Auschwitz-Birkenau (Helen Moat)
Blog Words : Freewheeling | 08 February

Haunted by a smile at Auschwitz

On the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Helen Moat goes in search of the identity of a prisoner whose smile set her apart from other prisoners

There is row upon row of photographs lining the walls of one of the barracks blocks at Auschwitz I. Face after face along the length of the building; both sides. These photographs were taken at least a year before Auschwitz was liberated – before the SS speeded up its killing machine; when the Nazis neither had the time nor the inclination to photograph each prisoner or record their details. When the trains from all across Europe headed straight for the crematoriums.

Like everything at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the sheer numbers make it hard to see beyond the mass of humanity to the individual lives: the mother, the father, the sister or brother; the lover, the colleague, the resistance fighter and the defiant; the quiet and unassuming; the meek and mild. Behind each photographed face is a story, a narrative cut short – reduced to a few details beneath the photograph: a name a nationality, a date of birth and deportation… and the date of death.

As I walk along the corridor, I gaze at the photographs of the women, masculine in appearance with their cropped hair, striped prison uniforms and identification tags, all gazing into a camera with expressionless faces.

Helena Bargiel stands out from all the other women. She causes me to stop in my tracks, and leaves me wondering why her picture is so compelling. Then I realise what it is that makes her stand out from all the others. She is smiling. This is a photograph that could have been taken by a friend, or someone in her family. As Helena stares into the camera, her face is open and confident and filled with optimism and strength. And I wonder what her story is.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is as flat as the polders of the Netherlands, the land stretching out to the woods in the far distance. Beneath the winter ice and snow, the land is punctuated with watch towers and the remaining brick columns and gables of the bombed barracks blocks. In between, the metal ribbons of barbed wire are strung out across the frozen wastes. Just before the woods, the bombed crematoriums lie in tatters beside the ash ponds, the Nazis' attempt to conceal the damning evidence as the Russians approached.

In the other direction the railway tracks lead the eye in to the death gate. It’s the landmark people most associate with Auschwitz, along with the cynical ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (Work will make you free) over the entrance gate at Auschwitz I. I walk the path taken by those selected for the crematorium – the young, the old and the weak – but I have no idea what it was like to be in their shoes.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is also a place of mountains: a mountain of empty Giftgas canisters (Zyklon B); a mountain of wire spectacles and circles of glass; a mountain of shoes; a mountain of shaving brushes and enamel bowls and jugs; a mountain of suitcases and a mountain of hair. The individual lives of so many people are heaped into singular mounds, and it’s this I find the most distressing. In the mountain of suitcases, I find solace in the individual names neatly painted onto the lids: Franz Engel, Klara Goldstein, Marie Kafka, Leon Singer and Paul Gelbkopf. But I don’t know their stories – and what made each person an individual human being.

As we stand beside the collapsed crematoriums, the sun pale and shadowy in the snow-filled sky, our guide says: "The Auschwitz prisoners resisted every day. They resisted death, fought to stay alive, organised food, supported the weak and the dying, holding onto the day when they would be liberated – when they could go back to their families and their homes. But the few who were finally liberated found that they had lost everything: their families, their homes and their lives. There was nothing left. Nothing."

Back home, I try to find out more about Helena. Her photograph tells me her prison number is 32099; that she was a Pole born on 2 March 1916; deported on 29 January 1943 and dead by the 14th October 1943, still in her twenties. Online, I find her name hidden in among the long list of names beginning with B, as recorded by the German officials at Auschwitz. I learn that she came from Nowy Sacz, southeast of Krakow and that she was a Catholic. That’s it. Nothing more. So I imagine narratives for her – to match the strength in her face; imagine she was a member of the Polish resistance, or had hidden a Jew. In truth, she may just have been taken to Auschwitz for more ‘banal’ reasons – simply because she was a Pole and therefore an ‘untermensch’ – a person of inferior race.

But as far as I can tell, Helena’s story is lost forever, like so many others in the ‘mountains of Auschwitz’.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

1.1  Million people (possibly more) died at Auschwitz

1 million of the victims were Jewish.

70-75,000 non-Jewish Poles died at Auschwitz

Today Auschwitz-Birkenau is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

This year is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Helen Moat has won several travel writing competitions, including runner-up x 2 with The British Guild of Travel Writers and highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writing competition. She is currently writing the Slow Travel: Peak District for Bradt Guides.You can find more of her travel pieces on her blog.