Memories of a visit to Auschwitz

From 2011 edition: By Adrian Kelly

On most occasions when seeing anything on TV about Auschwitz one gets the picture of a stretch of a railway line with the buffers at the end of it. That may well be the vision that the Media want to portray to the outside world of this once horrendous place but I can imagine it would have been a lot different for those poor souls arriving in their millions to end their lives there in a horrible way. My one visit to this infamous place was over twenty five years ago but the memory is still vivid despite the years. One can not go there without feeling prolonged emotions and still retain those feelings for years. There is so much evidence-if evidence is ever needed-of the crimes committed against humanity.The place is classed as a museum and was left much the same as it was at the end of the war.

At the time of my visit Poland was under communism and was not without a certain amount of propaganda from the state. But on the whole a fair and accurate picture was laid out. One could go on for ever  describing the exhibits, from the huts to gas chambers and the material therein. Some exhibits stand out in the memory of course, like the huts full of human hair, another filled with eye glasses (stainless steel and still in good condition), leather suitcases in their thousands, crutches of every design, false legs and arms filled another large hut. The list goes on and on. One of the saddest pictures for me was of young boys dressed in the prison garb of stripes walking under a kind of goal–post bar just to see if they were big enough for work detail rather than be sent straight off to the gas chambers. There were authentic films on show of what life was like, and the state of the prisoners was shocking. Before the whole complex was evacuated towards the end of the war, a great effort was made to destroy the evidence that so obviously existed. They tried to dismantle the gas chambers, but time was running out and they only partially succeeded in some  respects.What remains is pretty obvious the intent it was designed for.

One other poignant exhibit mounted on top of one of the gas chambers is the gibbet on which the former commander Hoess was executed sometime after the war ended. As most people know the lifespan of an  inmate was something like weeks, for those even in good health. The good health did not last very long because of the living conditions and the foul food allocated.Another thing on show  was the actual amount of food given to those doing manual labour, something like a quarter of the amount of calories required for a man to perform the required tasks. All designed to hasten the end of an inmates life, to behold. It was really hard to take, and leaves a lasting effect on anyone who witnesses it. How did this barbarism come about one asks the question? Why so much evil directed at one race of people? Was it all down to one man?

We in our society need to guard democracy more than ever, it is something we should never take for granted. It’s no use thinking it could never happen again because it has (can we recall Cambodia not so long ago) I am often reminded of the famous words written by the Reverend Martin Niemoller about life in pre-war Germany: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist! Then they came for the Jews, I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, I didn’t speak up because I was a protestant! Finally they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak for me”.

Another famous quote I read recently, “History teaches us that tyrants are emboldened when free nations and free people fail to act”. So all the  evidence is there for us to pass on to future generations to guard against complacency in not doing simple things like not voting at elections etc. I think that once is enough to visit Auschwitz. It is still there as a stark  reminder to all of us of what has happened in our lifetime by a regime which was led by a madman, revered by a lot of misguided people and caused millions of deaths to the innocents of this world. Long live Democracy!

I first went to Poland to work on a two year contract for a British construction company in 1978. Along with about another two thousand men from the British Isles we were constructing a plastics factory near a town in the centre of the country called Wlocawek. I was only there three months when a new Polish Pope was elected. At that time I virtually knew hardly any Polish and was in a taxi going to church when I heard the radio announcer getting excited and then the driver turning to say to me “Polski Papish” also in excited tones. It did not take any translation on my part to understand what was going on.

One must remember that Poland was under communism at that time and total censorship prevailed. The people would tell us their country was under the thumb of the Soviet Union, and the vast majority hated it. Despite all that the Nation was, by and large, church going. There were plenty of churches and were packed every Sunday. I was not at all surprised to find the polish people very warm hearted and generous. There was no doubt whatsoever that the communism system held them back. Then from nowhere one of their citizens John Paul 2nd was a great Pope and statesman.

The following year was highlighted in Poland as the Pope paid his native country a state visit. He arrived on Corpus Christi and the whole nation came to a stand still. Surprisingly “holydays of Obligation” were also state holidays despite the system. From that time on, one could feel the changes that were about to take place in Eastern Europe were slowly taking place and I feel it was all down to the vision of electing a great Pole as Pope. His Papacy will be a hard one to follow.


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