Prior to four months ago I (similar to most people in this world) had never been to a concentration camp. Now writing this I have been to several camps, multiple times. Which is not so normal.
At Uni I became very interested in what we called ‘dark tourism’. It included things like the killing fields in Phnom Pen, the 9/11 memorial in New York and the concentration camps scattered around Europe. I visited the Sydney Jewish Museum and recommended it to all my friends as a sobering and educating visit. I went to Europe and spent a day in the Jewish Ghettos in Prague and Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam but I never made it to a concentration camp.
When I found out that on our Topdeck training trip we would be visiting the three main camps that our trips go to, I was excited to be fulfilling something I had wanted to do for a while.
Dachau was the first concentration camp that we visited. My excitement had turned to a slight unease because of the spiels that the trip leaders had been doing leading up to the camp. Some of them found themselves being serious for the first time in the trip and others even shed tears describing the atrocities that had happened here. The other thing that had me feeling apprehensive was the reactions of other people who had visited before when I said that I was excited. They looked at me like I was crazy and now I kind of understand why.
Dachau concentration camp is on the outskirts of the town of Dachau and the whole time that prisoners were held here, there were civilians living just a few kilometres away. It is located amongst trees and on the other side of a deep, swiftly running stream and between the many barracks and infirmaries are huge trees lining the long avenue. It was the first of the Nazi concentration camps to be opened and was originally just for political prisoners but was later expanded to be a work camp as well. I walked in nervously, unsure of what I was going to see. I almost tip toed around the empty prison cells and courtyard until the huge memorial statue struck me dumb. I stood staring at the twisted mass of sharp bodies that were intertwined in an agony that was palpable, I could feel the metal yearning to rise upwards in escape and my mind just went numb, unable to deal with the strong emotions that it conveyed. Walking through the museum and back to the coach I did not make eye contact with anyone, still unsure of how I felt I was in my head trying to work it out and eye contact with others would break this inner dialogue. I was broken from this reverie eventually but it had started my re-think of how I felt about concentration camps.
Mauthausen was the next camp that we visited. The first thing that struck me was how beautiful the area is that it is located in. Perched on top of a hill it overlooks a large river and fields filled with golden mustard flowers. There was not a cloud in the sky and I particularly noticed how quiet it was, the only noise was the birds singing in the trees which had buds just beginning to open. The realisation that there had most likely been days just like this 70 years ago when the camp had been operating was what occupied my mind. Prisoners would have been starving, tired and sick and yet as they walked the death stairs down to the mine to work they would have been able to look across this beautiful and blissful countryside. I can’t imagine that it would have brought them the feeling of calm that it did to me, more likely is that they felt tormented, like the horse with the carrot dangled over its nose; so close and yet so far. Down in the mine, which today is green with grass, it’s cliff faces overgrown with vines and shrubs and it’s small lakes so still that they reflect the faces looking over into them it was hard to imagine that once it was an area of grey and mud and constant noise and movement. Standing on the stairs leading from the quarry up to the camp that had been witness to tens of thousands of deaths felt like stepping on top of a grave. I attempted just a few of them before I became too uncomfortable.
Auschwitz was the last camp that we visited and by this time I was very nervous as to how I would react. I had heard many accounts of how deeply some people were affected by it and wondered what it was that I was about to see. Differently to what we had experienced at Dachau and Mauthausan the weather was cold and wet and grey. We huddled in silence, our hoods up on our raincoats and already withdrawing inside our own heads as we realised what it was we were looking at. The site of one of the most disgusting and unforgivable atrocities that has happened in human history is a difficult thing to get your head around when it is right in front of you. There was no beautiful scenery surrounding this camp, just flat dreariness and I think that that is appropriate. We shuffled inside and put on our headsets so that our tour guide could project right into our heads and as she began to tell us stories of the camp I felt myself building up walls and feeling incredibly alone. My body and mind went numb unable to know what to do with the horrible information that I was being given and I felt like a pair of eyes walking around and observing but not interacting in any way. In a room filled with the shoes of those that died I began to feel physically sick and started shaking. I was hugging myself trying to stay in control of my body when our guide told us about the medical experiments that were conducted on children, the elderly, the disabled and twins. That broke me. I started sobbing and went to a window to try and remove and control myself. No one came to see how I was, they were all too shaken themselves. There was another huge shock yet to come though. We were taken into the gas chambers, still dark with chipped paint and most noticeably, gouges from where prisoners fingernails had scraped through the plaster trying to escape when they realised what was happening to them. At the end of the tour we stood in silence waiting for the coach. We made eye contact now, but didn’t need to say anything because it was obvious that everyone was shaken. I asked the tour guide how she did it day after day and she told me it was hard and that there were many many guides with a high turnover rate because of how draining it was but that as a local she had wanted to tell this story for years. I think we all respected what our trainer Lyndsay had said before we came in. She had told us that she no longer enters the camp when she is on tour, not because of how it makes her feel but because she doesn’t ever want to not feel that, for Auschwitz to become somewhere normal for her.