Visiting Auschwitz and why I felt nothing

How are you meant to feel when you stand in a gas chamber?

You look around the damp underground room and you try to imagine 700 people all crammed in, half starved, clinging to the promise of hot soup after having been made to strip naked and leave their clothes outside on the stones.

You walk through to the next room and see where the corpses of murdered, innocent people were then burned, one after another, sending foul smelling smoke up through the chimneys for the other prisoners in the camp to see.

How are you meant to feel?

When I told people I wanted to visit Auschwitz as one of my 40 things to do before I turn 40 I got a mixed reaction. Some people, you could tell, could think of nothing worse. Either they just didn’t want to be made to think about it, or perhaps they felt it was disrespectful to pay for the privilege of being led around a site where hundreds of thousands of people were killed.

Others wished me luck.

‘It was the most harrowing experience of my life,’ they told me.

‘So traumatic,’ they said.

It has been something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, as I’ve read quite a bit about life (and death) in concentration camps, and there is something that just feels so IMPORTANT about it. It’s such a massive part of our recent history as human beings, and it’s so horrific.

I imagined that it would be just as harrowing and traumatic as everyone was telling me, that perhaps I would feel overwhelmed, unable to deal with coming face to face with it.

We arrived and walked through those infamous gates at Auschwitz One – ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – and I waited for the feelings to come. I stood still and quiet and waited to feel the horror of what had happened. I tried to picture the prisoners, walking through these gates, feeling scared but potentially optimistic, oblivious to what lay ahead.

Nothing came.

We walked around the camp, around the museums and exhibits now housed in the barracks that once held thousands of prisoners, and still nothing came.

We looked at the piles and piles of personal belongings, hairbrushes, pots and pans and shoes, that had been packed by the prisoners and then stolen by the guards, but everything was too big. I tried to concentrate on something small – a single enamel cooking pot or an individual odd shoe – to connect to the person and the family behind it, but then you pan out and see that the shoe is part of a mountain of what must be thousands of shoes and your brain cannot process the scale of the suffering.

Auschwitz shoes

Auschwitz shoes

When I visited Anne Frank’s attic in Amsterdam a few years ago I cried just walking around the empty rooms. I could picture her there with her family, walking on tiptoes, talking in whispers, and it felt real to me.

Auschwitz did not feel real.

I’d thought that having felt like that about one child and knowing that that same thing has happened in this one place to over a million people, that I would feel a million times worse.

But I guess it doesn’t work like that.

Because how can you even possibly comprehend the suffering of over a million individual people just because you have stood in a building where they once stood?

It’s too big.

Auschwitz prisoner photographs

It’s too many people to even begin to understand. The thought of a small group of people making the conscious decision to march hundreds of people at a time to their death, to then extract the gold teeth and steal the hair from their corpses – it’s a lot to take in, too much.

Perhaps it’s this scale that means it takes a long time to process, that gave me that feeling of numbness while I was actually visiting Auschwitz.

Two weeks after our visit, sat in my comfortable home writing this, I am crying plenty now. I can see the families getting off the trains, leaving their carefully labelled luggage on the ground, being walked to their deaths while their belongings are ransacked behind them, and I feel panicked and I want to stop it – I want SOMEBODY to stop it, and I feel sick for us as human beings that it happened.

Auschwitz prisoner photographs

And yet in Auschwitz itself, surrounded by the ghosts of the hundreds of thousands of people who had been killed there, purely because they didn’t ‘fit’ with one idea of what people should BE, I felt nothing. I felt numb and empty.

I feel almost like I will need to go again, like it will have taken one visit to start the thought process and another to conclude it.

Have you ever visited Auschwitz? How did it make you feel? Did you experience the same sense of nothingness? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

 

30 Comments

  1. 11 April, 2018 / 5:22 pm

    We visited Auschwitz and Berkenow a couple of years ago and it had a profound impact on me not least that the world continues to carry prejudices around and continues to treat people appallingly because of their race or religion. I think a Visit to the camps should be on all school curriculums as simply reading about it is not enough people need to see with their own eyes how human beings were treated. I am rarely this passionate about anything political but this left an everlasting impression on me

    • Jo Middleton
      12 April, 2018 / 9:26 am

      I think that’s such a difficult aspect Becky, and one of the hardest things to process. You walk around thinking how awful it was and wondering how it was allowed to happen and then you realise that it still does. Perhaps not on that massive, concentrated scale but it still happens. That’s a very sobering thought.

