Visit Number Six: New Perspectives on Scale - Part Two

The (long overdue) second part of my most recent visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. You can find the first part here.

The size of Auschwitz-Birkenau can only truly be comprehended once there. My friend Sam and I walked around the boundary of the back of the camp, behind the infamous silver birch trees that gave the area its name, and the walk must have taken at least 15 minutes. We eventually came back to the main road, where life quietly continues - a couple of cars drove past, a couple and their young child in his push-car walked along the kerb. In the ditches next to the perimeter fence of the Museum lay empty McDonalds burger boxes and beer bottles. I wondered who had so callously chucked these in such a location.
We soon came to a small gate on our right. Walking back into the camp, we had arrived at the Soviet POWs' mass grave. Until recently, I was completely unaware of the actual location of the grave, as it is certainly not on any average visitor itinerary and is tucked away behind the trees. A large stone memorial indicates the final resting place of 8,000 Soviet POWs that died between 1941 and 1942, almost certainly all victims of the construction of Birkenau (see picture 1). People believe that there are no bodies at Auschwitz: that all the victims were cremated and their ashes dumped or scattered. The Soviet POW mass grave proves that this is not the case.
Close to this spot, though, stand three black memorial stones that highlight where ashes have been scattered, as can be seen in other parts of the camp, particularly near the crematoria (2). The Russian translation reads:

In memory of the Soviet prisoners of war who were the victims of Nazism.
Here lie their ashes.
To the memory of the fallen. (3)

After a moment of reflection, we turned back onto the main road. There is one section owned by the Museum that is not within the main permiter of Birkenau, and that is where the Little Red House once stood. The Little Red House, like the Little White House, was a peasant's cottage that was commandeered by the SS to use as a temporary gas chamber before the industrial-scale gas chambers and crematoria were built. Unlike the White House, however, not even the foundations of the building remain; what the visitor is presented with is a field with three more black stones signifying the site as a place of genocide (4 and 5). Two-storey houses stand either side of the field. Whilst we paused for a moment, and I lit a commemorative candle to leave at the foot of one of the memorial stones, a couple picked dandelions behind us, just outside the gate, laughing and chatting. In that moment I tried to imagine how it would feel to live next door to a place where innocent men, women and children were gassed to death, and shuddered when I considered the locals must have just had to get used to it.

Crossing the road, we re-entered the main section of Birkenau through another small gate. Our route took us into the thick of the silver birch trees, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by thoughts of the mothers and children waiting in this area for a 'shower'; children crying, mothers trying to comfort them and feed them, the elderly grateful for the brief respite after such an awful journey in the cattle wagons. The area is almost too peaceful now; it is possible to stand in the forest without seeing any of the buildings around, the industry of mass murder that took place there, and you could kid yourself that you were anywhere.
We also passed areas described in Laurence Rees' documentary Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution, where bodies of murdered prisoners were originally buried before being exhumed - by other prisoners, of course - and cremated. Again, the landscape revealed nothing of the horrors that once took place there, except, perhaps, for a depressions in the earth where mass graves may once have been located.

Our final place to visit, although a place I have been several times, was the former site of the Canada barracks. I have always been fascinated by the small greenhouse-type display case that stands inside the foundations of one of the former barracks, as it shows items that Museum workers and visitors have found in the area since the liberation of the camp. There is a complete mish-mash of objects, some almost welded together by their time in the earth and the passing of years: cutlery, pots, pans, glass bottles, buttons, tins etc. At the other end of the barrack I found a shard of patterned glass. I picked it up and studied it (6). I couldn't imagine that a visitor would bring something to the site that would resemble it. It looked like it might have been a fragment of a vase or something similar. A vase that may have once held flowers in a home in Prague, or Krakow, or Paris, or Amsterdam, or a tiny Czech village...
It is incredibly important to remember the individual when we talk or learn about the Holocaust, but for me, this was too much. To potentially be holding something that once belonged to a person who had been murdered in the most horrific way, that once formed part of their life, almost felt too real. I am used to viewing the possessions of Holocaust victims through glass and have never experienced that kind of tactile interaction with such an object. Unlike two British schoolboys who recently, foolishly, tried to steal items from the camp to take home with them, I placed the glass on the display case, in the hope that it will join the rest of the pieces already found (7). I'm not pointing this out to brag about my morality; I just believe that even the smallest objects discovered are part of that terrible history, and should remain there to bear witness to what took place there. They are certainly not ours to keep and display, however we may choose to do so. Furthermore, I took photographs of this fragment as a reminder of the emotions that I experienced, and as a way to reinforce keeping the memory of the individual person, family and community alive.
(It is also not lost on me that, from the pictures I have seen, I may even have found a piece of the same object that the two boys tried to steal.)

What do I mean when I talk about the 'new perspectives on scale' in the title of these posts? Three things, really. The first is just how many people are now visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and how different some of their behaviours can be. The second is the scale of the place itself - it took six visits for me to visit parts of the camp I had not seen, and that was without revisiting Auschwitz I or places such as the preserved barracks in Birkenau. If anything, that should show the enormity of the camp. Third and finally is on a much smaller scale - the individual scale that we can consider with just one object found in the grounds of Canada. If such an object could talk, what would it say? Where did it come from, and how did it end up exposed to the elements for a British student to find 70 years after the liberation of the camp? It seems as though no many trips I take to the Museum - and I am sure there will be others - the history and relevance of this site will always reveal something new, raw and significant.