My Experience at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau Holocaust Memorial Museum – Thanos Ioannou, LLB student (UCLan Cyprus)
Posted on March 20, 2020
In February 2020, a group of Law students of UCLan Cyprus visited Auschwitz concentration camp together with their lecturer, Dr. Natalie Alkiviadou.
World War 2. A war that shaped mankind. A war that ashamed mankind. A war that caused so much death and destruction to the whole planet. Countless of stories of all the war fronts have been told through documented evidence. Sadly, just a few stories were ever told; describing the “war” against human respect and human dignity, taking place in the Nazi concentration camps in Europe, mainly because only a few people survived to tell the tale.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the infamous Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was a very interesting experience since nothing can compare the feelings you have when you are at the premises where the stories you heard and read had occurred.
In this article I will elaborate on the displays in Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial museum that captured more my attention, even though the whole two and a half hours tour we had was interesting and very informative. Additionally, I will expand on the general thoughts I had after the end of the tour.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp
During the tour we were guided in different buildings named “Blocks” where prisoners of the camp were living in which now have the evidence of the atrocities occurring there and in Birkenau. Very interesting was Block 4, room 4 where the cans containing the lethal “Zyklon B” pesticide, used in the gas chambers, were displayed. There were around 300 cans of used Zyklon B on display which is chilling; imagining how many people died from this chemical. Another very gruesome sighting in Block 4, was in room 5 where the hair of the victims was on display. According to our guide, they were cut off the victims and prisoners and were sent to Germany to be used for clothing and carpets. 7 tons of hair were found in Birkenau and many more were already sent to Germany during the duration of the war.
In addition, another shocking sighting can be found in Block 5 which contained the belongings of the people arrived at Birkenau. There were thousands of items. From pairs of shoes, to shaving equipment and luggage, all of them once belonging to real, innocent people with dreams and will to live. This was very sad to observe.
Moreover, is the infamous courtyard of Block 11, where thousands of prisoners were shot dead by the SS police. I remember, at the sight there were candles and a few flowers, paying respect to all those innocent lives which were led to their cold-blooded murder for violating German or camp rules.
I would also like to mention the SS section of Auschwitz, where the SS guards and commanders of the camp lived. At the right side, after the double electric wires, is the mansion where the camp’s commander, Rudolf Höss was living, alongside his wife and five children. The very disturbing point here, is that Rudolf was living his ordinary family life, playing with his children, where just 150 meters next to the mansion, is the only existing gas chamber and crematorium. A place where hundreds of thousands of prisoners were murdered. The very cold environment of the gas chamber and the nail marks of the victims on the walls, trying to fight for a gasp of air, was something that will always stay in my mind.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp
Situated 3 kilometers from Auschwitz, built using forced labor, in violation of the Genève Conventions, is the biggest and most infamous Nazi concentration camp where more than one million innocent lives were lost. A very shocking part of Birkenau was the ruins of the five gas chambers and crematoria that were used in the Jewish Holocaust and the pond where the ashes of the murdered and cremated bodies were thrown into. Moreover, the wooden barracks in which thousands of prisoners were living in, some of them even dying due to poor sanitation conditions of the camp is another sight that stayed in my mind.
My Thoughts During and After the Tour
Having observed the museum’s displays, only questions as to “why” Germans were acting so cruelly and “what” was the cause of such barbaric treatment, to both, civilians and prisoners of war. The reasons are various, but most of them trace back to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and the humiliation of Germany through the terms of it. The bad economic situation of Germany after being ordered to pay compensation to the Allies of WW1 and the financial crisis of 1929 put the country to its knees, desperate for salvation and restoration of German pride. Hope was eventually found in the ideologies of Nazism. However, Germany should not solely be responsible. The League of Nations failed at its main task and the Allies did not take any measures to prevent the rising German military aggression, despite Hitler violating the Treaty in plain sight. This however is a story for another time…
Lastly, I would like to expand on a quote of philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) written at the entrance of Auschwitz Block 4. The quote writes “Those who don’t remember the past are deemed to repeat it”. The point of it, is very relatable with the popular opinion that “History repeats itself”. However, Santayanas’ quote is partially true. As much knowledge as you have of the past you are still deemed to repeat because history repeats itself when you are weak and desperate enough as repeat it yourself or allow it to be repeated by others. Hate crime is the byproduct of hate speech which itself is the result of hateful mentalities, often originated from reasons which are simple and sometimes in front of our eyes. Therefore, the best form of prevention of any kind of hate, apart from proper education, is also the early identification and resolution of hateful ideologies before their rise and spread, in order to keep a peaceful and united world.
In conclusion, I want to thank the university for providing us this very interesting and informative opportunity to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is something that taught me a lot and I highly recommend this visit to anyone.