When we decided to travel to Poland, we knew a side trip from Krakow to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau would be on the list of things to do. I knew it would be a hard place to visit, but one that should be visited. In fact the survivors and their families set it up so that people WOULD visit. They didn't want anyone to forget the horrible tragedy that millions of Jews and other prisoners went through in these places. I would like to share our experience with you.
From Krakow we took a bus to the town of Oswiecim (the German spelling is Auschwitz), which was about an hour and a half away. I never realized that this camp was IN a town. I always thought it was out in the country, hidden. The people that lived in Oswiecim HAD to know what was going on, but knew it was keep quiet about it or join the "work" camp. Many Jews were lied to and told they would be going to a work camp. They were told that after the war they would be able to return home, but for now they had to do work for Hitler. Even the gate that they walked through on the way into Auschwitz reinforced this concept.
"Work Will Set You Free", proclaims the gate.
The crazy thing was the fact that I was expecting a sinister looking place. I mean so much evil and sadness happened here! In all honesty, it look more like older slightly rundown college dorms than anything else.
It was hard to image the horrors that occurred here. As we walked through the buildings, read the descriptions, and saw the artifacts we could feel the weight of it all bearing down on us.
Some of the things we saw there I am still trying to process. Let me share a few.
These are empty Zyklon B canisters. Hitler decided that shooting the Jews wasn't very efficient. One Nazi member could only shoot one Jew at a time. Someone came up with the plan of using poisonous gas to kill more people at once.
The Zyklon B was the poison of choice...
...the gas chambers was the place. There was an opening on the roof and it only took at most TWO Nazi's (One to open the hatch. One to drop in the gas canister.) to kill hundred of prisoners at once.
There were several sections that showed all of the material possessions that were taken from the prisoners as they arrived to the camps. Here are just a few of the possessions.
Medical devices. Those who could not work were immediately sent to the gas chamber upon arrival.
Suitcases. They had been instructed to write their names and addresses on their suitcases so they could be returned.
Shoes. Millions of pairs of shoes.
The one that bothered me the most was the hair. Tons of hair, literally tons of hair. This was hair shaved from the heads of the women prisoners. The hair was then turned into thread to make Nazi uniforms.
In the hallways on every wall there were picture after picture of the prisoners. When Hitler first started taking prisoners they would be photographed for a record of who was there and when they died. Since there were over one million people who went through this camp it got too expensive to photograph all the people. This is when the Nazi's started tattooing the numbers on the prisoners.
There were 20 of the cell blocks at Auschwitz. There was one in particular that no one wanted to get transferred to because they knew they probably weren't coming out. Cell block 10.
This was the block were medical experiments took place. Many people died due to the things they endured. Those that didn't die lived out the remainder of their lives in excruciating pain. I remember reading long ago some of the awful things they did to people there. The one that I remember the most is where they impregnated women with dog sperm, just to see what happened. Nothing came about from that particular horrifying experiment but ironically, some of the experiments they did helped advance medical science.
After touring Auschwitz, we took a lunch break at a nearby restaurant for tourists. There were not many options in the immediate area, but the food was decent enough and the price was not overwhelming. There was a funny little story that happened while there. (You need a laugh break....) We were there on Christmas Eve and it was Frankie and I in this restaurant with a group of Asian tourists and another group from India. As we sat there, the only Americans, a Christmas song came on. I hadn't heard it all season and now it plays. Are you ready for the song title? It is one of my favorites....
I laughed at the irony of it all.
After our food break, we took the shuttle to Auschwitz II-Birkenau which is about 2 miles away from Auschwitz I. There were too many prisoners for Auschwitz I so Hitler commissioned a bigger camp.
Trains would roll in, prisoners would get off, and then doctors would separate those who could work from those who couldn't.
To the right, workers. To the left, gas chamber.
When the camps were liberated, the Nazi's tried to destroy as much as they could to cover up their crimes. There wasn't as much left at Birkenau as there was at Auschwitz, but there was enough to fully understand what had happened there.
The cold barracks were packed with bunk beds that fit 5 to 8 people per bunk.
Some of them had primitive heating elements running through the middle of the barrack. The fire was at one end and the heat transferred down the vertical chamber. The barracks were so drafty that there was no way to keep them truly warm.
Conditions were bad for the prisoners. It wasn't just the cold barracks they had to endure. They had to survive a lack of food. They had to survive torturous conditions such as extremely hard labor, being hosed off with ice cold water in freezing temperatures, and constant fear of being killed on the spot for any small infraction. Many didn't survive at all.
In one barrack this was stenciled on the wall:
I looked it up and it means "Be Calm" in German. Talk about rubbing salt into a wound and that is putting it very very lightly!
The latrines at Auschwitz I were more or less typical western style toilets. When they built Birkenau, they decided that the prisoners were not worth that luxury and latrines turned into this.
It was so nasty in there that the Nazi soldiers wouldn't even go in for fear of getting sick. If you have ever seen Schindler's List they showed a little boy hiding in one in order to escape death by the hands of the Nazi soldiers.
As we walked around Birkenau, at times where it was clear of any building, it was hard to really picture what it had been like. It was almost peaceful. I hope that at times despite it all, the prisoners where able to see peaceful scenes like this one and held them in their hearts.
At the very back of the Birkenau camp there was memorial with plaques written in several languages for the world to understand, to remember.
The entire time we were there, I couldn't help but ask over and over, "Why?"
Why did this happen? There was this....
...but that still didn't answer the question. I don't think anyone can answer that question.
I can't imagine living during that time in our world's dark history. It is horrible to be where we are now and know that it happened, but to be in the middle of it all......I have no words.
I really really can't imagine what it was like for people living in Europe. There was this display at Auschwitz that showed where all the Jews and other prisoners of Auschwitz came from. It was mind boggling.
Then we saw this sign that just tied it all together. The misery. The horror. The sadness. The loss. The evil.
A few hours after liberation of the camp by the Red Army, Zinovy Tolkachyov, a Russian artist walked through and drew the things he saw with accurate details. He wanted what had happened there to be known. These drawings became evidence for the prosecution during the Nuremberg trials.
This is just a few of Tolkachyov's drawings.
They weren't all heart wrenchingly sad, this one, to me, spoke of hope.
We need hope and we should never forget.
One last picture from our train ride (we decided to take the train back instead of the bus) to Krakow. Something uplifting. Something that shows the recovery of Poland. Something peaceful. Something beautiful.
I have two more posts to write about our trip to Poland. The next one I will write is about a museum dealing with life under communist rule. It was funny, I was thinking about how many museums and memorials we have seen dealing with the Holocaust, but not any about communism. I just happened to be looking online for things to do in Warsaw while we were there and I saw a museum dealing with just that! So we went and it turned out to be my favorite museums of all time. It was fascinating, so that will be my next topic. I hope you will return to read it.