My notes for the day end there, but I imagine I eventually headed back to the hostel and went to sleep.
It turns out that my notes for the next day start with a recap on what happened the night before. So I can fill in a few blanks here.
Back to the Hostel
I got back to the hostel and found it mostly empty. Most of the others must have been out doing something else. Chantelle was there in the common room though, and we filled each other in on what we’d done that day.
After that, we brewed some tea, and played a version of Scrabble where we can make up words, so long as we can define them in a funny way. It was good times. As we were playing, more people started to come back and fill up the common room.
I had some jam on bread as a snack, and talked with Peter, Alex, Tara, and Tom about politics (mainly US foreign policy). Somehow, Sonia convinced me to put some cheese on my jam sandwich. I noted in my journal that I didn’t think it added much in the way of good flavouring.
It turns out that Chantelle and I hadn’t been the only ones in the hostel – Ryan and Jiv had been there sleeping. They were both feeling pretty sick. There was some kind of illness going around, and my throat was starting to get sore, too.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
My research proposal is going through ethics review, in order to make sure that I’m not going to blow things up (or hurt anybody if I do)
While my paperwork is reviewed, I’m refining my procedure and apparatus. Better and better.
I’ve been accepted into Google Summer of Code this year – I’ll be working on Review Board. Details about my project will be the subject of an upcoming post, which I will toss up shortly.
I may or may not be co-directing a radio play. I’ll let you know.
The MarkUs team is about to release version 0.7, and a fresh batch of Summer students will soon be here at UofT to work on it!
I have not forgotten about the UCDPtrip to Poland. I still have to tell you what we saw and did at Auschwitz. Cripes – it’s almost a year since I returned, and I’m only half-way through the whole story. And there’s a ton more to tell. Coming soon.
At 5:10AM, a huge clap of thunder woke us all with a start. Groaning, moaning, and uttering expletives… we tried to go back to sleep, but the thunder storm and heavy rain raged all around us.
And then, eventually, the storm moved off…finally, we could sleep…
…but before it could happen, one by one, our alarm clocks started to go off. It was time to leave.
Grumbling, lights flicked on, and we headed to the washrooms and showers…
A few people reported that there was some food missing from the hostel kitchen. Tom and Tara reported half a carton of chocolate milk had been pilfered, and half of Linn’s salami was missing.
Apparently, some of the guests thought we wouldn’t mind sharing. Or there was a mix up.
Either way, it didn’t improve anyone’s mood.
Not long after, we packed up our stuff, got on the bus, and left Wroclaw for Krakow.
We had been on the bus for a few hours, and I had been trying (unsuccessfully) to take a nap. I eventually gave up, and I joined in with a bunch of the group who were quizzing each other on Canadian provinces and U.S. states.
It turns out that I know relatively little about Canadian provinces, and next to nothing about U.S. states. Hmph.
Eventually, we pulled over at a rest stop. I took the opportunity to try some of the local junk food, and purchased two chocolate bars – a “Corny Big” and a “3Bit”. They tasted better than they sound.
Tamara also took the opportunity to tell us how the rest of the trip was going to work. She also lightly condemned the last hostel, which was clearly not to her liking.
While talking about the rest of the trip, she mentioned that she had arranged for us to visit Auschwitz for the next morning. The group got quiet. Tamara also said that she had left open the possibility of visiting the Wieliczka Salt Mines after Auschwitz, but that it would really depend on our mood. We would probably be upset after Auschwitz, and would want to go home and rest.
We arrived at the hostel around 11:30PM, and man, what a difference! The place was absolutely spartan, the rooms were gorgeous, the views were incredible… we were quite happy, as you can see:
Yev and Alexi, posing in the Krakow hostel!23-Jun-2009 06:38, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 3.15, 7.1mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 156
Yes, it was a welcome change. In case you’re interested, the hostel was called “Cracow Hostel Apartment“. You can see more photos of the place if you click these words – but having been there, it’s pretty clear that these photos try to make the rooms seem bigger with lens effects.
So we had nice rooms. But guess what?
Peter got the pent house! The lucky guy got the hostel apartment! The room was incredible! It was too bad we were only staying a few nights.
The hostel was particularly awesome because it was in the Market Square. Here are a few shots of the view from the common room window:
Our view from the Krakow hostel common room window23-Jun-2009 07:16, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.91, 6.2mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 64
At the castle gate, we bought tickets to enter, and to see the “Dragon’s Den” underneath the castle grounds. We were stoked.
