Created on: 03 Feb 2012 | Last modified: 19 Feb 2018
Auschwitz I was the first camp to open in 1940, and was primarily a concentration camp.
It is walking into this camp that you pass under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work makes you free”) sign that has become synonymous with the hidden horrors of the Holocaust.
The sign that you pass under today is a replica of the original, which was stolen a few years ago for its scrap metal value. Thankfully, it was recovered before it could be melted down and is now kept in a secure location on site.
It is an unsettling experience walking under that sign in the knowledge that many who came here actually believed the lie that was inscribed there.
Even before the "final solution" was put into full operation, the Jewish people had suffered severe mistreatment at the hands of the Nazis. Such was their desperation to escape the hardship of life in the Ghettos – where they were confined in cramped, dismal conditions with little food – that many put their faith in the Nazi’s "transportation" to so-called labour camps as a means to a better existence.
Transportation usually wasn’t free either – the transported Jews had to pay for their tickets, little knowing the conditions that awaited them in the cattle trucks they were to be crammed into, or the horror of life in the camps for those who survived the journey.
Zigi Shipper had told us of the realities of transportation in our preparatory seminar. He told us how people, who had scraped together enough money for tickets and packed everything they owned for their journey, were shocked when they were herded into closed cattle trucks rather than passenger carriages.
The conditions were appalling, with no room to sit down let alone lie down. It was dark inside the trucks, with no lighting or heating and certainly no sanitary facilities. This was how people travelled the long distances to the camps, with the only respite being the occasional stops to allow the train to take on coal or water.
Sometimes on these stops, the guards would open the doors of the cattle trucks to haul out those who had died during the journey, allowing a burst of light and a blast of precious air into the claustrophobic atmosphere of the trucks.
"We were not sad when we saw the dead being hauled out”, said Zigi Shipper, "It gave us a little more room to move, and it gave us a little more air to breathe”.
These days, hundreds of thousands of people pour under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign every year, which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it exposes so many people to something that should never be forgotten, and a curse in that it is causing the deterioration of the sites and raising difficult questions about the behaviour of some visitors.
The vast majority of visitors, including the entire schools group that I am with, are respectful and impeccably behaved. But there is a small yet visible minority who do not treat the sites with the respect that they deserve.
As we pass into the camp, a group of around a dozen young men, are mugging for a friend’s camera in front of the famous sign. Their grins and thumbs ups for the photographer are wholly inappropriate and prompt stern looks from many passers-by and a verbal rebuke from a group of young Israelis heading in the opposite direction. Undeterred, the group finishes their photo shoot and high-fives their way into the camp. It is a disturbing display from a group of men who, though young, are clearly old enough to know better.
While we are all well-prepared for our visit based on what we have heard and read, nothing quite prepares you for the cold reality of what you see and feel at Auschwitz.
We pass by the kitchen block where, in a surreal and macabre attempt at deception, the Nazis arranged for a band drawn from camp inmates to play Mozart as new arrivals marched past. If anyone was ever taken in by this attempt at window-dressing, it will not have lasted for long.