  2. 11 April, 2018 / 5:42 pm

    I haven’t visited Auschwitz but I went to Bergen=Belsen around 15 years ago and I really understand what you mean when you speak of a feeling of numbness.

    In Bergen-Belsen, there is hardly anything left that reminds of the concentration camp. It’s this huge meadow in the forest with wildflowers and birds singing. It’s incredibly peaceful and equally eerie.

    I walked around the grounds not knowing what to feel, just this tingly feeling of restlessness in my stomach, and then I went into the room of silence and the extent of the devastation and cruelty of the place really hit me. It was an incredibly emotional and sobering experience but none I would like to miss.
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    • Jo Middleton
      12 April, 2018 / 9:24 am

      That sounds really powerful. I definitely had that ‘not knowing how to feel’ thing. Perhaps I had put too much pressure on myself to feel something? Who knows. It definitely isn’t something I will forget in a hurry though.

  3. Deborah Mackenzie
    Twitter:
    11 April, 2018 / 6:16 pm

    We visited Dachau concentration camp, which was the first concentration camp; we found it bleak, hard to take in but also shocked at what happened.
    It is so very hard to absorb everything in a visit; it is surreal.
    We have also visited the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in France; that was actually worse than the concentration camp in many ways as the buildings, cars, prams are still there. The village has been left and become a memory of a horrific day in June 1944. I could visualise the horror that happened and made me shiver inwardly that people can do these horrific acts.
    Maybe one day I too will get to visit Auschwitz,.

    • Jo Middleton
      12 April, 2018 / 9:23 am

      Wow, that village does sound scary. I think sometimes it’s those little things – the abandoned pram or whatever it might be – that helps you connect to the people and what actually happened.

  4. Kimberly Meadows
    Twitter:
    11 April, 2018 / 6:18 pm

    I have been twice and it chilled me to the core.I felt frozen walking around and it was a very hot summer. I think we all take things in differently and it sounds like you had a delayed reaction.

    • Jo Middleton
      12 April, 2018 / 9:16 am

      I think it did Kimberly. I’ve thought about it a lot since I came back and I think it will be something that I continue to think about it different ways for a long time to come.

  5. Janine
    Twitter:
    11 April, 2018 / 6:25 pm

    My teenage daughter went to Poland last month on a school trip (she goes to a Jewish school). When she came back she felt unable to really talk to us about what she’d seen and experienced. It took her a couple of weeks and I didn’t want to push her until she felt ready. Then she took us through her whole trip, including visiting Auschwitz, Birkenau and Majdanek as well as the ghettos. She even found my great grandfather’s name on a list of those who’d died at Auschwitz which was amazing. It’s not a trip I feel I could do myself, but I’m glad someone in my family has been and seen it for themselves and I’m sure it’s something that will stay with her for the rest of her life.

    • Jo Middleton
      12 April, 2018 / 9:18 am

      Wow! What an experience for her to actually find his name – I feel quite teary just thinking about that. More generally, I don’t think we tend to think so much about heritage and ancestry as perhaps we once did, so that sounds like a really important thing for her and your family.

