A thousand miles from Paradise
I glanced briefly at my watch on Saturday and it told me that it was about 4pm local time. I knew that being an hour ahead of the time in Glasgow that Celtic would be kicking off in their SPFL match against Kilmarnock about then. I don’t normally like missing games or at least watching then online but on this particular Saturday the football was far from my mind. I was standing with a tour guide waiting to be shown inside the darkly iconic and infamous ‘gate of death’ at the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum on the site of the former Nazi concentration camp. It sits uneasily in the sleepy Polish countryside some 30 miles from Krakow and there is a stillness and brooding quality to the place. As the crow flies, it is about a thousand miles from Paradise but in many ways I was in a different world when I visited.
Having read countless books on the Holocaust over the years I had a good idea of what to expect but it isn’t until the physical reality of the place is there in front of you that you begin to sense the sheer scale of the wickedness which occurred here in the war years. A railroad cattle truck stands alone and forlorn on the rail track beside the selection ramp. It represents the hundreds if not thousands of such cattle trucks brought to Auschwitz from all over Europe, packed with those the Nazis had marked out for ‘special handling.’ At one point on the selection ramp there is a big black and white photograph showing an SS Officer sending a long column of people further along the ramp while a smaller group are entering the Women’s camp behind him. The larger group; the old, the young, the infirm, women with children, are walking towards Crematorium 2 where their fate awaits. The excellent Tour guide, a young Polish woman, asked visitors standing in front of this image to look around them. It then becomes clear in an instant that you are standing on the exact spot that SS man occupied more than 70 years earlier when he decided who lived for a while longer and who died that day.
Following the path for around 300 more yards, one comes to the remains of crematorium 2. The long undressing area leads to the gas chamber and crematoria facilities. The SS blew the structure up in January 1945 as the sounds of the Red Army’s artillery could be heard approaching from the east. Auschwitz is a strange place. In this few acres of Poland around a million people perished. The Nazis in their insanity transported them from as far afield as Greece, Denmark, Holland and France to this corner of Poland. Most of them never left.
As I travelled back to Krakow through the farms, fields and forests of southern Poland there was a fairly sombre mood on the mini bus. How could it be otherwise? I got into a quiet conversation with a man from Sweden who said, ‘That place should be preserved for all time as a warning about where hatred can lead us.’ I had to agree with him. Most good people know we should never forget these events and that platitudes and nice words aren’t enough to stop those who spread hate in our societies.
I’ll let the following photographs speak about the dark roads we human beings walk when we are seduced by hatred. They do so far more eloquently than my words ever could.
A thousand miles from Paradise these things went on. It’s everyone’s business to see that it doesn’t happen again.
Used Zyklon B Canisters found at Auschwitz
20,000 shoes belonging to those transported for 'resettlement'
Polish prisoners with date of arrival & death
Maria and Czeslava Kajewska, Twins aged 15
Arbeit Macht Frei: 'Work sets you free'
Pots and other cooking utensils brought by prisoners
Shoes of an unknown child
Execution wall in Block 11
Barracks block in women's camp
Sleeping arrangements in women's barrack: 4-6 to each level
A scale model of crematorium 2
Remembering a family from a street in Krakow
Memorial stone to Krakow's lost 70,000 Jews
The end of the line. Mankind's lowest point.