Oswiecim, Poland; 27 January 2005 -- Perhaps this is the best time to visit Auschwitz.
A cold wind pierces the clothes. Snow flies everywhere -- up, down, around -- in mean, senseless patterns. Stiff boots crush snow underneath.
A harsh winter day does provide an appropriate backdrop for imagining the horrors that went on here. Yet despite the weather and so much about this former Nazi death camp -- the empty barracks, gas chambers, black-and-white photos of the so-called "living dead" -- the visitor feels haunted knowing no matter how much these horrors can be imagined, living them is another thing altogether.
Up to 1.5 million people are believed to have died at the dual camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the German names given to the nearby Polish town of Oswiecim and the neighboring village of Brzezinka.
Most victims were Jewish and about 70 percent of them were deemed unfit for labor and gassed shortly after arriving, crowded like cattle, on trains from around Europe.
But thousands of victims were also Poles, Roma, homosexuals, political prisoners, and other "undesirables" from around Europe and the former Soviet Union.
The visitor enters Auschwitz through the main gate, above which hangs the notorious Nazi inscription "Arbeit macht frei" (Work brings freedom). Under it, in a daily death procession, thousands of inmates would march off to labor in factories, mines, and fields -- many would not return alive.
The camp orchestra, seated outside the kitchen nearby, would play marches to muster them on.
Beside long rows of barbed-wire fencing punctuated with watchtowers, the main camp is mostly barracks outfitted with exhibitions. These include photos, documents, personal possessions, and artwork by inmates.
It is moving fodder for the imagination. But it doesn't quite compare with the remains of the crematoria and gas chambers at Birkenau.
That camp was opened after Auschwitz, specifically to expedite the killing of Jews as part of Hitler's Final Solution. The ovens and gas chambers of Birkenau became the engine of the Nazi extermination machine, which included a web of smaller death camps around Eastern Europe.
Retreating Nazis, seeking to conceal their crimes before the camp's liberation, dynamited Birkenau's crematoria and gas chambers.
But in the ruins, it is still possible to make out the underground changing room, where victims were stripped for what they were told would be showers. Also visible is the chamber where they were gassed with hydrogen cyanide known as Zyklon B.
Henrik Mandelbaum is one of five living survivors out of some 730 members of the Lederkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners tasked with burning the hundreds of people killed every day at the damp. The rest of the Lederkommando were killed before the camp's liberation, as they were witnesses to the atrocities.
"Over there, we'll see our barracks, the roads we trudged down in the snow." -- survivor
Mandelbaum, a Pole, arrived on 22 April 1944. He was 19 years old. His mother, father, sister, and brother were all killed at the camp.
Mandelbaum, prisoner No. 181970, recently returned to Birkenau. He stood with reporters at the site of the former crematoria and talked about his job at the camp:
"You put the corpse on the stretcher, then on the rollers and you rolled it into the oven," Mandelbaum said. "And there was one guy, who had some sort of fork, but a long one, about this thick [pointing to steel reinforcement wire in cement blocks], like this wire. It was split at the end and he pushed them by the crotch. Why? So that the legs couldn't stick out -- so you could close the doors."
The few Lederkommando survivors went on to testify in trials against Nazi leaders, including Rudolf Hoess, the camp's notorious commander who was later sentenced to death and hanged there.
Yesterday, in the Auschwitz camp, there were two other Birkenau survivors.
Italian sisters Tatiana and Andra Bucci, who were aged 6 and 4, respectively, when they were deported here from their native Florence, were among very few children to survive the extermination center.
Andra Bucci, barely holding back tears, said it would be very hard to visit Birkenau in another ceremony scheduled for tomorrow.
"At this point, sincerely, I am afraid to go to Birkenau the day after tomorrow [28 January]," Andra said. "Because as [my sister] just said, Birkenau is completely different than Auschwitz. Over there, we'll see our barracks, the roads we trudged down in the snow. It's going to be pretty hard, pretty tough."
Andra and Tatiana were part of an official delegation from the Tuscan capital, which gathered briefly before the infamous "Death Wall," where prisoners were shot in mass executions.
Andra, who had returned here twice before, said it was appropriate for visitors to see this place in the freezing cold.
But Andra, while stressing the memorial is vital to the education of future generations, said she personally has had enough of it.
This, she said, is her last trip to Auschwitz.