A place of sad pilgrimage

How can we represent human madness? It is not an easy question to answer but there are some places in the world which can give an answer. Auschwitz and Birkenau for example, the most-notorious Nazi concentration camps saw one of the greatest tragedies in human history. Two places where you can find terror in the deepest sense: where humanity reached its lowest point.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz while in the nearby Polish city of Krakow. It is a very personal journey. Every day the camp is the destination of hundreds of visitors. Immediately, one sees the infamous main entrance, the gate with the inscription: ‘Arbeit Mach Frei’ (work makes you free) which leads to the world’s largest memorial. Auschwitz was an old Polish barracks converted into a camp: the red brick buildings, the place of so much human suffering, are still present today.

The extent

In the first barracks we heard the history and saw life in the camp. Gradually I went to other buildings where I experienced other sensations, different feelings. As when I saw mounds of human hair behind a huge window, or mountains of luggage, bags belonging to those people who never went back home. Glasses, toys, shoes, different type of tools, everything represents the pain, giving a strong sense of the extent of the massacre. In these rooms, in front of everyday objects, it is normal to be shocked. It is the moment where you can’t find the right words to explain to yourself what you are witnessing.

It is also a traumatic experience, as when I saw the description of daily life in the concentration camp, when I heard the meals which were given to the prisoners: 300 grams of bread, a little soup and no more. It was impossible to survive, it was impossible not to starve. The pictures on the wall show the desperate state of the prisoners after the liberation. Children and women depicted in horrific situations, people completely emaciated, something simply unnatural. It is easy to feel a strong sense of sadness and scorn, but my continuous thought was ‘why?’

It is impossible to get a response or an adequate answer about this incredible tragedy because it is not possible to understand completely the human mind and human madness. I felt incredulity and anger. It happened 70 years ago, it is so far but at the same time something so close to us, it is absurd to think that countries, politicians and people allowed this unspeakable carnage.


I left Auschwitz after two hours, after seeing crematoriums and wire fences, with few words but a lot of thoughts.

We boarded a coach to take the short journey to Birkenau, just three kilometres from Auschwitz to visit another part of the tragedy: an extermination camp where 1.1 million people died.

Birkenau is a huge space, much bigger than Auschwitz with railway tracks leading straight into the camp. This place was chosen because it was logistically convenient: trains could arrive to deposit their human cargo. I sensed solitude and affliction in the air, a strange sense of sadness piqued by the presence of many Jews praying for and remembering those who had perished.

Walking along the old railway to go back, I felt somewhat disorientated, there were many feelings I had experienced in three hours and a strong sense of meditation. I got on the coach and I was sure that I had just lived a unique experience, sad but at the same time particularly formative.

I knew where human madness reached its peak, I visited a place that history changed into the most terrifying place in the world.