It’s been about 5 – 6 months since my last Poland entry. There are a myriad of excuses for this: tough school year, busy Xmas holiday, relentless work load…
But I have to say I’ve kind of been avoiding writing this one on purpose. Why?
Well, for starters, I don’t have any photos. Long story short, before we got off the bus at Auschwitz, we were told there was no photography, so I left my camera on the bus. Then it turned out that there was no photography in the buildings, so I missed out on getting some snaps outside.
I’ve been able to get my hands on some photos. A big thanks to Alex Rubin and Anj Mulligan for letting me use theirs. I’m not entirely sure how using someone else’s photos will affect my narrative, but we’ll see.
The other reason I’ve been avoiding this one is because I wrote so damn much about it. 39 pages from my journal were devoted to this day.
Why so much? Well, to be honest, it was a pretty emotionally charged day. A lot of people were crying during the tour. My reaction was just to write down everything I could see and hear, as fast as I could. I hope I got everything right. Please correct me if I’ve gotten something wrong.
Anyhow, enough stalling. Here we go.
June 24, 7:45AM
It was an early morning. I showered, shaved, sent some email, and then hung out in the kitchen/common area with Yev, eating some cocoa-puffs while she boiled water for tea.
The breakfast lady was in a foul mood that morning. She stormed in to the kitchen and started rearranging things with a violent efficiency, clicking her heels. Yev and I were silent. Finally, I said “Dzien dobry” (good morning) to break the tension.
Wow. That was the last straw, I guess. The breakfast lady flew into a huge Polish rant as she stormed around us. We couldn’t understand a word, but she was clearly upset.
Yev said she reminded her of one of her Soviet schoolmasters.
I didn’t wait to see how the fury played out. I got out of there. Yev stayed behind.
Yev later told me that, after making a sandwich (which the breakfast lady saw her do), she made a super-quick pit-stop at the washroom, only to come back and find that her sandwich had been thrown in the garbage. Presumably by the breakfast lady.
We boarded the bus and were en route.
It was a tense morning. Tamara told us that the Auschwitz trip was optional, and so a few of us had stayed back. The bus ride was unusually quiet.
I think everybody was preparing themselves.
I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera (or so I thought), so I left it on the bus.
After getting off the bus, we read a multi-lingual sign that set the behavioural tone for the rest of the tour:
Througout the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. The German forces occupying Poland during the Second World War established a concentration camp, on the outskirts of the town of Oswiecim. In 1940, the Germans called the town Auschwitz and that is the name by which the camp was known. Over the next years it was expanded into three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz and more than forty subcamps.
The first people to be brought to Auschwitz as prisoners and murdered here were Poles. They were followed by Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies and deporters of many other nationalities. Beginning in 1942, however, Auschwitz became the settling for the most massive murder campaign in history, when the Nazis put into operation their plan to destroy the entire Jewish population of Europe. The great majority of Jews who were deported to Auschwitz – men, women, and children – were sent immediately upon arrival to death in the gas chambers of Birkenau.
When the SS realised that the end of war was near, they attempted to remove the evidence of the atrocities committed here. They dismantled the gas chambers, crematoria, and other buildings, burned documents, and evacuated all those prisoners who could walk to the interior of Germany. Those who were not evacuated were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.
On July 2, 1947, the Polish Parliament established the State Museum of Oswiecim – Brzezinka on the sites of the former camps at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. In 1979, these camps were formally recognized by UNESCO by their inclusion on its World Heritage List.
PLEASE BEHAVE APPROPRIATELY RESPECTING THE MEMORY OF THOSE WHO SUFFERED AND DIED HERE.
Next to this was a map of the compound. Again, no photos, so something like this will have to do.
Looking at the map, my eyes were drawn to the familiar word “Canada”. It turns out that, when new arrivals came to the camps, their belongings were stripped from them and sent to a special area of the camp called Canada for sorting and searching. It was called Canada, because at the time, Canada was considered the land of plenty. Here’s Wikipedia’s take on it.
Near the signs were, of all things, gift and souvenir shops, called the “informatory”. Postcards, books, videos, photos… seemed a bit in bad taste. After seeing the gift shops, I noticed all of the smiling tourists around me, and I found that quite macabre.