  6. Nick
    Twitter:
    11 April, 2018 / 8:28 pm

    Hi, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau a couple of years ago with my sister, as we had always wanted to go. What you’ve written is pretty much how I felt. Before going I had all the usual stuff from people who claim to know all about it, but would never dream of going, you know what I mean as I’m sure you heard them all! ‘Ooh, birds don’t land there’ ‘it’s very eerie’ ‘no flowers grow’ and the like. However when I got there the first thing to hit me was that barely half a mile from the site is a little shopping area and a KFC, so once you have had a solemn tour of the death factory, unwind with a bargain bucket and some new shoes.
    The Auschwitz camp, if you can forget all the murder, actually looks like a nice camp, that could have been used for summer schools or youth camps, with the large barrack buildings, trees and grassy bits.
    The displays of shoes, cases etc I thought would fill me with horror, but I just found it so hard to comprehend the scale of the killing, and the ruthless efficiency used to achieve the Nazi’s horrific aims. It almost made me wonder if they had weekly productivity meetings much like they do in retail?
    In the Auschwitz gas chamber, we had a rather vocal little scrote who felt the need to shout, ‘dad, look it’s where they dropped the zyklon b’ while pointing excitedly at the hole in the roof.
    On to Birkenau, that place did mess with my head a lot more, and that was down to the size of the place, the appearance, which is much more what you imagine those awful places looked like.
    One emotion that my sister and I certainly did feel that day was disgust at the countless arseholes taking duck face selfies, and on our tour at Auschwitz I think I counted 3 couples taking loved up, aww bae, selfies with the ‘arbeit macht frei’ gates in the background…one for the mantlepiece surely, as I’m sure if they put that on their Facebook and Insta someone with sense would be asking them what the fuck were you thinking?
    Once we got back to Krakow we sat in our hotel and got a little bit pissed, a drink was certainly needed.

    • Jo Middleton
      12 April, 2018 / 9:21 am

      Yes Nick, I totally know what you mean – Auschwitz one somehow looked nicer than I thought it was going to? That sounds like an awful thing to say, but I guess my mind pictured the endless rows of low buildings that you see in the second camp and the large brick buildings weren’t so much what I was expecting? They were originally a Polish army barracks so I guess they weren’t built to feel too desolate. The other people on the tour definitely had an impact for me too. If I went again I think I would go not as part of a group so I could go at my own pace and step away from other people.

  7. Joanne
    11 April, 2018 / 9:43 pm

    I’ve not long finished reading the Tattooist of Auschwitz. If you haven’t already read it, that may be the book you need right now. A beautiful true story full of love and hope in the bleakest times.

    • Jo Middleton
      12 April, 2018 / 9:15 am

      Ah yes, someone else just suggested it! Definitely going on my reading list.

      • Angela Paull
        Twitter:
        13 April, 2018 / 11:00 pm

        If you “enjoyed” tattooist you may also want to read The Good Doctor of Warsaw by Elisabeth Gifford. Of the two I found the latter the more moving. I very rarely cry when reading but The Good Doctor had me in bits.

        • Jo Middleton
          16 April, 2018 / 11:24 am

          Thanks for the tip! I also just read the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is very different of course, but some of the stories do touch on camps like Auschwitz and I definitely felt more connected to them and more moved by them

  8. 12 April, 2018 / 12:48 am

    Great post. I’ve just read a book called The Tattooist Of Auschwitz. It’s a true story but it’s not to serious and proves that something good can come from something so awful. I think you’d enjoy it.

    • Jo Middleton
      12 April, 2018 / 9:14 am

      Thanks for the recommendation, that does sound like something I’d enjoy. I’ve read a few personal accounts from survivors and find it fascinating how the human spirit can survive in such barbaric conditions.

  9. felicity smith
    Twitter:
    12 April, 2018 / 12:49 am

    Hi Jo,
    I think your comments are really valid as expectation does strange things to our experiences. I think having this as a “thing to do” might also had made you feel very pressured to feel strongly… much like when you see a breathtaking view and want an instant feeling to wash over you.

    I visited Auschwitz and had a very moving experience. It was January 2011 and snowing (and very cold and silent). I noticed the tiny details that felt huge (the worn steps that had been trod by so many). The fact I was cold in a huge jacket and gloves and people had been barefoot in the same location at this time of year. The bleakness left a huge impression on me and now (6 years later) it still feels really really important to have had that experience (but I very rarely mention I went there). I was moved by the reverence that was requested (someone was asked to stop chewing gum as this was a cemetery and that was not appropriate). I found the silence was probably the most striking thing given the number of people moving around. I would truly recommend Auschwitz to anyone but not if you want a story to tell – its a pretty personal experience my opinion and takes a long time to process fully. It will keep haunting you…

    • Jo Middleton
      12 April, 2018 / 9:13 am

      I did wonder if the way we went about it might have impacted an our experience too. We were part of a tour group and although it was interesting to have things pointed out, I never felt I had time to just stand and be quiet – we all had headsets. Also, I was rather distracted by just how many people had their phones out constantly taking photos?? I took literally the four in this post and that was it – it didn’t feel appropriate to be dashing from one exhibition to the next with a camera?

