Created on: 03 Feb 2012 | Last modified: 19 Feb 2018
Upon passing through the stone archway that marks the entrance to the camp, the first thing that strikes you is the immense, almost unimaginable size of the place.
The camp stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions, with the railway tracks continuing right down the centre of the camp and disappearing into the trees in the far distance.
Half-way down the line, in the middle of this section of the camp, you can just make out a paved section of platform where the frequent trains would halt to unload their human cargo.
Despite the huge size of the site, as we walk on, we are told that at the time of liberation the Nazis had commenced work to double the size of the camp. When documents seized from the camp were examined later, it was discovered that plans had also been drawn up to expand in two further directions which would have increased the size of the current camp four-fold.
Most of the site is now in ruins, as the Nazis destroyed as much as they could before evacuating the camp in order to leave as little evidence as possible. The remaining wooden prison huts were burned by the Russians on their arrival, to restrict the spread of disease from the squalid living quarters of the prisoners.
Some huts have been reconstructed to give visitors an idea of the type of conditions that the camp’s inhabitants had to endure. Rows and rows of triple and quadruple bunks stretch from floor to ceiling in every hut, with hundreds of prisoners confined in each building. Very few toilet blocks existed, with one facility serving many huts and many thousands of prisoners. All visits to the toilet blocks were timetabled and subject to strict time limits, with many prisoners having to go for days without ever visiting these squalid and disease-ridden facilities.
After a brisk 5 minute walk up the train tracks, alongside the ruins of row upon row of burned-out habitation huts, we arrive at the stone-paved train platform that we could just make out as we arrived in the camp.
It was here that new arrivals at Auschwitz II would disembark from their cattle trucks, to be immediately sorted into groups by the senior officers of the camp, including "Angel of Death" Dr Mengele. This was a life or death decision for these new arrivals, although they had little knowledge of how important a decision it was and even less say in the outcome.
With a flick of his wrist, the officer in charge of selection would send the new arrivals to either the left or the right. Those deemed fit enough to work would be sent to the right, where weeks and months of intolerable misery awaited them.
For those sent to the left, approximately 75% of all arrivals, their fate was an immediate march to the gas chambers for extermination followed by incineration.
The group sent to the left included virtually all women and children, together with the elderly, the sick and the disabled. The operation of the camp was terrifyingly efficient. At its height, Auschwitz-Birkenau could accommodate the gassing and incineration of over 20,000 people every single day. Upon arriving in the camp, and being selected for extermination, average life expectancy was under two hours.
Anyone refusing to be separated from their families, or even their luggage, would be dealt with swiftly and harshly.
Our guide tells us the story of one recent visitor, whose relative had died at Auschwitz. Upon researching camp documents, she found that her ancestor never made it to the gas chambers. On arrival, having refused to be separated from the luggage containing all his worldly possessions, he was instantly shot dead on the platform by the senior officer as a warning to others that they must comply.
Here on the platform, we pause so that our educator can read aloud some writings from Auschwitz inmates. The educator is highly experienced and well-trained, a teacher back in the UK, who has been on many such trips with the Holocaust Educational Trust. But once again, as he reads aloud a poem that provides a first-hand and very personal perspective of the Holocaust, one of those unexpected moments hits him and he is overcome with emotion, unable to continue.
No-one says anything, but everyone understands. We have all experienced similar moments on our own personal journeys through Auschwitz.