It was particularly disturbing because of how quiet it was. There were also “keep silence” signs all over the place. So yeah, it was quiet. Really quiet.
As we approached the entrance, we heard birds chirping. It was overcast – the grass was still wet from the morning dew.
As we were reading the signs, Tamara had gone off to get the tour guide. On her way back, her face was covered in tears. She’d visited Auschwitz for a tour several times before, and firmly stated to us that she couldn’t bring herself to do it again. So she went off to go wait in the bus. It was an ominous moment.
All of the tour guides were dressed in black. Ours was no exception. After a brief, quiet hello, she gave us each a set of earphones and receiver. This is how she would communicate with us during the tour. This way, she wouldn’t have to yell for us all to hear her. Instead, the tour became very personal, and she was able to speak softly to each of us individually. I wrote in my journal that her voice was incredibly soft, caring, and soothing – and that she reminded me more of a nurse than a tour guide. I really think part of her job was to soothe, as well as to educate.
We headed towards Auschwitz I.
An Extremely Brief History of Auschwitz
Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp, and eventually became the central administrative hub of the complex.
The buildings of Auschwitz I were military barracks, originally constructed by and for the Polish army. In the late 1930’s, Poland had been invaded, split up, and annexed to the Nazis and the Soviets. So technically, Poland ceased to exist. The Nazis saw the barracks in their new territory as “very convenient” for housing the growing number of Polish prisoners, especially considering the railroad junctions that led to it. The Nazis set up shop, and the land and buildings became Auschwitz I.
Auschwitz I was originally established strictly for Polish prisoners, but eventually Gypsy’s and Soviet POW’s were held there as well.
Eventually, Auschwitz I got so packed with prisoners, that two more camps were built in close proximity. Those camps were named Auschwitz II and III.
The Main Gate
This is the main gate to the camp:
The gate reads:
Arbeit Marcht Frei
Which translates to “Work Makes You Free”, or “Work Gives You Freedom”.
Surrounding the entire camp was a double electric fence:
Entering the Camp
The camp orchestra, composed entirely of prisoners, would play lively German marches as the prisoners were led into the camp. It was humiliating and dehumanizing. This also made it easier for the guards to count and keep the prisoners in step.
The men and women were then separated, and sent to different barracks. There would be 800-1000 prisoners assigned per barrack, which only had 2 stories. The prisoners in Auschwitz I were cramped to the extreme.
The roads we walked down were all empty and quiet, but it wasn’t hard to imagine them filled with the noise of thousands upon thousands of prisoners, being crammed into the buildings.
It was pretty disturbing. In this shot, you can see me scrambling to scribble all of this information down in the background.
We then entered one of the barracks, which had been converted into a museum.
A sign loomed overhead reading:
The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.
Auschwitz was almost in the center of occupied Europe. With the already-established railroad system, the Nazis were able to send over 1,000,000 prisoners to Auschwitz. The majority of those prisoners were Jewish.
It didn’t start out that way, but at some point during 1942-1943, Auschwitz became an extermination camp.
A sign on the wall broke down the prisoners as follows:
1,300,000 sent to Auschwitz
140,000 – 150,000 Poles
23,000 – Roma / Gipsy’s
15,000 – Soviet Prisoners
25,000 – Other
A large, glass, transparent urn in the barracks held human ashes in rememberence.
During the original invasion of Poland, the Nazis focused on capturing/executing as many Polish monks, priests, lawyers, leaders, and educated people as possible. This was their method of “destroying” Poland’s culture and identity. After an uprising in Warsaw, 13,000 Poles were sent to Auschwitz I as punishment.
Many photos were taken at Auschwitz by the SS for their own use. Those black and white photos lined the walls of the museum. We weren’t allowed to take photographs, so I can’t show them to you, but I can describe some of them. Imagine black and white, blurry photos of extremely thin, extremely gaunt, bald people, wearing prisoner garb. Imagine seeing photos of them digging graves for themselves, or jumping to a particular height for a guard’s amusement, or running at top speed in a big circle “just because”, so the guards could watch.
SS “doctors” were always present at prisoner arrival to “conduct selections” on who could work and who could be executed immediately. There were photos on the wall of women, children, and old people, being sent to their death. They look calm, because they didn’t know.
