw materials were people just like them. No doubt some day soon (if not already) someone will be doing something similar with more modern, computerised methods.
I remember a colleague pleased as punch to be moving to the USA to work on missile guidance systems. He thought the programming would be "well exciting" to work on. It'll be fairly exciting to be underneath when it lands as well, I should imagine. Not quite pushing someone into a gas chamber, of course, but then that's the modern advantage isn't it? That nice bit of comfort between the key-stoke and the deaths.
To the right is a demolished, oddly nearly L-shaped and partly underground building. It is the first of the five disrobing room, gas chamber and crematoria complexes. When they left, the Nazis dynamited them, as if that would hide their purpose or somehow erase their use.
To the back of this enormous compound is a path leading off into the woods. This leads to more compounds, to pools choked with ash, to more crematoria and, laughably, a shower block actually used for showering.
I can't tell you all the history of this awful place. I can't really tell you what its like or how it feels to go there, I'm just not good enough at expressing myself. There are other, better places on the web for that. I can dispel the odd myth, though. Auschwitz I is not unnaturally quiet. Its as noisy as any other place on a side road near the back of an industrial estate on the edge of town. Birkenau is very quiet, but then it would be - its on the very edge of town and there's very little else near. Its so quiet, in fact, that you can hear the birds sing. And they do, despite the popular myth. There's precious few of them out and about in the main compounds, of course, but then there's nothing there for them. In the woods at the back of the compound there's plenty of bird-song. I want to prove this and when we walk through the wood near crematoria V, I am entranced to see and hear a blackbird perched on a sign, singing its heart out. I open the case on my camera but despite being my very slow and careful it hears the velcro rip and flies off. Still, it is a charming moment in this quiet wood. Very peaceful and calm.
Walking round to the front of the sign and reading its contents nearly dashes my legs from under me. This wood, these pleasant trees, this is where they sent the ones, mainly women and children, who had been selected for immediate death but who had to wait for a slot in the busy gas chamber schedule.
We are conscious that the site officially closes at 6 pm and its 5:40. As we walk back down the other side of the main compound, we read the signs by each inner compound. The Nazis seem to have had an almost religious fascination with categorisation and segregation. One compound for women from here, another for the men from there. A further one for the sick - although how on earth you could tell the sick from the general inmates, goodness only knows.
The very first row of huts still remains. How many are rebuilt or restored from surviving remnants I don't know. I think at least one is original from the sign painted on the wall. They are miserable places anyhow.
And so, well after 6 o'clock, we walk out of Birkenau and go back to our bikes for the ride back to Krakow.