A historian once pointed out, quite correctly, that it was necessary to understand the past in order to understand the present. This is a phrase that springs all too readily to mind for a visitor to Auschwitz, a place that one feels must be included on a trip to Krakow.
It is, of course, not quite so easy to understand the minds of those that created places like Auschwitz. It is also understandable why some people may not wish to visit. It is not a place that makes for comfortable viewing, but travel is not always about seeing the beautiful and aesthetically pleasing things. Travel is, or should, be about understanding and learning as well as hedonistic pleasure.
If one were to be driven inside the grounds of Auschwitz without seeing anything, and thus missing the infamous gates, little might seem amiss. The site of an old army barracks, you might think and this would be correct, as the camp served precisely this purpose until 1940. Only then did its ghastly history begin.
There are a few hints in the grounds of some of the camp’s unpleasant secrets. The watchtowers and barbed wire suggest a more sinister purpose. The visitor might not immediately realise it, but a basic brick building was used as a gas chamber. Nearby, there is a gallows. Here, Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, was hanged after being convicted of the murder of three and a half million human beings.
It is, though, inside the buildings that the horror of the place begins to hit home. It is, of course, impossible to imagine what things were really like, but the stark displays leave a feeling of emptiness and despair, none more so than the cabinets filled with human hair. The vast piles of tattered shoes are also heart-rending.
However awful Auschwitz feels, a trip to the nearby Birkenau camp feels even more desperate. The latter was built by prisoners, largely Russian prisoners of war, as an addendum to the Auschwitz camp, as Auschwitz was simply not big enough. Birkenau is vast, bare, bleak and open. The railway line running into it gives a sense of a one-way journey into Hell. The sparse wooden huts and the basic latrines made it a Hell that was freezing in winter and burning in summer.
This is history at its most uncomfortable. It is also history at its most necessary.