This year, with No. 1 son presently being eaten alive by the mosquitoes of Borneo, the remnants of the Andrews family also wanted to do a something a little more challenging for a summer holiday. Last week we embarked on a trek through Europe that took us from Hamburg to Copenhagen, on to Malmo, then on to Crackow via Budapest. It was ambitious for a week away in which the miles were consumed by a combination of trains, planes and ferries (plus a good few miles put in on foot!). However, fear not, I am not planning to bore you with a blow by blow account of our summer break. But I do want to share one part of it.
The itinerary had us boarding a night train from Keleti Railway Station in Budapest.... destination Cracow. Having taken several Caledonian sleepers over the years, I had a fair idea of what to expect from this mode of transport, but the rest of the family did not, so it was all a bit of an adventure and indeed for my part, I was exited too. I am no trainspotter, but part of me does find trans-continental train journeys exotic (beating my daily rail commute from Bishops Stortford to Harlow Town hands down!). Over 10 and a half hours that would carry us across the Czech Republic and Slovakia en route to Poland, some cheap wine was required to ensure at least a little sleep.
One of the principal reasons for make our way over to South West Poland was to fulfill a long held wish to visit the remaining Auschwitz camp complexes. To make the most of the trip I was busy supplementing what I already knew about the place by cramming books on the subject as we travelled. So it was that once Gunta and Ramona were settled, I was once again engrossed in an excellent book entitled 'Hanns & Rudolf - The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz' by Thomas Harding. It is a extraordinary true account of how a Berlin born Jew escaped from Nazi Germany only to rise through the ranks of the British Army (as part of the British Army of Liberation or B.L.A.), finally given the responsibility of tracking down high profile war criminals of the fallen regime. Ultimately he was to traverse Germany, through multitudes of shattered towns in pursuit of one of the most wanted on the list, Rudolf Hoess, first kommnandant of Auschwitz and the man in charge at the point when the camp was functioning at its murderous peak.
It is a book that I would very highly recommend.
As the train rumbled over the tracks I came to the following passage of this book.
"On 15 May 1944 the first trains from Hungary arrived in Auschwitz. By 8 July more than 437,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported on 151 transports. Of those trains, 136 were sent to Auschwitz, where 90 per cent of the prisoners were exterminated upon arrival. The 'selections' were overseen by Josef Mengele and Fritz Klein, the camp doctors. The crematoria were unable to keep up with the number of prisoners, so the extra bodies were dragged out of the newly dug pits, where they were doused in oil and burned. The black smoke from the pyres could be seen miles away.
This extermination programme was code-named 'Aktion Hoess', for it was Rudolf who oversaw the mass murder of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz. On 29 July, senior Nazi figures gathered in Solahutte, a retreat a few miles from the camp, to celebrate Rudolf and the successful completion of the operation."
The extra poignancy of these two paragraphs hit me like a night train coming in the opposite direction! As we made our slow(ish) progress towards Cracow (and therefore Auschwitz) from Budapest, against a soundtrack of guards whistles, the regular metallic screech of wheel against rail and the periodic clash of buffers as carriages were shunted, I looked at the date on my watch..... the 30th July (2014), that is seventy years and one day after that party took place near the camp to mark a 'job well done', the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry!
It was chilling that our 'transport' whilst significantly more comfortable than a cattle truck was taking that same journey, possibly on the same tracks, that carried generations of men, women and children to the gas chambers of Birkenau.
I finished the wine at this point despite its unpalatability!
Of the camps themselves, there is nothing further that needs to be said by me, so instead here are a handful of photographs of what is probably the most disturbing place on Earth.
The gas chamber in Auschwitz I where hundreds of Soviet POWs and other political prisoners perished in the regime's initial experiments with such methods of mass extermination in September 1941
The crematorium furnaces adjacent to the gas chamber of Auschwitz I
'The Rail to Hell'
View into Auschwitz II - Birkenau through the gatehouse
Prisoner hut in the Auschwitz II - Birkenau Women's Camp
Entrance to gas chamber/crematorium II (dark door at the end of the walled area) leading to the undressing area
Remains of gas chamber II (blown up by the SS) shortly before the liberation
The Day The Nazi Died.
The gallows from which Rudolf Hoess was hanged within Auschwitz I on 16th April 1947