I was going to write one blog post about my time in Krakow but it seemed unfair and somewhat insensitive to lump together all the fun I had in the city, with the bleak and brutally cold day I visited Auschwitz.
So I’ll split them in two.
I also don’t intend to re-litigate that grim period of history in any real detail, given it’s one of the world’s most notorious experiments in genocide, which most people at least seem to have a brief synopsis of.
But here’s my observations from my visit to Auschwitz (concentration camp and administrative centre) and Birkenau (nearby extermination camp).
The two camps are rightly so now a major tourist attraction for Poland and each year the number of tourists who pass through their gates equate to the conservative estimate of the number of people murdered here during World War Two – 1.1-1.6 million.
That said, I wasn’t altogether surprised when our tour bus pulled up alongside row upon row of others.
And, as much as I despise organised tours, it is the best way to see the place, as even if you arrive solo you are made to join a tour group and wear one of those dreaded headset walkie talkies where even if you can’t see your guide, you can still hear them.
But what I will remember most about that day is the snow, which began falling as we arrived.
It goes down as the first time in my life that snow has not been magical for me.
And, it almost felt wrong to be pleased to be going inside the cell blocks where people were tortured and subjected to medical experiments to seek reprieve from the freezing conditions, but it was mighty sobering to be passing through room upon room of peoples’ belongings – shoe polish, pots and pans, cutlery, clothes and carefully labelled suitcases – which really makes you wonder if they had any idea of what awaited them.
Then there was the room filled with human hair, which serves as a very graphic illustration of just how brutally efficient the Nazi regime was at utilising everything from their victims – in this case treating hair from a human as if it was wool from a sheep.
The Birkenau extermination camp just down the road stuck me for the same reason, with the railway tracks ending right outside the gas chambers to make the annihilation of Jews under the Final Solution as efficient and effective as possible.
But I felt bad for even mentioning how freezing I was, given those was the conditions hundreds of thousands of people were forced to endure.
In many ways I left Auschwitz and Birkenau feeling like I did in Cambodia and Bosnia, and as naive as it sounds, I will never understand how one human-being can be so brutal to another and why despite the fact we clearly take the time to remember our history, we don’t seem to be learning from it.
And most of all, I came away incredibly grateful to be from a country way down there in the South Pacific Ocean with a distinct lack of land borders.