This is the third and final part of the Poland Trilogy we undertook to bring to you two issues ago. In a way, it is my humble homage to the people of various nationalities who were murdered, nay exterminated in cold blood by the 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, The 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 them all – Auschwitz. Last August this desire was finally fulfilled. I visited Poland on a photography trip and 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 kilometres 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 wellmaintained 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 to 4 kilometres from the other. As surprising as it may sound, this 10 sq. km. area accounted for the slaughter of around 1.5 million human beings (some guesstimates peg this number as high as 5 million), 90% of those being Jews.
I reached Auschwitz-I at 8.30 AM. This gave me an advantage – 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 well organised, with a solitary entry gate that led me into a complex with rows of warehouse-like buildings – in all, 28 of them (excluding sundry kitchen block etc.). The entry gate arch displayed 3 words in German – ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – which ironically translates to ‘Work eans 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 com-plete. Healthy ones were chosen for a slow death through over-work, exhaustion and starvation; while the others were straight away shot or gassed and their hair shaven off for use 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. Wherever I went, some reminder of the ghastly Holocaust faced me – its scale and magnitude evident in the exhibits I was witnessing. Each building I visited had 3 floors; each floor had a narrow aisle in the middle and the sides had glass-encased remembrances. These glass-encased areas were variously exhibiting victims’ hair, their suitcases, artificial limbs, spectacles, hairbrushes, 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 anymore, 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 to be murdered, and then incinerate them.
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 hoards, 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 ofbringing you face-to-face with the barbarism of humans, against humans..