If grey were an emotion, it would probably be dread.
And everything in the vicinity was grey.
The mist, the air, the sense of numbness that gripped shivering limbs and clouded weary minds.
The fog was a smoke that lingered around the corners of the 28 buildings. They lined the rough and sandy pavement like numbered tombstones; two stories each and crumbling after six decades of remembrance. Today they see many visitors, but no one ever brings flowers.
The trees just outside of the barbed wire fences were spidery patterns, drawn with burnt charcoal on a blank slate of a sky. While everything in sight looked bleak, worn and used, no amount of time would be able to wash away the grey that permeated the decaying walls, the shattered windows, the creaking slats between the wooden barrack roofs.
The red bricks were dull and the grass was frosted. It was as though colour was an afterthought, a desperate attempt to breathe some life into the unforgiving scenery normally known through black and white photographs.
The clouds huddled together against the biting bitter wind, refraining from crying on the cold, hard ground.
Just an hour on a bus from the already faded pastel facades of Rynek Glowny, Krakow’s main square. Even after suffering through two world wars, the architecture in Poland’s second largest city is virtually untouched.
But when the Nazis came, the country could not, and did not, put up a fight. It wasn’t long until the bricks from the buildings on the city’s outskirts were taken out of the homes of Jewish residents, and put into new infrastructure for the same people.
Over a million Jews, Poles, Soviets, and Roma people were exterminated at one of the very few camps specifically designed to be a final destination: The entire population of Manchester exterminated, twice over.
Today, the Birkenau camp remains as a field of ever-increasing ruin and rubble. Two black strokes, heading toward death in parallel, enter and stop abruptly, literally at the end of the line. After decades of time and weather taking their toll, what surrounds the rails now is what is left of the nearest barracks: A single brick furnace per unit, attached to nothing but the ground that bears it.
Off in the distance is a group of two-dozen Israeli-Jewish travelers, chanting in Hebrew around a modern art monument. A smooth black sculpture void of any detail, it represents the final moments of life in the barren gas chambers. Jagged pale grey stones no bigger than two-pound coins cover its surfaces, traditional Jewish tokens of respect. They are placed haphazardly, as if dropped by birds flying over the desolate camps.
There were no birds, though. The swallows and martins singing elsewhere were nowhere to be seen. The trees were barren, and the wind blew forcefully as if trying to command attention without emitting a single moan. The lack of natural sound engulfed the site in a quiet sense of hesitation.
As the songs from the young men and women clad in black rang out mournfully to no one in particular, there were only two other sounds that could be heard.
The first, the thudding of heavy feet on gravel, mixed with sand, packed from being well-tread. The second, the Polish woman whispering nightmares into the ears of tourists and visitors.
“To survive in Hitler’s Germany…”
Her words speak truths, listing facts and figures as though she was reading an aftermath report of the damage done: Cold, emotionless, clinical.
It is the shoes – the hundreds of thousands of shoes – that visualized the impact of her account. There are babies’ shoes that, at one time, were most likely white, dainty, and worn by a girl who could not yet walk; there are formal women’s shoes with leathery straps and a wooden heel an inch-and-a-half high; there are the shoes of men who could do nothing to protect their families. Once worn by unsuspecting people, the shoes are now faded grey symbols of the Holocaust’s atrocities, preserved behind glass in one of the camp’s exhibitions.
Just outside, behind the thick brick walls that are too high to scale even with a helping hand, bodiless voices float up and over the spiked black wires that crown the fences. There’s chatter, and there’s laughter, as packs of tourists with cameras and grumbling bellies board buses with navy blue padded seats back to Rynek Glowny, and away from Auschwitz.
People came to remember, so that they could try to forget.