The Jews who weren’t executed immediately were put to work. Some were sent to Auschwitz III, which was a work and manufacturing camp. Prisoners were forced to make things there for the Nazis.
Other prisoners became Sonderkommandos, which means they assisted in the execution of other prisoners. Sonderkommandos would work in the crematoriums and gas chambers, and were forced to witness and commit various horrible atrocities against other prisoners.
Gassing of prisoners took place underground. A single gas chamber would have 2000 prisoners crammed inside of it at one time. Prisoners who entered the gas chambers were told that they were taking showers. Fake faucets in the ceilings and walls helped sell the illusion.
After the doors were shut, crystals of Cyclone B were dropped in through openings in the ceiling. After 20 minutes, all were dead. Sonderkommandos would then go in and carry the bodies to the crematorium.
Before the bodies were cremated, Sonderkommandos had to cut off the hair from the women. The hair was packed into bags, and sent elsewhere to be turned into hair-cloth and other textiles. The ashes of the prisoners were used as fertilizer. Everything was reused.
At one point, we entered a room in the museum, where behind a large pane of glass, we saw mounds of human hair that had been found at the camp. Massive quantities of dead prisoners hair.
This was the point in the tour that most people started to lose it. Lots of tears. Lots of crying. I kept scribbling.
Any belongings or valuables brought by the prisoners into the camp were sent to the camps called Canada I and Canada II for processing. The plunder ended up being part of the evidence that was used to prove the atrocities that had happened at the camp. Like the piles of hair, we saw piles of glasses, piles of shoes, piles of Jewish prayer shawls, combs, brushes, suitcases, clothing, prosthetics, crutches, pottery, bowls, cutlery… everything was sorted. The quantity was simply horrifying.
In my journal, I noted that the lighting in the barracks was quite muted, but that the exhibits (the hair, combs, etc) were under bright flourescents. It was really macabre – like seeing a body at a morgue.
The next part of the exhibit was even more horrifying. It turns out that 20% of the victims of the camp had been children (90% Jewish). There was a room, absolutely packed to the brim, with children’s shoes. So many shoes.
And that’s the thing – I noted this in my journal: it’s not just the atrocity itself, but the sheer size of the atrocity that is so horrifying. The piles of shoes and the hair really gave us a sense of that size.
Of the prisoners that weren’t immediately executed, 50% were Jewish. Many were Polish. All were treated like property.
There were some prisoners who were given some of the responsibilities of the guards – for example, being in charge of work units. These prisoners were always German criminals.
The prisoners were deprived of all of their human characteristics. No names. Just numbers. Photos were originally used for identification, but this was eventually changed to tattoos because a prisoner’s appearence would change too much.
The Nazis were meticulous record-keepers. Prisoner IDs were linked to prisoner files that held details such as education, age, and history.
Hunger was rampant among the prisoners. There wasn’t nearly enough food for all of them.
One sign we saw gave us a breakdown of the daily life of a prisoner. I couldn’t get it all down, but the pattern was obvious: prisoners were slowly killed with work. They were punished and beaten. Most lasted less than a year.
All non-Jewish children became prisoners. These children were also often subject to horrific “scientific” experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele.
Among other things, Mengele apparently wanted to find ways of creating twins and triplets, so that German “Aryans” could reproduce quickly.
Other atrocities were performed by Dr. Carl Clauberg who tortured Jewish women, in an attempt at finding ways of sterilizing them.
It was a lot to take in. We went back outside.
We were at the execution wall.
Prisoners, often naked, were shot in the back of their heads. It is estimated that 10,000 prisoners were shot at this wall. There were also posts were prisoners could have their arms strung up behind them for hours, as torture, and as punishment.
There were also starvation cells. In one of those cells, Saint Maximilian Kolbe was starved to death with 9 other men.
Eventually, we entered a building where the first experimental mass killings took place. There were suffocation cells. There were cells where prisoners were forced to stand all night. Pretty horrific.
The “camp hospital” existed for propaganda, to keep the purpose of the extermination camp a secret. The hospital was really the “crematorium waiting room”, since selections would often happen there.
Roll call was also used as prisoner punishment. If a prisoner escaped, or it was suspected that a prisoner had escaped, the remaining prisoners would be punished. They’d be lined up and counted outside of their barracks, again and again. Sometimes they’d be out there for 20 hours straight.
