Helen Robb discusses her visit to Aushwitz
More than 1.1 million men, women, and children lost their lives in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps. One not among that number is Kitty Hart-Moxon, who survived the camp and many other torments for almost two years prior to liberation. She now speaks widely on the importance of remembering those who were not as lucky. I had the honour of meeting her last year and it was on her recommendation that I joined the thirty million visitors to the camp since its opening to the public in 1947. I went prepared to be shocked, appalled and deeply affected. I left with all of those feelings. They were directed not only at what the camp had been, but what it is today. Despite the command to visit and the importance of remembering, I was left asking the uncomfortable question: “Is there still value in visiting Auschwitz?”
Entering Auschwitz was sobering. The walk from the car park to the camp was many people’s last – a memory which unsettles any visitor. Discomfort is unexpectedly enhanced by a glance around. Near the entrance there is not only a café, but a snack stand, vending machines, and a book stall proudly displaying posters and postcards. These attempts to ease the visit made me uneasy. For the sake of trying to understand what Kitty had faced, I pushed on.
In peak season, visitors are shown the camp by a tour guide in small groups. They are shown living huts, torture rooms, and gas chambers. They are shown displays of shocking images and artifacts. They are also witness to the responses of their fellow visitors. We approached the gates with their infamous declaration: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The click of the cameras promptly began. We saw individuals standing proudly under the gates for their friends. The clicking never stopped. It could be heard in the torture chambers over the sinister recitation of facts gleaned from years of history classes. It followed us everywhere.
But more than that, much more, I was deserted by my inability to comprehend. I could not process the statistics thrown at me: a prison population of 150,000; over 100,000 died from typhus alone…
It wasn’t until I recalled Kitty’s face talking of the hardships, the loss of dignity and the stigma which followed her in later life, that I could focus. I could see past the incomprehensible statistics, the disrespect and the commercialism, and start to attempt to understand. There is still value in visiting Auschwitz; it lies not in the knowledge of the 1.1 million people who lost their lives there, but in the one account that touches you.