My final day on this journey was expectedly unforgettable. Again the weather gods were on my side as I was awoken by the sun shining on my face. I had just over 40km to reach the destination that was still so distant in my mind. I held a strange sense of excitement of reaching the end of the trip, yet knew the day would be filled with sombre emotion.
I visited Lvov in the Ukraine earlier this year (by plane) and learnt about more of the mass killings that were carried out throughout the country. Jews were rounded up and shot mercilessly, only to be buried over with no memorial. This happened in almost every town in the Ukraine, where the majority of the population was almost always Jewish before the war, and almost non-existent after. That trip was filled with sad thoughts but I found myself returning home angry. Angry that these things could ever happen in the world (past, present and future).
I found the same anger hit me whilst contemplating the last push on my journey. I screamed reaching the top of hills with sweat dripping down my face. I gave every last bit of my legs to this final day on the bike. I am a lot fitter since the beginning of the trip; I was speeding along at speeds I never thought I would be able to sustain to finish the 2,222 kilometre journey. Gritting my teeth, breathing heavily, heart pounding hard, I pushed through the familiar feeling of pain in my legs.
Finally arriving at Auschwitz I was out of anger, I had used it all up. My legs complained to me in agony, but they quickly quietened down when my mind switched to thinking about the victims of this place. 1,500,000 people were killed in this camp. Women and children innocently slaughtered because they could not work for the Nazis. Only the men fit enough to work could extend their torture by weeks or perhaps months, if they were lucky, before malnutrition, disease or an SS guard would end it for them.
Sadness now filled my mind – despite having visited here before, despite having imagined reaching this well known place, despite learning about so much death, torture and tragedy over the past 25 days on my liberation path cycle. My eyes still drowning with emotion uncontrollably.
People from the whole of Europe were brought here in a logistically challenging exercise. On arrival the women, children and elderly were set aside to go straight to the gas chambers to be killed. They were told they were going to have a shower. The men would be determined fit by one man making a split-second decision based solely on appearance.
The Nazis took all possessions from the victims of the camp, even if they were part of the 25% lucky enough to not be killed immediately. Suitcases were searched carefully for any money or valuable items before being sent back to Germany for re-use.
Shoes of the dead were stacked high, 40,000 pairs of them were shown in a display cabinet. They were left when the Nazis evacuated. The laces of shoes were taken out for re-use; nothing was left unused. Body hair was removed before the culling in the gas chamber and used for textiles. Gold teeth were pulled out too after death.
Another display showed empty canisters, once containing Cyclone-B pellets that would turn to gas and cause cyanide poisoning to those inside the dark and small room. Pictures all over the museum show disturbing images, including piles of dead, naked bodies that were moved about in the organised mass killings. These pictures taken by the Nazis as they were so keen on documenting everything properly.
The intact gas chamber at Auschwitz is the most emotional place I have visited. I said Kaddish as I stood alone in the room. The same place my father and I had stood several years ago, now I was reciting the same Jewish remembrance prayer. The same place where many innocent people were deceived into thinking they were taking a shower, but were really going to their death by suffocation. It took up to 40 minutes before the guards were sure everyone was killed.
There are many more lessons and stories I can tell. I strongly believe that there is a value about visiting a place like this, it helps you to grow as a person and to understand the world more. There are some things you can’t learn in books. If you can go with family or a loved one then it helps not only to be there together, but also strengthens your bond.
Finally we were shown around Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camp built to increase the capacity for killing. If you take the Nazi story step by step, you can see how they moved from isolating Jews in ghettos, to moving them to other work camps, to mass killing in this fashion. It did not happen overnight and took years to get to the stage it did.
There were many attempts at uprisings but anyone associated was killed. The local people in the town smelt something wrong, they heard rumours about what was going on. They knew. But they were powerless as any of their attempts at resistance were immediately punished with death.
I lay my tokens next to the main monument: first a British flag which has travelled with me the whole way; sand from the Normandy beaches stormed by British, American and Canadians; dirt from the forests of Verdun where the devastating parts of WWI took place and another fight occurred in WWII; stones from outside the Nuremberg trial rooms where some of the Nazis were sentenced to death; pebbles from the Flossenberg concentration camp where many died due to torturous conditions; and conkers from the Terezin concentration camp where we were warned to walk around the tree – a health and safety rule that we take for granted today but never came into consideration during the war. Finally, I placed a piece of rubble from one of the ruins of the gas chambers here at Auschwitz where many innocent people passed. I will never forget this end to my journey as long as I live.
I have finally finished my journey. Being both British and Jewish I have related to the places the British soldiers trod to free the enslaved and tortured Jewish people. I definitely take great pride in being both, especially now.