Only 144 prisoners successfully escaped Auschwitz. Captured escapees were tortured for information on their escape, and then executed.
Crematorium I was originally an ammo bunker. The crematorium was dark…stone…dusty…gritty. It was all so much monstrous efficiency.
The first part of the tour was over. We handed back our headsets and took a 10 minute break.
I wrote that the sun was warm, and that some of us were hungry.
We just got a small snack. We’re all sitting outside. Everybody is quiet. Some of us are eating. Some of us are drinking coffee. Some of us are smoking. Some of us are crying. It’s pretty rough. It’s hard to be an optimist here – hard to feel good, anyhow. Just…devestated.
We’re late. Our 10 minute break went on too long, and we’re late getting back on the bus. We’re heading to the next camp.
The bus really has never been so quiet. But what do we say to one another? This is no place for joking around…no place for making quips. What’s the first thing you say?
There are storm clouds in the distance.
It’s a 3km drive to the next camp. Tamara says that there are no exhibits…just the barracks and other buildings, the railroad tracks, and the gas chambers.
We’re here. I recognize where I am – I think I had seen it in Schindler’s List.
It’s brick and fields, barbed wire, and wooden barracks. It’s starting to rain gently. Those of us with umbrellas put them up.
The fields here used to be Polish homes and farmland before the residents were evicted by the invaders. The barracks were constructed from materials from destroyed buildings.
Not all of the barracks are still standing. Some have been dismantled. Others have crumbled with age.
The gas chambers have been destroyed, but the ruins are still there.
There’s grass and flowers now, but during the war, everything here was muddy and swampy.
We closed our umbrellas and went into the barracks.
The barracks reminded me of stables for horses. Wooden bunks, and a single stone oven for heating. At least 400 people per barrack. No toilets inside. No washrooms. Just buckets and ditches in the ground, and barrels of water outside.
There were “toilets” outside, which were really just holes in the ground with wood frames built over them.
Members of the prison resistance would meet by the ditches/toilets, since the guards would never go near them (due to the smell, and disease).
Like Auschwitz I, there’s barbed wire everywhere.
The Gas Chambers, and Liberation
75% of Jews were gassed on arrival to the camp.
In November, 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered the crematoria destroyed before the Red Army could reach the camp. Nazi soldiers began destroying the evidence of what had happened at the camp, starting with the gas chambers.
In January, 1945, with the Red Army getting closer, SS command ordered that all prisoners at Auschwitz be executed. This order was never carried out. Instead, the camp was evacuated, and the prisoners were sent on death marches to another camp in Wodzisław Śląski. Prisoners who were too sick or weak to march were left behind. Those 7,500 prisoners were still there when the Red Army came to liberate them.
According to Wikipedia:
Approximately 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where they were liberated by the British in April 1945.
Some of the buildings and ruins in Auschwitz II are sinking, and the museum is working hard to restore them.
Just past the last gas chamber is a large stone monument. Large, Easter Island-like heads and monoliths.
At the base of the monument are numerous plaques, all in different languages. Here’s the English one:
The monument is surrounded by flowers and wreaths.
The tour is now over. We thank the tour-guide, and, in the rain, follow the train tracks back out the main entrance. Birds chirp. Grass grows. Puddles. Life continues.
It’s no surprise to me that existentialism and the Theatre of the Absurd came about in reaction to these atrocities.
And that’s it for my Auschwitz notes.
Just got off the bus. Had a nice long nap – I think most of us did. We’re back in Krakow. It’s sunny and warm. Tamara has given us free time now.
Had a nice big late lunch (or early dinner) with Alex, Linn, Una, and Jiv.
Onion soup, garlic bread, and a banana-chili shake. Nice!24-Jun-2009 11:38, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 64
We discussed Auschwitz – it seemed OK to do now. We all agreed that it was a devastating experience, but we were glad we did it.
Our moods were starting to lighten.
We also saw a guy in a beer suit walking around:
Giant beer suit!24-Jun-2009 11:27, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 64
The giant beer suit stalks its prey…24-Jun-2009 11:27, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64
And we also saw some breakdancers doing some moves in the market square.
