The view from Auschwitz
By Kacper Pempel
Each year we cover at least two main stories from Auschwitz. The first story is at the end of January when there are ceremonies to commemorate the liberation of the death camp by Soviet troops in 1945, and the second story, which happens around May, is called the “March of Living”.
This year the 27th of January marked the 67th anniversary of the death camp liberation by Soviet troops. The ceremonies were subdued, with fewer officials coming than I was used to. So I decided to cover this time in a different way. Not only as a document from the anniversary but from a more emotional point of view.
My first visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum was 7 years ago. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I tried to hide behind my camera and only focus on pictures but it was impossible. I never expected what I saw there, because it is impossible to be prepared for these kinds of views and imaginations which this place develops. I was walking around the museum in Auschwitz and then in Birkenau the whole day and I remember that I was losing power in batteries because it was minus 20 degrees C (-4 degrees F). My fingers where completely frozen. When I came inside the barracks in Birkenau and saw the bunks for prisoners I couldn’t imagine how anyone survived during winter time.
Back then I had to stop my work because of camera batteries. This year I had to stop many times because of the strong feelings inside me. I came prepared with all the extreme survival equipment I normally use to cover ski jumping. But nothing prepares you for the feeling you get from Auschwitz-Birkenau, especially when you remember that the victims had nothing to protect them. Many didn’t survive a single night.
It’s impossible to capture the real nature of places like the crematoria. I was asking myself what be a “good” picture from this place. I decided to be as simple and quiet, and with as much respect for this place as I can. It is a part of the dilemma of how to be artistic in place like Auschwitz. In my opinion you can only show emotions from an artistic point of view but you can’t just look for an artistic angle as a form or composition.
I had a similar situation when I came in front of the Death Wall where the Nazis shot their prisoners. Normally I am there with some officials laying wreaths, but this time I came in front of wall just with other tourists. Again, it was hard to find any “right” picture. I realized that they were taking pictures just like me so I was wondering if there are any differences between us besides that I’m a guy with a professional camera, waiting for the picture as a photographer. First I saw that many times they come just to take a quick picture and leave as quickly as they can, maybe because of lack of time to see whole exhibition or this place of killing horrifies them, just as it does me.
After spending another 7 hours and viewing the exhibitions in Auschwitz and the remains of the camp in Birkenau it is hard to understand how people could do such things to one another. In my opinion it is hard to even call them people.
The Nazis designed and improved the factory of killing and the factory of death. Over 5 years they killed an unimaginable number between 1-1.5 million people. The vast majority were Jews. The second biggest group, from 70 to 75 thousand, were Poles, and the third most numerous, about 20 thousand, the Gypsies. About 15 thousand Soviet POWs and 10 to 15 thousand prisoners of other ethnic backgrounds also died there. When you are visiting blocks with exhibitions there are corridors with thousands of pictures of prisoners hanging on the walls, but this is only a fraction of the number of people exterminated here. But these are people, not numbers.
When you are visiting blocks with exhibitions there are corridors with thousands of pictures of prisoners hanging on the walls which give you opportunity to look at the faces of real people not only numbers…
This year I couldn’t go to the blocks where the remains of prisoners are exhibited, with the tons of hair, thousands of children shoes and spectacle frames taken from them before their death. It was too much for me…
After the official ceremonies of Holocaust survivors was over, I put down my cameras and laid a candle at the Victims Monument at Auschwitz Birkenau to commemorate the victims and our relatives who died in the Death Camp.