It was the hair that got me.
I had tried to prepare myself. When people heard I was going to visit Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust they all mentioned three things – the hair, the children’s shoes, and the freezing temperatures.
Having been to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem a number of times I thought I knew what to expect. A couple of shoes here, a lock of hair there.
“They have people’s real hair,” everyone kept telling me. I thought about when you go to the barber’s and the little collection he sweeps up after a quick trim – a small pile of curls shovelled away into the bin.
Foolishly that’s what I thought it would be like at Auschwitz.
How wrong I was.
At first I couldn’t quite work out what I was looking at after turning the corner into the darkened room in the barracks. Then it hit me.
I peered into the glass display cabinet at the biggest, most macabre, most soul-destroying example of human memorabilia I’ve ever seen. Not just a few curls. Not the odd clipping.
Piles, and piles, and piles, and still more piles of human hair.
Many examples were clearly a whole head’s worth. Shaved off. Dumped. Untouched for the best part of 70 years. A chilling, haunting, spectacle.
I put my face to the glass and stared long and hard at the grim haul.
A long strand of wispy, whiter-than-white hair. From a rabbi’s beard? Or had from an old lady?
Curly black choppings. From a toddler, or a yeshiva-bocher’s peyot?
A pigtail – still woven together, lopped off in one go. From a little Greek girl, or a Norwegian mother?
And on it went. Piled high. Rolled up and stacked up like the products of a cotton wool factory. This was a factory too. Of death.
I wanted to look away. I wanted to walk out. But I couldn’t. I stood, and I stared. Maybe only for a minute or two, but it felt, as the clichés go, like time stood still.
The impact was like a punch in the gut. My mouth hung open. I struggled to breathe. A sharp pain hit me somewhere under my ribs.
As a journalist you like to think you’re tough. You think of all the widows you’ve interviewed, all the coroner’s courts you’ve sat in, all the paedophiles you’ve watched in the dock.
You’re hardened to these scenes of the most raw emotion.
You’d prepared yourself to see the hair.
But nothing can prepare you for that.
It was a strange sight that met us at the entrance to the Birkenau camp. That infamous watchtower and the ominous railway tracks, but bathed in the beautiful glow of the setting sun.
It clung to the sky, a deep, heavy, ochre ball. It was beautiful actually. It looked just like the picture I have on my phone, of a Caribbean sunset. Paradise.
But how can you have such a heavenly scene at what is, undisputedly, hell on earth?
It’s the size and scale of Birkenau that sickens you first. When you clamber up the central watchtower – a view never afforded to the million Jews slaughtered at the site – and peer out of its windows, the place looks never-ending. Even the weight of that unimaginable number itself – “one million” – knocks you out.
There is row after row of stables, designed for horses but used to incarcerate Jews. The gas chambers. The crematoria. The railway tracks. Always the railway tracks.
And in the stables there were the triple-deck bunk-beds in which some victims met their end – crushed when the wooden structures collapsed under the combined weight of dozens of people packed in together, top-to-tail, back-to-front.
Standing there in the dark, shivering despite being clad in four layers, a scarf and hat, was hellish enough. How did the camp’s inhabitants endure the conditions?
Many survived no more than a couple of months at Birkenau. Thin clothes, barely worthy of the name. Heads shaved. Diseased water. Barely any food. It is almost a miracle that anyone got out alive.
Survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon did. She had told the students on our trip that the camp was so bad that for her becoming a scheisskommando had been a privilege.
That’s right – shovelling out the contents of the latrines was something to look forward to.
Our grim shlep continued across the square miles of barren landscape, the sun now well and truly set, and the smoky, haunting air having fallen still.
We paused next to one of the original rail-trucks used to transport the victims from almost all corners of Europe.
Our brilliant Holocaust Educational Trust guide, Graham Cole, read from Elie Wiesel’s survivor’s testimony:
“The cherished objects we had brought with us thus far were left behind in the train, and with them, at last, our illusions.
“Every two yards or so an SS man held his tommy gun trained on us. Hand in hand we followed the crowd.
“An SS non-commissioned officer came to meet us, a truncheon in his hand. He gave the order: ‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’
“Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words.
“Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother. I had not had time to think, but already I felt the pressure of my father’s hand: we were alone.
“For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held mother’s hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister’s fair hair, as though to protect her, while I walked on with my father and the other men.
“And I did not know that in that place at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever. I went on walking. My father held onto my hand……”
Amidst our tears, Mr Cole encouraged the students to think deeply for themselves about what happened not only here, but across the Nazi-controlled continent.
Each pupil - from schools around the south of England – was taking part in HET’s Lessons from Auschwitz programme, which includes them meeting survivors and working as ambassadors to teach fellow pupils about the Shoah.
When they went home, Mr Cole said, they should consider the culpability not just of the guards on the watchtowers, or the SS men who tore apart families as they arrived, but also of the train driver, and even the points-man who directed the tracks towards the camp, each knowing that his actions would condemn the passengers to almost-certain death.
Walking along the tracks was a chilling experience. Could I really hear guard-dogs barking in the distance? Could I really smell smoke in the air?
Is this what it’s all about - the life of a Jew? To visit, some 70 years later, the scene of humanity’s worst atrocity and wonder if a guard still lurks, if a gun is still cocked, if a Nazi might pop out from behind the barbed wire and finish me off too?
Not necessarily. The day culminated with yet another deeply moving experiences. Following some short readings from a number of the students, Rabbi Barry Marcus of London’s Central Synagogue took to a plinth directly at the end of Birkenau’s train tracks.
He provided the most stirring, up-lifting sermon I’ve ever heard. To try to reproduce its effect here in print would be fruitless. It was truly once-in-a-lifetime. You really did have to be there.
As his performance of the memorial prayer, El malei Rachamim, echoed across Birkenau it struck me that actually, amidst the hell and the carnage, we, the Jews, had not only survived, but thrived.