To commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, we would like to share a special excerpt from Robert Desmond’s book Ride for the Living, produced by the Story Terrace team. After being struck by the gravity of Auschwitz during his first visit at the age of 22, Desmond decided to return, this time by bicycle from London. He biked along the route taken by the Allies as they fought back against Hitler and chronicled his journey online to share the experience with the world.
Day 18: Weiden, Germany to Pilsen, Czech Republic, 115km (1685km total)
Another unforgettable day on this incredible journey involving another puncture, a visit to a concentration camp, being stopped by German police and questioned, crossing to the fifth and penultimate country of the trip – Czech Republic, nearly getting knocked off the bike by some of the awful Czech drivers and finishing with some of the toughest hill climbs to really test my stamina.
After waking up early this morning I headed to the local McDonald’s to sponge their Wi-Fi for a few hours of productive work. Upon leaving the restaurant it started to rain again. Onwards and upwards into the forests, and I got a front wheel puncture this time. It was time to change the tyres! A half hour walk back to town to find a bike shop proved fruitful and within the hour both tyres were brand new. Back on the bike to take on the hill for a second time. However, the anticipation of visiting the camp caused my legs to give up in protest to the journey.
The mist filled the forests until I eventually arrived at the camp that was just 1000 miles from home. The town of Flossenburg has a huge source of natural granite, and this camp was set up to harvest that from the hills. Initially there were about 400 prisoners there, but it grew rapidly with an influx of mostly Polish people, then Jewish people and then others, such as homosexuals or political activists, that had no place in the Nazi regime.
It was meant to house several thousand at once, and was massively oversubscribed. When new inmates arrived at the camp, they would be stripped and washed with either boiling or freezing water from a hose cannon. They would be left to stand outside in front of everyone in the roll call area. Those that survived would be given thin prison uniforms.
It was in this roll call area where punishments, hangings and other executions would take place daily in front of the others to try to maintain order. The workers would mine the granite from the hills and were even hired out to the locals as cheap gardeners and labourers. The local population benefitted from the increased number of soldiers in the area by renting out accommodation and charging for local facilities. The exhibition here also showed how local electric and plumbing companies approached the camp to try and secure their business – they definitely knew what was going on.
For the inmates, like in all the other camps, there was insufficient food. This caused serious malnourishment leading to widespread illnesses that went untreated and resulted in mass fatalities.
Over the years approximately 100,000 prisoners passed through the camp, with approximately 30,000 of them perishing at the site for various reasons, all brought on by the ridiculous Nazi regime and by the soldiers who ran the place.
In the final stages of the war, the Nazis conducted a death march from here to Dachau in Munich. It would be a great effort for me to cycle there with sufficient clothing, breaks, hotels and food. I cannot even imagine being forced to walk there without any of the comforts I have had on my trip.
A female officer was reported to have screamed at those too weak to complete the walk and ordered them to be shot. However, she was not sentenced after the war. There are many similar stories, which is hugely upsetting.
I wandered around the grounds to the various memorials and passed several groups of German teenagers on school trips. Incredibly difficult to contemplate and deal with. I managed to compose myself and came to a building lower in the valley where the crematorium room itself was still intact. It’s moments like these that visiting alone is difficult. I remember having the support of my father, cousin and friend at Auschwitz a few years ago, and a good friend at Dachau years before that. People can help bring you back to modern reality, but I had only German school kids around me, and 80 kilometres of lonesome cycling before the day was out.
Pushing on through the hills, I was pedalling slowly contemplating this experience. I know this whole series of events called the Holocaust happened. I have seen so much evidence over the years, and now I am following a route that was taken by many soldiers to free the surviving captives. But I still just can’t imagine it ever happening in my world. We are surrounded by health and safety that puts preventing a person’s potential injury as being more important than anything, even if it means wasting a lot of time for something very unlikely. Here they just threw people into impossible work with no care for them as human beings whatsoever. If they die, then just replace them. I just can’t imagine this happening today in the world I live in.