The Victims' - Personal effects

Created on: 03 Feb 2012 | Last modified: 19 Feb 2018

Now, we reach the point in the visit where we have been warned to expect that our emotional confusion will reach its height. We enter one of the large buildings that now hosts some of the main exhibits that detail both the inhuman scale and the very human victims of the Holocaust.

It is in these displays that we see some of the evidence of the victims that the Nazis were unable to destroy as Russian forces advanced towards Auschwitz in the final days of the war. In a large room, behind a glass wall, we see the massed luggage of thousands of victims of the Holocaust.  

Each case has been carefully labelled with the name of its owner, every victim expecting to be re-united with their possessions once they have been transported to their new home.  

In another long room, behind two sets of massive glass-encased walls, we see thousands upon thousands of shoes. Of all shapes and styles and sizes, from the smallest child's shoes to sensible flat shoes of the elderly, they are piled to the ceiling and as far as the eye can see in this huge display area. 

We learn from our Polish museum guide that this would have represented two days' supply of shoes from Auschwitz camp victims.

Continuing through the other display rooms of the museum, we are overwhelmed by the continuing personal evidence that tells the story of the victims of these camps. In one room, a case containing thousands of pairs of spectacles. In another, hundreds of prosthetic limbs removed from the bodies of victims.

On and on we go, with each stop revealing more personal evidence of what the Jewish transportees were expecting when they arrived here. A huge collection of domestic items, including a case full of pots and pans, illustrates that many believed that they truly were being transported to a new home.

The impact on the observer as they pass through the exhibits is difficult to explain. The best word that I can find to describe it is numb. It is as if your brain and your body cannot process the scale of what you are seeing and feeling, and so it responds as best it can for your own emotional protection, by numbing your senses to prevent you from being too damaged by the experience.

You see the weight of evidence of this human tragedy, of our species' intolerable cruelty against itself, and you understand completely what you are seeing but your inner self does not want to allow you to believe it. So instead, it puts up barriers to shut out that which it does not want you to process, leaving you at all times fully aware of what you are seeing but simultaneously utterly bewildered by it all.

But you never know when your body will let its defences down momentarily and allow the emotional impact to hit you, and it is often where you least expect it.

For me, this happens in a quiet moment when most of our group has passed into another room. I look down at a glass display case, where I see an assortment of children's possessions including their toys. My eyes are drawn to a broken doll, her porcelain features faded by time but still clearly visible. No doubt she was the treasured possession of some poor little girl, a tiny victim who in all probability went to the gas chambers beside her mother.

My mind wanders to my own small children, safe and secure at school and at home, and suddenly my defences are down and the flood of all that I have seen this morning rushes in and overwhelms me. My head swims and I begin to feel dizzy as I have to hold on to the edge of the display case to steady myself. It is probably around half a minute before I am able to continue behind my group, although it feels like a lot longer. 

Continue to part 8 of 14 - The Victims