Her name has been choking me since I returned home from the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Oświęcim. It was written on a suitcase, one of over 3000, piled high behind glass. When I asked about her, I didn’t expect the answer I received: Hannah was barely a year old when she arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, and that is all that is known about her. There is no paperwork, no other evidence that she ever existed, aside from that one single suitcase. It is not hard to guess her fate upon arrival in the camp – all children her age would have suffered the same one.
If I were to be perfectly honest, perhaps I had been too prepared for my visit to Auschwitz by textbooks and memoirs I had read. In schoolgirl world, victims of the Holocaust were recognised and given proper respect, their lives before the camp documented with detailed histories and old photographs. Now, here was Hannah, nothing more than a name on a suitcase – nothing more than another name in the black ledger of this dread place. And I didn’t want to reduce her to that. Reading about the Holocaust makes it seem a million miles away: 11 million deaths – 1.1 million of those in Auschwitz – is simply a number. The brain can’t cope with the picture of never-ending lines of the real human beings these numbers represent.
That visualisation is hard to come to until you have stood there and you are faced with the reality that is Auschwitz.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is definitely not as I imagined it to be. Before the visit and even as I stood before “Arbeit Macht Frei”, I had expectations of a harsh, unforgiving landscape, eerily silent besides the striking whipping of the wind, but it was far from that; it was a sunny Autumn day, the sky a soft bubblegum, the grass vibrant green on the flat land. It was very pretty, which rankled with me the entire day. How could the sun shine where so many people had lost their families and their lives? It was beyond reason. However, if you stood very still and silent for a few moments, the air seemed to grow heavy very quickly, despite the bright sunshine all around. And then you would be able to smell the deaths that still haunted the grounds.
The sheer scale of the Birkenau camp is also something which hits you hard: the railway line which runs through the middle, running off into the horizon. On the day, we were allowed to ascend the stairs to the watch tower, where the Commandant would stand in order to assess the camp and the prisoners. When you look out the windows, it is easy to understand the power the SS guards had over the prisoners. In that position, everyone below looks insignificant, like tiny specks of dust.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is actually split up into three sections: Auschwitz 1, Auschwitz 2 Birkenau, and Auschwitz 3. While Auschwitz 3 is closed off to the public, we were allowed to visit Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau. Auschwitz, today, is largely a museum with exhibits and displays detailing the camp’s part in the Holocaust: it is here that I saw Hannah’s suitcase. Birkenau is the more widely recognised image of Auschwitz-
Birkenau, the landscape of the movies based in the concentration camps – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, for example.
It was when I walked through the stone building used as a gas chamber in the Auschwitz part of the camp that my thoughts returned to Hannah. I stood in the room where the prisoners were gassed, the stone walls pushing in on me, and tried to imagine what the scene must have been like: men screaming, people clambering over one another, children crying, mothers attempting to comfort their babies, once they realised that the shower story was an evil lie. Even though I’ve stood in the path of all the death that occurred in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it’s still very hard for me to comprehend. Did Hannah know what was going on? Can a baby understand that she’s going to die? I can’t even attempt to answer those questions.
The gas chambers were the hardest aspect of the visit for me, as they have been for many others. The two largest were here in the Birkenau camp, used much more often for mass murder; Auschwitz 1 was primarily for political prisoners and such. All that remains of them are ruins. One was destroyed in an uprising by prisoners, the anniversary of which coincided with our visit. On October 7, 1944, having learned that the SS was going to liquidate much of the camp, the members of the Sonderkommando – Jewish prisoners forced to work in the crematoriums to burn the bodies of those killed in the gas chambers- at Crematorium IV rose in revolt. Although quashed by the Nazis, the uprising was incredibly important in increasing morale for the remaining prisoners in the camp, making them believe that something could be done. These stories of hope and perseverance have stuck in my mind the most; It’s a lot easier to think of the strength of those in the camp than the degradation and humiliation they faced.
The other gas chamber was destroyed by Nazis, attempting to liquidate the camp before the Allies reached it. The rubble takes on a significance when it is in front of you, and you can see the bricks, the rough edges broken and chipped, looking like gravestones. There are no graves, no markers for the victims in the camp, so as our guide read a journal entry beside the ruins –demanding that we do everything we can to remember what went on in the camp, to never forget – I took a silent moment to mourn them.
Towards the end of the day, we arrived in front of a wall of photographs, in the “Sauna”- a room used for processing new arrivals; again I found myself in front of the photos of the babies, and when my eyes fell upon each unidentified infant, I wondered to myself “Is that Hannah?” In the middle of the wall there was a plaque, and as I read the words, I could feel my soul crushed:
The first to perish were the children, abandoned orphans,
The world’s best, the bleak earth’s brightest,
These children from the orphanages might have been our comfort.
From these sad, mute, bleak faces our new dawn might have risen.
In these words, I found Hannah.