The first camp I visited was Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I will never forget my first sight of the watchtower and the arch through which the ‘transports’ passed into the camp.
The sheer size of the camp was mind-blowing too, stretching nearly a mile into the distance to where the gas chambers were situated (and have now been demolished).
It was a beautiful spring day when I first visited Auschwitz, and somehow that didn't seem right. You tend to imagine the camp in monochrome because of the photos you've seen, but when I was part way down this rail track, we heard a train's hooter somewhere in the distance, and the hairs on my neck stood on end.
The Auschwitz Labour Camp (as distinct from Birkenau, the death camp) was a couple of miles away, and again the entrance seemed only too familiar, with the inscription ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work makes you free). The barrack blocks that housed the workers were surrounded by electric fences, and the displays of suitcases, shoes, pots and pans, steel-rimmed spectacles, prayer shawls (and Zyklon B cyanide canisters) in one of the blocks were heartrending, reminding you of all the people who lost their lives here.
There is very little left of the Bergen-Belsen camp, near to the town of Celle in Northern Germany, apart from the mass graves and various memorials.
One memorial at Belsen attracts especial attention – that of Anne Frank and her sister Margot, who both died there about a month before the camp was liberated. The long mound in the background (left centre of the photo) is one of the mass graves.
Sachsenhausen Camp, near Berlin, was established in 1936, was mainly a transit camp, and also a training camp for S.S. officers who were then deployed to other camps. Between 1936 and 1945, about 200,000 people passed through the camp, and about 100,000 died there as a result of exhaustion, disease, malnutrition or because of brutal medical experimentation. The gate to the camp had the usual ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ words.
Finally, Dachau Camp, near Munich, which was established in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power, was a camp for political prisoners. Over 200,000 from all over Europe were imprisoned here, and more than 43,000 of them died. The barrack blocks were designed to hold 200 prisoners but, by the end of the war, each barrack was catastrophically overcrowded with up to 2,000 people.
'Arbeit Macht Frei' takes on a bitter and tragic meaning, as a result.
All these sites remind us of an atrocity that should never be forgotten.