  10. Rose Stephenson
    Twitter:
    12 April, 2018 / 8:39 am

    For me what really hit home was the expressions on the faces of the photos and the extremely short time that they survived once they reached the camp. That will haunt me forever.

    • Jo Middleton
      12 April, 2018 / 9:11 am

      Oh I know what you mean Rose about how expressive the faces were! I was really struck particularly with the women’s photos where there seemed to be so much strength and defiance.

  11. mark
    12 April, 2018 / 10:00 am

    I visited Buchenwald 20 years ago, and I know what you mean by the scale of suffering making it hard to comprehend the individual lives that were destroyed in that place., what I took away from the experience though, and my overwhelming thought at the time was that it was people like me, ordinary people, that did the killing, that made this murder factory function and run smoothly. I questioned myself, would I have been complicit? would I have followed orders, or would I have had the strength to refuse? That idea that ‘good people’ can do truly terrible things to people who were probably their neighbour has stuck with me and shapes the way I view the world today,

    • Jo Middleton
      13 April, 2018 / 11:20 am

      I know what you mean Mark. I often found myself looking at the guards in the photos and wondering about them. Did they really believe that they were doing a GOOD thing? Were they just terrified? And yes, how would I have reacted in that situation? How powerful was the propaganda and the pressure? It’s a very scary thought indeed.

  12. Danielle
    13 April, 2018 / 9:32 am

    My husband and I visited Dachau camp on the last day of our trip to Munich a few years ago and I’m so glad we hadn’t gone earlier as I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a long time. I’m also glad we didn’t do a tour, I think must have read pretty much every account and looked at every photo out of a feeling of respect or something. My husband however was nowhere near as affected as me by it all, either there or afterwards. I mentioned to a friend about it and she said men often aren’t, and it just made me think about this possible difference of the sexes and what this has meant in history.

    • Jo Middleton
      13 April, 2018 / 11:24 am

      That’s a really interesting idea Danielle – maybe men are able to be less emotionally effected by things and are therefore able to condone different kinds of behaviour? Or perhaps the emotional distance makes it easier for them to make potentially negative decisions? (Generalising massively obviously, not implying all men are serial killers or anything.)

  13. Rhi
    13 April, 2018 / 2:21 pm

    When I visited Auschwitz 16 years ago our ‘guide’ had been held there as a child. His retelling of his time there brought it to life far more than seeing what was effectively a museum display. I did wonder what would make him want to come back and do that job, but he didn’t want people to forget the suffering.

    • Jo Middleton
      16 April, 2018 / 11:26 am

      That must have been really powerful. I was shocked when I found out that it opened as a museum as soon as 1947, with all the guides as ex-prisoners. You would think they would never want to go back but I think you’re right, they just wanted as many people as possible to know what had actually happened.

  14. 15 April, 2018 / 2:02 pm

    It is somewhere I always think about visiting but after visiting the museum of genocide in Kigali I am not sure I would cope as such horror on that scale was not enough to shock the world into behaving in a better way to one another.
    I have actually engaged members of the national front in debate who speak of their world war 2 heroic grandparents and I draw the comparisons with their behaviour and how that can lead to genocide and they do not see it or refuse to see it and it makes me despair.
    Nor only did those people suffer so much but we have not learned from it.

    • Jo Middleton
      16 April, 2018 / 11:33 am

      I think that’s the scariest part isn’t it? The thought that this happened and yet it didn’t immediately change our behaviour or the way we treat other people? It’s terrifying to hear the way some people talk about other human beings.

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