Coming to Krakow is not a complete visit if one does not make the short trip to nearby Auschwitz and its counterpart, Birkenau, where more people died than in Auschwitz itself. Clearly this entry will be more somber than my usual.
To get to Auschwitz, we took a mini bus from the bus station. We left at 830AM and got there around 10 AM. The day was gray and with a drizzle – apparently to set us up for the difficult visit ahead. Once there we decided to take a guided tour for a little over $10 which seems expensive but entrance to Auschwitz is free so we figured it would be worth it. (Otherwise, they have books/guides you can purchase and self-guide yourself.)
The group consisted of 6 of us and the guide. We passed under the well known “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free) sign at the entrance to the camps. An eerie feeling.
The buildings we visited in Auschwitz had been Polish army barracks before WW II. Many of these in Auschwitz I have been converted to museums. For example, a building will explain the origins of those who came to these camps. Another building depicts prisoner life. Another depicts the belongings gathered and what happened to them. Because these were army barracks before, the buildings are quite solid. If you think of an old building from around 1900 or 1910 at a U.S. university, you would know how these are designed and built.
Some things were hard to see in the exhibits:
- people’s belonging like hairbrushes, eyeglasses, suitcases (which had names and addresses on them); a strange feeling came over, thinking that someone used to, for example, brush their hair with that pink one laying on top of the pile or that one over there
- women’s hair; their hair was shaved and sent to Germany as fibers or material for coats, blankets; some bags not yet shipped when the camp was liberated are on display
- crutches and artificial wooden limbs
- children’s clothing or artifacts were the hardest for me to see and process…
Though I understood we were basically in a very large cemetery or holy ground, walking between the barracks was surreal as I felt I was in a movie set. That may sound odd but given movies I have seen (Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, etc., whether actually filmed here or not) they were my only reference so far about concentration camps. But, of course, this was the real deal. In the gloomy weather we had, maybe my mind was shifting to “movie set” to protect me…
I tried picturing the guards and prisoners walking around and it wasn’t hard to envision the scene. Also quite hard to take was going into one of the gas chambers. It was an earlier one, too small for the mass scale the Nazis needed. It was used mainly for Soviet prisoners of war and Polish intelligentsia and activists imprisoned at the beginning for being dangerous. We also saw where St. Maximilian Kolbe died. He traded his life to save a man who had a family. For some reason, the Nazis allowed the switch. How many other acts of nobility may not have been caught for posterity…
We then went to Birkenau which the Nazis destroyed towards the end of the war and where the majority of Jews were exterminated in this set of camps. The main entrance building was shown in Schindler’s List. The camp was built especially for large numbers. About 90,000 lived there at a time but hundreds of thousands died there. Living conditions were horrible and one can visualize them from reconstructed living quarters.
The gas chambers there were of mass scale as were the crematoriums. You can see their ruins (they were not reconstructed) and you can see the field were ashes were then buried. It was a massive camp.
One of the more poignant spaces in Birkenau was the train platform where people were separated into those going straight to their death vs. those who had some value to the camp as workers. One can only imagine first how those people would feel after a multi-day train trip packed in a wagon and then to get separated quickly from your loved ones. Very painful to imagine.
So a very difficult place to visit but one that helps make sure we do not ever forget the cruelty that mankind is capable of when it loses its humanity. Check out a short slideshow of my pix at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7K5Hh41Qss .
May all those souls who died there rest in peace. Their lives stolen and the survivors’ lives shattered and battered as this lamp bears witness… Never again.