Krakow breakdancers24-Jun-2009 11:33, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.68, 17.2mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 64
I caught some of it on video:
After eating, I went to the phone to call Em.
Just got off the phone with Em. Told her all about Auschwitz. Missing her a lot. I decided to try to make myself feel better by getting some lemon sorbet. It’s a pretty good deal at 4z. I found Alexi and Yev drinking coffee in the square, and joined them while I finished my cone.
I think Yev borrowed my camera and took these photos:
I’m on my own now. There’s some big crowd in the square, and I hear clapping. Buskers?
Ah, looks like another breakdance group.
And there are accordion players here! They’re playing some classical music. Nice.
Krakow accordian players24-Jun-2009 14:17, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 64
And a mime painted all in gold (though in this shot, he looks like he’s on break):
There’s also a group of people giving out free hugs.
All of this activity is occurring around another statue of Adam Mickiewicz:
I listen to the accordion players for a while. They’re playing the William Tell Overture.
Eventually, I exit the square into a side street. I hear violins…eventually, I see the players:
And I think I hear a dulcimer being played somewhere.
The street I strolled down is called Florianska. At some earlier point, I had gotten the urge to check out some of the local music scene, and the girl at the hostel told me to walk down this street. She said there was an indie rock bar around here called The Lizard, but I haven’t found it yet. And I’m slowly approaching the end of the street.
So I haven’t found The Lizard. My quest to find some indie music is a failure. I did peer through the window of a closed music store, though.
Heading back, the sun is starting to set.
I’ve suddenly realized that there’s less than a week left in my trip.
I’m sitting in some park, listening to the birds. While I recognize some of the calls, most of the birds sound really different than what I’m normally used to.
Thunder rumbles in the distance. I think there will be another storm tonight.
I’m back in the square. I hear bagpipes somewhere – the notes from the pipes are reverberating off of the walls.
Eventually, I see the piper. He’s really far away, and I have to zoom in with my camera:
The square seems pretty busy for a Wednesday night. I imagine the place gets absolutely packed on weekends.
It’s a whole spectrum of age groups out this evening. I’m also hearing a variety of languages. Polish, English, and German for starters. Italian too. Mostly white people. One or two exceptions. Some rollerbladers.
An ambulance raced by, driving through the crowded square. As it passed, I heard a trumpet playing a tune from the top of the cathedral, and then abruptly stop.
I heard the same tune over the bus radio when we first landed in Poland, but I think I forgot to write about it. It has something to do with a trumpet player trying to warn the city of invaders, and then being shot in the throat whiel playing – hence, the sudden stop.
A crowd of people has formed in front of one of the cathedrals. Lots of talk, buzzing, but no English. Not sure what’s going on. Is it a tour about to start? Church service? Mass? At 8:07PM?
I’ve noticed some noisy, high-pitched, tiny birds flying from building to building. They’re abundant. Maybe bats? I feel like an idiot trying to take a photo of them, but I do it anyways:
These little noisy birds were everywhere24-Jun-2009 15:16, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 64
The three men playing on the accordions are still there, and now that crowd is starting to move. I guess the cathedral was acting like some big meeting point for a tour group. The accordion players are doing the William Tell Overture again – they seem to have a repetoire of about 5 songs.
My notes for the day end there, but I imagine I eventually headed back to the hostel and went to sleep.
Click here to go to Part 11.5: Back to the Hostel
Click here to go back to Part 10: Journey to Krakow, Wawel Hill, and The Dragon.
Well, I just finished reading about your visit to Auschwitz Mike. That’s a tough thing to see! I think of the numerous trips we’ve taken just for pleasure and enjoyment. This is so much the opposite. But, I’m glad you went, I’m sure the memory will impact you for a life-time, and if I ever find myself with a chance to visit Poland, I know I will be compelled to visit the death camps too. It’s like a human obligation.
When you see what supposedly civilized people can do to their fellow man, and you reflect on the thin veneer of civilized behaviour that protects us from inhumanity, it’s very troubling. And we’re possibly all vulnerable. You could look at Jews being murdered in the death camps and say “There but for fortune go I”, but perhaps, you could look at a Nazi murderer and say the same thing.
Could it ever happen again? And which ones of us would be the persecuters, and which the victims?
Anyways, I can see why it took time to process all this before you carried on with the trip story.