As horribly clichéd and hackneyed this is, as so many of my dreams encompass destinations, it’s like every time I travel, a dream comes true. This series is dedicated to those times: the times where the situations I had imagined in my head for several years or months prior have been achieved, and the times where my heart swelled and head realised that realised that damn, I really am bloody doing this.
And my oldest dream destination happens not to be the beaches of Hawaii or the deserts of the Sahara, but instead a small little town called Oświęcim in Poland. Though let’s be fair about this. Whilst my oldest dream destination wasn’t Oświęcim but actually Kraków, it became Oświęcim when I learned that Auschwitz was actually located there and not in Kraków city itself.
Because ever since it was dangled in my face in a Religious Education class at the age of 14, I had been DESPERATE to visit Auschwitz. D E S P E R A T E. You see, there was a competition run by a few of the teachers for our year, whereby if you submitted the best piece of writing about Nazi Germany and its treatment of the Jewish people, you won a funded visit to… you guessed it, the Auschwitz concentration camps!
That week, I sat down after dinner each night and wrote passionately, to the point where I believe there must’ve been a few tears shed. I wrote and redrafted and I wrote and redrafted until I knew I had the best piece of writing that school had ever seen from a student. Even though I can’t remember any of it, just know that I truly believe that it was golden and totally worthy of winning that trip to Auschwitz. Now I know I sound like a narcissistic asshole, but I genuinely felt that out of the nine (just nine! Out of 120!) people who had submitted something, my story was the ultimate. It was raw and passionate and bloody realistic and with its fascinating characters, gripping plot and stellar narrative, my teenage self wrote something that had all the trappings of a bloody bestseller.
I didn’t win.
And it angered me, because when I saw who had won, I saw that she just wasn’t hungry for it like I was. She was laughing and carefree and joyful as she waltzed up on stage, and god-bloody-damn it, did she even work as hard on her piece as I had on mine? Probably. Was she even as interested in war history as I? In European history? Who knows. But I didn’t care regardless, because in my mind she had only won because she was also known to be a teachers’ snob.
Teenage ego damaged, I turned my nose up, ignored the rest of the assembly and silently muttered nepotism.
I made it to Auschwitz a month before my 25th birthday – an early gift from my Mum and our chosen destination for our annual trip abroad. You can read about the Kraków portion of our trip but upon stepping onto the grounds of Auschwitz for the first time, I had to take a deep breath and get myself together.
Because I was here, finally here. A place where over a million people tragically and brutally died. After nearly 11 years, I was actually standing at that gate, morose and pensive and bewildered, ready to see a place I had spent so many years learning about in school and university.
I find when I go to mass execution sites that I don’t like to write about them, and I think that’s because I can never do my emotions justice or relay the horrors of the locations effectively enough. How do I explain the awfulness I felt for example, upon learning that the Nazis used to drag the prisoners outside, strip them naked and then dowse them in ice water in the midst of winter, as I stood there with a warm thick coat and gloves, angry and sad that I was shivering despite being completely covered? Or that I couldn’t comprehend the ‘living’ conditions of Auschwitz II/Birkenau, where people were forced to live in shacks where even animals wouldn’t, devoid of any light and the beds made of mud and rubble because they were directly on the floor? Even the fact that Birkenau was solely built to execute and that most of the estimated 1.3 million were killed there. How does someone convey such a magnitude of sad thought and heavy heart? To even see my Mother cry… the toughest nut in our family who constantly exhibits a stiff upper lip.
Countless films and shows recreate the atrocities committed, but to witness Auschwitz and Birkenau in the flesh is when it truly, truly hits you – when you realise that humans had to go through this, and that in fact, it was humans who put them there in the first place. I can’t describe what that day was like, and how shaken I was left for hours after – almost to the point of being emotionless and numb, but if you have the opportunity to go, go. Go and see what happened, because what is shown on TV or written about in books will never explain how haunting Auschwitz actually is, nor prepare you for how you will react and find the experience personally, whether that be tears or emptiness. Be prepared to walk away with so much more knowledge, and to remember that this is something that should never happen again, even if it sometimes seem like it’s something that might.