In July I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps in Poland, which is something I have wanted to do for a long time. Why this morbid choice of tourist attraction would appeal to me is not easy to explain, but it is by no means the first time that I have opted to experience an eerie location in my leisure time.
Previously I have visited the notorious Killing Fields and S21 Prison in Cambodia, and whilst on a short break in Berlin I made time to go to Stasi Prison (used to detain POWs in WWII) and the SS Museum. During my short stint travelling through Vietnam, we crawled through the claustrophobic Cu Chi tunnels, used by the Viet Cong fighting in the Vietnam War, where we also took the opportunity to fire AK-47 rifles (invented and favoured by the Russians). Plus we made a trip to the Museum of American Atrocities (I shit ye not!). A museum featuring a chamber made entirely out of the disinterred bones from an anonymous graveyard was a must-see when I was in Milan, as was the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris where Jim Morrison is buried.
Cemeteries are actually among my favourite places to have a wander, and I am currently making my way – albeit very slowly – though London’s “Magnificent Seven” of the Victorian era; grand gothic old graveyards built in the 1800s.
I have also been on a Jack the Ripper walking tour in London, doing the rounds of the infamous serial killer’s murder locations, as well as the castles of Transylvania, which are less macabre but, nevertheless, are spooky enough to have inspired the novel, Dracula.
None of these places, however, matched the stark and impending sense of menace and dread that is imbued in Auschwitz. The building itself was a former Polish military base, captured and misappropriated by the Nazis in WWII. Looked at objectively, the main building itself is handsome architecturally – if you can manage to ignore the rusted barbed wire that was added to the perimeter and bleak sign over the entrance gate, “Arbeit macht frei” – but the place is now indelibly ingrained with the most sinister and profound sense of sadness and loss at it’s very foundations today. You simply could not go there and fail to be moved and humbled by the experience.
The compound is surrounded by wide expanses of open, flat land and dense forest; the feeling of isolation is stark and hostile. 10 minutes drive down the road is the purpose-built Birkenau, erected by the Germans when Auschwitz proved to be too small in which to contain and slaughter the mass numbers that the Nazis eventually did. This complex is vastly larger and even more creepy than Auschwitz, if that is possible. The environment is staggering savage and embodies evil to its core. Ashes of the gassed and cremated victims were used to fertilise the soil beneath the compound, so the whole place is in effect, one huge mass grave.
Maybe the most scary thing of all is that this happened only a couple of generations ago – and was committed by a nation that is now the wealthiest and arguably the most powerful and influential in Europe. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, but important to see – lest we forget.