Samia Tamrin Ahmed
The sunny day and beautiful open blue skies were out of place at the location we were strolling in. We were at the infamous concentration camp in the Polish town of Oswiecim. Auschwitz was the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centers where more than 1.1 million lives were taken. A gloomy winter day with a grey horizon would have been the default setting for such a place. Its proximity to Krakow allowed us to visit the memorial and museum to pay homage. Growing up hearing of horrors of torture, I was wondering if I could digest the gory reality of the place. Yet, it was alright, and we kept walking along the solid buildings with shocking melancholy.
Nazi concentration camps were known for the gas chambers and torture on Jewish people. At the site I got to know camps were initially built for other political prisoners, homosexuals and gypsies. A pre-visit to the Topography of Terror in Berlin gave some background idea on the systemic targeting of victims. There was a lot of discretion regarding records of newly arrived men and women and lies told about disinfecting their bodies, as if for sacrifice. They were told to take an innocent shower that would indeed kill them. Pictures show how people were judged upon arrival – robust health meant they could be workers in the camp (irrigation or ponds) – imminent death if otherwise. Auschwitz has an extension – Birkenau which has a train track and platform where victims were received towards a horrific destiny. All this was gloomy indeed, no wonder there was a media uproar when a tourist took a selfie at this place in 2014. We sure could not think of doing something like this.
The museum and its exhibits convey long stories of detrimental endings and unbridled suffering. The original buildings are open and conserved to show the living quarters, washrooms and toilets of inmates as well as the office room of the supervising officer. Corridors are lined with photographs of registered prisoners; men and women with shaved head have cagey anxiety on their faces.
It hurt when I stepped into a room full of hair inside a glass enclosure. I felt how human dignity was being snatched from simple people. Gold teeth and artificial limbs were taken off dead prisoners. Shoes and spectacles are piled up in remembrance of lost souls. There are certain quarters prepared just for the children; walking along the claustrophobic wooden bunkers is heartbreaking. If people were not killed immediately, there were other horrible means of inflicting torture. Disobedience meant one could be executed (shooting or acid shot to the heart), hung backwards by tied hands, starved or confined in the ‘dark’ or ‘standing’ cells. Doors to those cells were tiny enough for a small animal – when a person did enter the phone-booth sized cubicle, he was not standing alone in punishment. Four people had to stand all night before another hard day’s work.
I am often bound to acknowledge that a certain place has tortured souls floating around. I look around in silence as if to grasp their presence. Then again, torture has not left us. Think of the schools and abandoned buildings turned to torture cells during our liberation war. In this day and age, Rohingya Muslims face marginalization and eradication, forced to living tormented destinies. Children are subjected to deplorable treatment and torture by adults who were supposed to protect them. War, too has not left us. An Economist report titled, ‘Pits of hell: Assad’s torture dungeons’ retells the fate of Syrians who were tortured and executed. The regime altered sports stadiums, abandoned homes, hospitals and schools into jails in order to silence any form of opposition. Survivors tell horrific tales of atrocities conducted at a systemic level. Amnesty International is running a petition campaign to raise voice on torture prisons in Syria and the shocks, burns, beating and confinement that is commonplace.
Auschwitz the concentration camp is accessible to all, to let generations be aware of horrors of war and discrimination. Memorials exist for placing homage to history and embodying the valuable lesson that torture, conflict, annihilation are elements to be erased from the earth. Despite the existence of the UN Convention against Torture, protection of human rights is a vague concept. Cruelty, perhaps is too deeply ingrained in the human DNA. Before we know it, Saydnaya will be the next Auschwitz.