As I stood in front of the commemorative plaque reading the words, "For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe", someone standing behind said, "My grandfather was one of them."
I turned back. It was the English speaking guide, who was taking us round the Nazi Concentration Camp in Poland. We had arrived at Krakow airport and driven down 70kms and reached Auschwitz. There were hundreds of tourists and we were divided into groups and were taken on a guided tour of the infamous camps. Our group first went to Birkenau camp.
Pointing at a ditch she said, "This was the crematorium where bodies were burnt. The Nazis destroyed it when the Russians were approaching. The ashes of the burnt bodies are seen even now." The earth had turned grey there. I could also smell the ashes.
As the Russians came to liberate this camp in 1945, Nazis destroyed most of the buildings in the camp. We were seeing only the buildings that survived.
During the next one hour we saw the barracks where female prisoners were kept. The barracks of the male prisoners had been pulled down. In narrow, wooden bunkers, prisoners had to crouch to sleep. What appalled us most was the toilet block which was most unhygienic.
There was a railcar, part of a train, which brought prisoners from all over Europe stuffed like sardines. The passengers were evaluated in the camp for their physical ability and those who were infirm were killed. At once I remembered the account of this concentration camp written by Austrian psychiatrist Viktor E Frankl in his book 'Man's Search for Meaning'.
There was more horror to be seen in the main camp which we visited later. The main gate of the camp Auschwitz 1 contains the sentence "Arbeit Macht Frei" which in German means, "Work sets you free". The Nazis used this phrase on the entrance gates of all camps to make the prisoners work more.
The Nazis chose Polish army barracks to establish the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The barracks were remodelled in 1940-41 and were filled with prisoners subsequently. The camp had 28 barracks which were expanded subsequently. The camp held approximately 16,000 prisoners.
Prisoners were packed into small rooms, and were made to sleep on bunk beds without mattresses. Those who created trouble were put in enclosures of the size 3ft X 3ft X 6ft. Up to eight persons were kept in such enclosures. Since they were not able to sit and were not given any food or water, they would die very soon.
In Auschwitz -1, three methods were used to kill prisoners. The first was the gas chamber. Prisoners were asked to remove their clothes and go to an adjoining chamber for a shower bath. Instead of water, poisonous gas would be released through the pipes from the roof.
Afterwards, the bodies were taken to the crematorium nearby, where care would be taken to remove the gold teeth of the deceased. The bodies were dumped in three huge furnaces and burnt. The clothes discarded by the prisoners were often used as fuel.
Apart from gassing, some prisoners were made to stand in front of a stone wall and shot dead, whereas some others were hanged in public. Majority of the prisoners died more due to disease and malnutrition.
The camp has several museums recounting the past. One museum contains the footwear of the prisoners, their toiletry and other items. One museum contains the blond coloured hair of female prisoners. It appears that Nazis wanted to make carpets out of the hair and some samples of such carpets are also on display.
Another museum contains the belongings of children like clothes, footwear, toys, feeding bottles, toilet bowls etc. This sight is heart-wrenching.
Another museum contains suitcases, walking sticks, and crutches used by prisoners. The suitcases have names of the prisoners painted on them. Chemical tablets used to make poison gas are also on display.
The first commandant of the concentration camp was Rudolf Hoss, who had 7000 soldiers working under him. When the Russians liberated the camp, he escaped, but during the Nuremberg war trails, he was given capital punishment. He was hanged in Auschwitz on 16th April 1947. The gallows where he was hanged is a tourist attraction.
We took approximately six hours to see both the camps. We were so repulsed by the sights that we could not eat or sleep for days.
A visit to Auschwitz moves one very deeply and tells us about man's inhumanity to man. Auschwitz remains the blackest part of human history.