Two things hit you about Auschwitz Birkenau. The first is the vast scale of the evil which took place there. I stood at the top of the 8 step wide entrance tower and looked out on history's ultimate killing field. As far as the eye could see were fence posts, watch towers, and chimney stacks which marked where the now rotted wooden barracks had once stood.
This place could hold 90,000 people at any given time, almost all of whom were destined to die in a gas chamber, of exhaustion, starvation, disease, cold, or directly at the hands of an SS officer, before their bodies were burned.
In this, and other places like it, 6 million Jews were murdered. 6 million is a number which cannot be visualised. I've tried- it's 10% of the population of Great Britain, a third of the pre-war Jewish population of Europe, but it just isn't imaginable. I stood in the only remaining gas chamber, and looked around at the disgusting, dirty room. I had half expected it to be clean, with polished metal; efficient looking, like a professional kitchen perhaps. But no, this bare stone floor, uneven walls and ceiling, with a few holes where the gaseous death entered, was the final thing so many hundreds of thousands of innocent people saw before they were butchered.
Walking along the main train track through Birkenau, I was mesmerised by the sheer size of the fields, filled with chimneys, fences, lights, and, 67 short years ago, with malnourished, humiliated, desperate, lonely, abused, innocent people, waiting to die or else slowly dying whilst waiting. For the few who weren't gassed the moment they arrived here, the life expectancy was 4 to 6 weeks.
But the strangest thing is that the scale is not the worst thing about the place. No, the second thing about Auschwitz, which hits you 10 times harder is the fierce, unimaginable, sickening intensity of the evil that went on here.
Take those barracks, the ruins of which filled my vision. They look like this on the inside:
They were originally designed for horses to live in. About 50 horses lived in each block like this, but when the Germans used them to store human beings, 400 to 500 hundred were crammed into each one. That's more friends than I have on Facebook living in this hut. On the bunks you can see, each bed is smaller than a single bed, but two slept in each, putting 6 people on a hastily made bunk bed. Someone in my group asked whether they had mattresses, and the tour guide almost laughed. "No." She said, "the lucky ones had straw." Real people, like you and me, sleeping 2 to a bed on straw. The top bunk was the most coveted, because diarrhoea and dysentery were rife in the camp, and toilets were opened twice a day, so in the night there was a real danger of finding yourself sleeping in what the person above you could not control. Could they wash in the morning? There was rarely enough water to drink, never mind wash in.
Real people, like you and me, sleeping 2 to a bed on straw, covered in other people's excrement. It happened.
The next block was the toilet: a wooden hut with 200 small holes for people to sit almost touching each other. No dignity. No privacy. The most appalling thing of all about this hut was that one of the most popular jobs in the camp was being in the Sheissekommando. The shit group. People were desperate for this job because it was indoors, the nature of the work was warm, and no guards hung around to make sure they worked fast enough. Human beings, like me and you, reduced to begging to be allowed to shovel other people's waste.
Outside of the huts, I stood on the unloading ramp, where over a million people had fallen, half dead, out of cattle trucks, having travelled from as far as Greece without food or water. 70% of people were sent straight to the gas chambers; exterminated as soon as they arrived. The same place where I stood, so had so many men who would never see their wives again, brothers who would never see their sisters again, sons and daughters who would never see mothers and fathers again. I imagined my own family. Provided we all survived the journey, my mum would have been sent one way, and the rest of us another. I would never have seen her again. Ever. My youngest brother would have been told he was going for a shower, and never come out. Probably my dad too. Me and my other brother would have been taken, stripped off to check for any injuries which made us unable to work. We would then have had our entire bodies shaved and our clothes replaced by striped pyjamas, before being sent to one of the inhumane barracks, fed the calorific equivalent of a Snickers bar and forced to work 12 hours each day. We had 4 to 6 weeks before we would have died of exhaustion, provided no disease got us first. It could have been us. Born in another time in another place, it would have been.
At least we probably wouldn't have been selected for experimentation for Dr. Mengele. I walked past his block, where women were sent for him to test for efficient ways to sterilise them, often resulting in agonizing death. A doctor. A doctor.
Holocaust survivor Josef Perl said he saw a baby being born as is mother fell of the cattle truck. An officer grabbed the baby, cut the umbilical chord, and threw it aside, before sending the hysterical mother to the gas chambers. I could have been stood at the same spot that newborn life landed. A baby; a life, emotions, feelings, ideas, hopes, fears, memories, friends, a beloved child of the living God, that were never allowed to happen; tossed aside like an empty drinks can. This was a real person.
Back in Auschwitz I, I walked through rooms full of the belongings of prisoners. One room had a section filled with human hair, cut from the dead before their bodies were burned. The same hair which should have been caught by the sun, brushed, pulled, washed, smelled, stroked, kissed, was cut off. To make sofas. It ended up dry and matted, slowly fading in this room, for people like me to look at and feel broken, and cry for these people I never knew, for the things my race inflicted on them. It could have been my hair. It could have been yours.
The next room was shoes, of men and of little children. Shoes which were perfectly fitted and trodden into the shape of their dead owners. Shoes with their first ever pairs of laces. I imagined little boys trying, with their faces screwed up and tongue out with the concentration of tying them up for the very first time. The joy when they first managed it and the knot didn't fall apart. Those shoes should have ended up in a box somewhere for them to look at years on, and marvel at how small their feet were. Not here.
And all of this evil was divided from freedom by 8 steps. They stood between that little boy and a lifetime of tying his laces in a perfect double knot. They stood between that woman and the baby she gave birth to growing old and happy together. Between her becoming a grandmother, and becoming a statistic. 1 in 6 million dead Jews. 8 steps between liberty and genocide, life and death.
And how dare I take those steps? How can I come here as a tourist to look at this place, put it down in the scrapbook of my life, a box ticked, an experience had? This is a place that no-one should ever see, which should be consigned to history forever.
But Santayana was right when he said that anyone who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it. And this can never be repeated. Never ever. So the truth is that Auschwitz Birkenau is something that everyone should see. See and learn.
Rabbi Barry Marcus said that humans have conquered every distance conceivable, except for the distance between one man and another. It's time we started focussing on that one. Jesus said that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. It's time we started listening to Him.