It was 75 years ago today that the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by the Red Army.
It made me cast my mind back nearly 20 years to when I photographed the same event.
The call came from the Sunday Telegraph on a Thursday.
‘Would I be available to go to Poland tomorrow?’
In 2001 it was the 56th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp and the picture desk wanted someone to record the moment
Naturally I accepted.
There can be the impression that the media is super organised, well oiled machine knows what it is doing.
In my experience nothing could be further from the truth.
The routine tended to go something like this.
When you put the phone down from the picture desk you quickly organise the flight and hire car in the shortest time possible and just get there
Often without any hotel organised and cramming a few essentials into a bag, razor, toothbrush, along with THE cutting edge Canon DSLR the Kodak DCS520 with just 2 megapixels – it gave much better results than you might imagine.
You land and pick up a rental car speaking no Polish and head out to Oświęcim (the nearest town to the Auschwitz concentration camp ) with the map from the rental car desk, the picture desk having made all sorts of promises to the editor in conference of the amazing images their top shooter (their words) would file, on deadline.
To be honest when I accepted the assignment I probably should not have, as I had the beginnings of a molar tooth abscess which in the biting cold of a Polish winter was going to hamper me, being ever present in my flawed decision making.
Having navigated to Auschwitz straight off the plane I approached the office which was more or less closed for the day.
Fortunately the lady there spoke english but what she said was not what I wanted to hear.
Everyone had gone home for the day and any passes should have been applied for weeks ago.
The ceremony was tomorrow on a Saturday the ‘live’ day for a Sunday Newspaper when it gives the best images a ‘run’ in the moist prominent position.
So lots of pressure to deliver, but no access to the ceremony.
Dejected I made my way back to the very humble hotel.
It was freezing cold, there was no hot water and despite the painkillers my tooth abscess was beginning to take centre stage
The local vodka helped dull my now throbbing tooth and I drifted off to sleep
I woke early the next day with a hangover but a thankfully diminished tooth ache
Desperate to deliver some kind of image I travelled to the Auschwitz I which was some distance from the ceremony which was held at the Auschwitz-Birkenau section of the camp- the horribly iconic one you may know from the railway which lead to the front gate.
Everything was locked up.
I parked in the car park
The only car there in the freezing fog
Wondering what my next move would be, already thinking of the excuse or should that be explanation why I had nothing to transmit to London.
After further trying to raise the attention of anyone in the office block I trudged back to the car.
Out of the fog came a bus.
It pulled up a short distance from me and an elderly gentleman jumped off addressing me in staccato Polish.
I tried to explain who I was and he smiled and answered in broken English, I have to say his language was more broken than English but he motioned that I should come on the bus.
Once on there I encountered a couple more older people who spoke a little more English and they indicated tea they were going to the ceremony and if I wanted to get in I should go with them
Needless to say I jumped at the chance and they warmly welcomed me, there was much banter and chatter between them but I had no idea what I stumbled into until a few minutes later
As the bus came closer to Auschwitz-Birkenau a silence fell and one by one they donned the arm bands of prisoners.
They were all survivors of Auschwitz -all imprisoned as children.
A lady called Antonia came over to me and explained with the help of others her story
During the war she lived in Warsaw and was staying with a relative in a small rural village, in the middle of the night SS soldiers came to the door and said they needed to take a number of children and they knew Antonia was staying there so they took her in the back of a lorry to Auschwitz where she was photographed her on arrival, she took the photo out of her pocket to show me, she was just 14 at the time.
Atrocities from the dim and distant past can seem abstract like something out of the movies but coming face to face with survivors with such a traumatic story so unexpectedly has a power beyond words.
She recounted many of the privations and horrors she faced before we began to talk about the liberation
Yes, they were free the guards had run away and she recounted how they were initially overjoyed to see there Soviet army liberators until the rapes began and she painfully told the story of how during the night how she and other would have sleep in trees….up the trees so they would not be molested
My brain could barely comprehend what I was hearing nor the situation I had got myself into
The coach paused and we were in the camp.
Ahead of the ceremony I had time to shoot some images of the survivors whom I had met
The heavy fog which hung over the camp made me feel like I was on a film set and almost like I was not actually there, the next time I would experience this feeling would be at my Mum’s funeral.
If I had the passes I would not have experienced this moment in quite the same way.
Life is about timing and about luck
Any of the survivors on the bus that I met would tell you that.