On Sunday morning we had breakfast inside a lovely little café near our hostel. It was a beautiful morning and from our window, I noticed a young boy in a 1)scruffy French football shirt, 2)crying his eyes out. I never expected to see the boy again, but just before we finished eating, the young 3)lad reappeared and asked me how much money I had. He was trying to sell me some crayon pictures. I sternly told him I wasn’t going to tell him how much money I had, but I did ask how much he wanted for his pictures. Once again, he replied by asking how much money I had and I reacted to his request in a horrible, 4)patronizing manner. This 5)boomerang argument persisted for several minutes. I was completely unaware of the folly of trying to argue with an eight-year-old Polish boy, who was trying to communicate with me in my own language.
I eventually asked him to show us his pictures and he then laid them all out on the breakfast table. Alex and I 6)perused the selection of innocently drawn whales, elephants and orange flowers. They were absolutely wonderful and we bought them all. Two of them now have a proud place on my bedroom wall. I still felt incredibly guilty for being so mean to him though, but afterwards we walked towards the train station for an altogether more 7)harrowing experience. We had intended to take the train to Oswiecim but on arriving at the station, we were approached by a 8)charismatic old man called Bob, who offered to drive us to Auschwitz in his taxi. It was an excellent choice.
The journey to Oswiecim took about one hour and during an enjoyable ride through the Polish countryside, Bob gave us some vital background information. Soon enough we were standing outside the infamous Auschwitz gates. Our introduction to the death camp began by staring at the iron slogan “9)Arbeit Macht Frei.” We both privately 10)braced ourselves for the worst and tentatively walked towards Block Four. The exposed brown path 11)eerily led us to our first 12)barrack and it was probably the most affecting of them all. Only then did we fully appre-ciate the full horror of Auschwitz. Inside Block Four, there was an enormous glass wall that stored over 70 tons of 13)rotting grey hair, which had been gathered by the Nazis after they had shaved the heads of all the female prisoners inside the camp. The Nazis used the female hair for textile purposes back in Germany, where it was sickeningly transported across the border in order to make rugs and carpets.
I think what affected us most was not the 14)macabre literature or even the glass cage, but the stomach-curdling smell. It quite lite-rally smelt of death and we both instinctively 15)shuddered with grief. After viewing the first exhibit, there was no 16)respite from the misery that surrounded us as we went on to view the cavernous black prisons, gas chambers and the 17)poignant collection of toys, suitcases and children’s shoes.
We eventually walked around all of the barracks and absorbed more harrowing facts from the information boards. We briefly examined the crumbling 18)crematorium before we met up with Bob again and he drove us three kilometres to Birkenau. It was an extremely warm day and the green birch trees gave us a glimmer of hope before we silently entered Birkenau. It was an absolutely enormous death factory, which had originally been split into male and female camps and thereafter split into ethnically divided cells. Birkenau must have been about the size of a thousand football pitches. Having no sense of direction, we found ourselves aimlessly wandering along the iron railway tracks and secretly imprisoned by the 19)barbed wire fence. There were birds singing in the trees, which once offered a temporary shelter for victims awaiting their fate inside the gas chambers. It was a horrifying and 20)cathartic experience, which had taken us both through the heart of darkness. While this might sound completely ridiculous, what we experienced at Auschwitz had nothing to do with flags, nations or even religion. It was the manifestation of sheer evil.
We eventually found our way back to Bob’s taxi and 21)slumped in our seats. Both of us were left feeling physically and emotionally exhausted from the day’s events. I drifted off in the back seat, but I wasn’t thinking about the shaven-headed portraits or the 22)emaciated and tortured children. Instead, I couldn’t stop thinking about how rude I was to that little Polish boy earlier in the day. I had just walked through Auschwitz and the murderous fields of Birkenau, but as I recalled the look on that poor boy’s face, I felt sadder than I had felt all afternoon.