We don’t take cameras. We’re keen photographers but this is not the place.
My partner and I had decided to visit Poland for a three-night trip. It was on my list of things to do in my 70th year, which coincided with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, and we planned to visit the site.
Not your average break. Friends had declined to accompany me and my partner was reluctant, but had a change of heart.
We didn’t tell too many people where we were going after some raised eyebrows and comments, although a few have preceded us and recommend restaurants and must-see sights.
Krakow was cold at that time of year – March – but its climate was changeable, so while the UK shivered in single digits, we carried our coats for two days.
On our first day, we entered the 13th century St Mary’s Basilica, with its richly decorated interior admiring the Gothic stained glass windows and artwork.
Day two saw us heading for the Jewish quarter, the Remuh Synagogue and the old cemetery desecrated by the Germans during the occupation.
We found the river, crossed the bridge and walked to the Schindler Factory Museum with its three levels of photographic, film and first person accounts of life under Nazi Occupation.
On the third day, our coach headed for the site of one of history’s most horrific crimes, Auschwitz/Birkenau.
The museum embodies tragedy, inhumanity and the survival of the will. It stands as a testament to the inconceivable atrocities of the Second World War, while paying tribute to the estimated 1.2 million lives unjustly taken within.
A chilling introductory film occupies us during the 45-minute journey, the sunshine of Krakow soon replaced by drizzle.
Once through the airport-style security, the view of the Nazi death camp is interrupted by a mass of coloured umbrellas where groups of predominantly young people huddle.
Despite watching a plethora of war films, reading books on the Holocaust and university study, I still learn so much.
Nothing can prepare you for the vastness of the camp. The chilling sight of the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign over the entrance (which translates as ‘work sets you free’), the terrifyingly high guard posts, the barbarous boundary wire and the bullet-battered execution wall are all vivid reminders of where we are.
Accommodation blocks house exhibits, including wall-to-wall photographs of the first internees, shaven headed, hollow eyed and hauntingly dressed in the all-too-familiar striped pyjamas.
Later, increasingly large numbers rendered recording impossible. There are disturbing sights of suitcases, children’s shoes, artificial legs and ceiling-high mounds of human hair which shock and saturate our senses.
How was this possible? Our guide explains the Nazis hid their crimes building the camps between two rivers. Deception included releasing photographs to the Red Cross of children, carrying their few pitiful belongings, with a concerned plea to ‘find the parents’.
Visiting Auschwitz is mandatory for German schoolchildren. Our own tour reminds us that we should never forget. The camp has barely changed since liberation in 1945 and the walk is long, gruelling and physically demanding. It is certainly not for those with mobility issues.
Surprisingly, despite pleas for sensitivity, camera phones flash repeatedly. I draw a quick breath to avoid saying something I may regret.
After all, who knows if the person next to you lost relatives in the genocide? Did these self-professed photographers – everybody is one these days – intend browsing these horrific images at home?
Well, it takes all sorts to make a world – one tyrant to break it. But, for us, every sight remains etched on our memory.