This is my humble homage to the people of various nationalities who were murdered in cold blood by Nazis during the World War II Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
I have grown up seeing movies woven around the theme of the Holocaust -
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 - 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 it 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 65km drive gave me more than a glimpse of the Polish countryside, which was as beautiful as in most of Europe.
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A bronze statue titled 'Starvation'. An exhibit created by Mieczyslaw Stobierski
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 encompassed not just one concentration camp, but three - Auschwitz-I (Auschwitz), Auschwitz-II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz-III (Monowitz) - each approximately 3-4km from the other. As surprising as it may sound, this 10sq km area accounted for the slaughter of millions human beings, 90% of those being Jews.
I reached Auschwitz-I at 8.30am. This gave me an advantage - no queue (upon returning to Krakow, I heard of people standing in the entry queue for over two 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, in all 28 of them (excluding sundry ones like the kitchen block etc.). The entry gate arch displayed three 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.
Auschwitz-I Entrance: Work Means Freedom
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 two incinerators, which were used to mass-burn the dead bodies. All of a sudden, I found that my mood had turned sombre.
Empty cans of Zyklon (Ironically called "Gift Gas") used to exterminate millions during the holocaust
Walking around, I started reading the fact-boards on 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 over-work, exhaustion and starvation; while the others were straightaway 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 three floors. Each floor had a narrow aisle in the middle and the sides had glass-encased remembrances, variously exhibiting victims' hair, their suitcases, artificial limbs, spectacles, hairbrushes, toothbrushes, shoes, toys and other belongings.
A mountain of suitcases
A tangled mass of spectacles that once belonged to the victims
Artificial limbs which were stripped off the corpses before they were incinerated
Shoes of the victims till as far as the eye can see
Hairbrushes, toothbrushes, shaving brushes, all belonging to the victims
There were thematic photo exhibitions on the murders of Jews, Poles, Romas, Sintis and others. There were also touching descriptions under the images such as, "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 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 I 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 six gas chambers built to murder, and then incinerate them.
Incinerators in the Gas Chamber
A guard tower in the distance looming ominously over the electrical fence
A 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 Jewish people. 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.
A group of Jewish people at Auschwitz pay their respects to their ancestors who suffered here
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.
All images have been provided by Ajay Sood (Travelure).