2:45PM – Wawel Castle
High security. Metal detectors. Armed guards. This place wasn’t taking any chances. There was a very strict code of conduct in there – no sitting, no leaning on walls, keep quiet, and absolutely no pictures. So I just took notes.
So I can’t show you what it was like inside, but I can try to describe it:
It was a museum. Stone and hardwood floors. Quiet like a tomb. Marble staircases. Wooden cabinets, uncomfortable looking wooden chairs, wooden tables…tapestries, beds. Old paintings.
Tamara told us a story about how when the Germans invaded, relics and artifacts were smuggled out of Europe. It turns out that some relics from Wawel Castle eventually found themselves holed up with a cloister of nuns in Canada. Go figure.
Everything was ornate, and gold rimmed. Even the ceilings were covered in gold.
Oh the hell with it – so I couldn’t take any photos: that doesn’t mean I can’t scrape some from off the Internet. Here’s what I was seeing, care of this website:
You probably can just barely see them, but those are human heads carved and painted into the ceiling. Just staring down. And one has his mouth gagged. It was creepy. Apparently, those heads were carved by Sebastian Tauerbach back in the 1500s.
The castle wasn’t the only thing on Wawel Hill. Inevitably, there was a church – Wawel Cathedral.
So, interesting theatre connection with Wawel Cathedral:
There was a theatre artist who wanted to do a show in the cathedral. His idea for the play: that all of the tapestries and statues would come to life on the night before Easter to demonstrate the resurrection of Christ. It was like Night at the Museum, but with 100% more Jesus.
Anyhow, Grotowki’s Akropolis caused ripples in the theatre world, and was a shining example of the “poor theatre” that he was striving to achieve.
For the people who don’t study drama, Grotowski, Poor Theater, and Akropolis are a pretty big deal. I’ve seen a taping of Akropolis a few times…it’s one of the few recordings of Grotowski’s work.
Anyhow, that’s the connection. We were inside the cathedral where that whole thing began.
Walking through the cathedral. Once again, I couldn’t take any photos.
Description: high ceilings, gold, tapestries, stained glass. Gothic architecture. Gold alter. Chandaliers. Ornate, dark woodwork. Coffins and tombs. Sarcophagi.
There was a narrow, claustrophobic staircase that led up to the cathedral bell tower. It was windy up there, and the bells were absolutely massive. Huge cast-iron things. Mother of all bells. I couldn’t help myself – I whipped out my camera like a gunslinger, and snuck a shot:
Yeah, I know – doesn’t look that impressive. It’s due to lack of size reference points. You’ve just got to trust me.
There were tombs in the basement. Thick marble slabs, stone… there were some disturbingly small sarcophagi too.
The tombs got more modern the farther through we went – towards the end, we saw tombs with the occupants’ firearms strapped to the wall.
Maybe I’ve seen too many Indiana Jones movies, but I couldn’t help feeling that there were probably secret passages all over the place.
Finally, we got out of the catacombs into the fresh air. We hung around outside, and waited for stragglers. I took the opportunity to take a photo of some kids who were clearly disobeying the “don’t step on the grass” rule:
These kids were totally ignoring the "do not step on grass" rule. They were never seen again.23-Jun-2009 11:46, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 64
Rain started to fall. It was time to get indoors. As a torrent of rain started to come down, we found a restaurant, and took shelter.
And then it started to hail for a bit. Strange.
The restaurant we had chosen was pretty fancy. I ordered what eventually turned out to be chicken shish kabab. For the price…not that great. But whatever, we were inside and dry. And I was full.
The group was pretty tired at this point. The lack of sleep from the night before, and the long tour of the day had worn us out. After we had finished eating, Tamara told us that we had the rest of the day to ourselves.
A pack of us left the restaurant to explore the Jewish Quarter. Eventually, we found ourselves back in the Market Square, where I promptly ordered myself a lemon sorbet. I missed the ice cream from Wroclaw, but the lemon sorbet was amazing. Sonia took the opportunity to buy some zapiekanka.
Have I told you about zapiekanka? I don’t think I have. Polish equivalent to a hot dog. Long half of a baguette, topped with melted cheese and mushrooms, and a long strip of ketchup. I liked ’em.
Some of us went back to the hostel. I hung around the Market Square for a little bit and snapped a few photos:
Poland is under construction everywhere. There are cranes all over the place.23-Jun-2009 14:55, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 3.0, 6.5mm, 0.014 sec, ISO 64