Part-3 of a Trilogy comprising Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz. ‘Smart Photography’. October 2014 issue.
Auschwitz – Remembering the WW-II Holocaust
This photo-feature is my humble homage to the people of various nationalities who were murdered in cold blood by Nazis during the World War-II Holocaust all around Eastern Europe.
I have grown up seeing movies woven around this theme – Warsaw Story, The Pianist, Schindler’s List, Odessa file, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and many more. I have read about the Holocaust extensively, both in magazines as well as in novels. As a photographer, I have also been through thousands of images of the Holocaust and its sites. As a result, somewhere deep down, I had a desire to visit the biggest Holocaust site of all – The Auschwitz.
Last month, this desire was finally fulfilled. I visited Poland on a photography trip and besides visiting Warsaw and Krakow, I specially made time to visit Auschwitz. Unlike my other photo-trips, this time I stayed away from any preparation or specific study, as I wanted my psyche to confront an unprejudiced experience. It is almost like not reading the review of an eagerly awaited movie because of fear that the review might expose the plot.
I drove from Krakow to Auschwitz, a neat little town with a population of just over 40,000. I chose a country road and avoided the Expressway. The distance of about 65 kilometers gave me more than a glimpse of the Polish countryside, which was as beautiful as in most of Europe.
Upon reaching Auschwitz, I realised that it is no longer referred to as a concentration camp, but is now a well-maintained memorial and museum. Another fact I learned was that Auschwitz consists of not just one concentration camp, but three – Auschwitz-I (Auschwitz), Auschwitz-II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz-III (Monowitz) – each approximately 3 – 4 kilometers from the other. As surprising as it may sound, this 10 sq. km. area accounted for the slaughter of anything from 1.5 to 5 million human beings, 85% of those being Jews.
I reached Auschwitz-I at 8.30 A.M. This gave me 2 advantages – no entry fee (from 8 A.M. to 10 A.M. people are allowed in for free) and no queue (upon returning to Krakow, I heard horror stories of people being in the entry queue for over 2 hours). From a photography perspective, it also meant that I was able to get shots without too many tourists in them.
Not knowing what to expect, I just started following a few people with guides. The entire place was extremely organised, with a solitary entry gate that led me into a complex with rows of warehouse-like buildings – approximately 25 of them. The entry gate arch displayed 3 words in German – ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – which ironically translates to ‘Work means Freedom’. For an instant, the images of how ‘free’ the inmates of this concentration camp were, danced in front of my eyes.
It was pure chance that the first building I ended up in was the Gas Chamber. Thousands of prisoners were gassed to death here. The building had 2 incinerators, which were used to mass-burn the dead bodies. All of a sudden, I found that my mood had turned sombre.
Walking around, I started reading the fact boards in the premises. Let me share the essence of one such board – ‘The plunder of human beings was complete. Healthy ones were chosen for a slow death through overwork, exhaustion and starvation; while the others were straightaway shot or gassed, but not before their hair was shaven off for using as yarn for woollens; their gold teeth were extracted and their valuables stripped.’
As if in a daze, I moved from one building to another. In each, some reminder of the ghastly Holocaust faced me – its scale and magnitude evident in the exhibits I was witnessing. Each building had 3 floors; each floor had a narrow aisle in the middle and the sides had glass-encased remembrances. There was a building full of victims’ hair; another full of their clothes and even more buildings with suitcases, artificial limbs, spectacles, hair-brushes, toothbrushes, shoes, toys and other belongings.
There were thematic photo-exhibitions on the murder of Jews, Poles, Romas, Simtis, etc. There were also touching descriptions under the images like ‘This woman weighed 64 kilograms when brought to Auschwitz; weighed a mere 25 kilograms when this image was shot’. There were terrible stories of one Dr. Mengele – a psychotic man who conducted half-baked and brutal medical experiments on children, in particular, twins.
When I couldn’t take it any more, I decided to step out. One thing I wanted to see was the rail track that used to bring the prisoners to Auschwitz. Upon enquiring, I found that it was in Auschwitz-II (Birkenau), and promptly made my way there.
Here was the notorious ‘Hell’s Gate’ or ‘Gate of Death’. The entrance had an arch through which the train would enter the camp. When the prisoners disembarked, they would get sorted as either healthy or weak. The healthy ones were taken to the barracks (akin to horse stables) while the weak (women, children, elderly people) would either be shot on the spot, or taken to one of the 6 gas chambers built to murder and then incinerate them.
The paucity of time didn’t allow me to visit Monowitz. But I had seen enough. In both – Auschwitz, as well as Birkenau – I saw a lot of Jews. I could understand that for them, it was almost a pilgrimage. They were there in hordes, to pay homage to their ancestors who had faced the worst.
If you ever get a chance, do visit this solemn place, which has the power of bringing you face-to-face with the barbarism of humans, against humans.