Even though a couple of the exhibits at Wawel Castle were free on Monday, I decided to skip them. I figured it would be pretty much like any other castle or museum, just a collection of antiquities of the monarch.
Instead, I woke up early, went to the train station, and bought two tickets: one for the 7 AM train the next day going to Prague, my next destination, and one ticket for a shuttle bus that morning to a town 1 1/2 hours east of Krakow called Oswiecim. When the Germans took control of Poland during World War II, they gave it another name: Auchwitz.
By the time we left the station the mini-bus — almost identical to the one that brought me to Krakow — was packed. Still, the bus driver stopped a several more times, and by the time we left the city limits, there were people standing in the cramped aisle.
The driver dropped us off at the end of a long drive leading away from the museum. I walked to the main entrance and bypassed a host of large tour groups who were getting organized with tour guides and headsets. The museum and grounds were free of charge, but it seemed most people opted to hire a tour guide, or they came in groups so large, they were required to. I set off on my own, and first approached the iron gates that lead into the compound.
Like many other concentration camps set up by the Nazis, they are crowned with the phrase ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, which literally translates to ‘work makes one free’.
The camp remains in much of the same state it was in when the Russians found it at the end of the war. Of course, mother nature has stuck with her own intentions and I imagine many of the trees and maintained lawns weren’t there 60 years ago. A map at the main center suggested a route around the buildings which first stop at the general exhibits and then curve around to some of the other areas.
I won’t go into too much detail of what the exhibits showed. Most of them were items and documents that were recovered, along with examples of the conditions in which prisoners were held, illustrated through restored rooms and cells.
Between the four general exhibit halls and building 11, or the ‘Death Block’, was a small courtyard, at the end of which was the execution wall. It’s quite chilling to step through the low arch into the the enclosure and follow in the last steps of so many people. The wall was separate from the wall of the compound itself, occupying about half of the length. It was black and looked almost like a mesh of several diffent kinds of material, like charred wood and stone mixed with tar. It was grotesque, and the feelings that went through you as you looked at it were just as frightening. I imagined being marched there, naked, beaten, starved and abused, past the bodies of those who had marched before you, for one last final and total act of pure hate.
The Death Block showed examples of the rooms prisoners were kept in, where their judgments were made, where they were tortured and where they stripped before being executed. I walked to another row of cell blocks and came to the memorials dedicated to the different nationalities of people who were brought to Auchwitz, such as the Polish, Italians, Russians and of course the Jews, each housed in its own block. I only visited the Jewish exhibit, but it alone was powerful enough to understand the implications for all those who suffered at the camp. Unfortunately, many of the placards and material were in Hungarian or Hebrew, but the photographs needed no translation. There was one that made my stomach tie up in a knot, a picture of a man kneeling in front of a grave, with a German SS officer standing behind him, holding a gun to his head. The man on his knees was staring into the camera with an expression of such pain and fear, I looked into his eyes for a long time, trying to understand how anyone could endure so much.
Further down the same row, on the west side of the camp was the crematorium and gas chamber. It was heartbreaking to step into that room and know that the people who were led in there were told that they were being given showers to clean and disinfect them. They even had dummy showerheads installed.
I walked back to the main iron gates and contemplated walking around the grounds some more, but eventually decided against it. Auchwitz is a powerful place, whether or not you see a single picture or read the information card near an exhibit. It’s sickening in its efficiency and hauntingly well preserved. It would have been nice if there was more information for English-speaking visitors, without paying for a tour guide, but at the same time, it made the camp seem that much more intimidating and incomprehensible.
I went across the road to a bistro and had a bite to eat before setting off on a 3km walk down the road to Brzezinka, or Auchwitz II – Birkenau. The day had become quite pleasant and I was even sweating by the time I reached.
While Auchwitz was primarily a receiving area, Birkenau was where most of the detainees were kept. It’s a massive compound that only truly reveals its size as you step through the entrance gates. The railroad tracks led right into the camp and down the center, so that the trains carrying prisoners could carry them directly into the camp.
And whereas Auchwitz tells you the story of persecution at the hands of the Nazis, Birkenau makes you feel it. It’s a very scary place, even at one in the afternoon on a sunny day. You’re surrounded by tour groups and other visitors, but it’s still deathly quiet and at the same time overwhelming. I walked around and through some of the barracks and saw where prisoners were made to sleep on wooden platforms, 4-5 at a time.
I walked to the end of the rail tracks and saw the international memorial dedicated to those who lost their lives at Auchwitz and Birkenau. Around the area were also marked areas where ashes or human remains had been dumped, and the remnants of the crematoria and gas chambers.
There were small plaques erected around the grounds which gave you some information about the lives of prisoners, or the significance of what you were looking at. Outside one of the crematoria, was a poster of women who had just arrived, clutching their children and waiting to be led into the gas chamber. It was another one of those photos that you couldn’t help look at, into the confused-yet-unsuspecting faces of children, their concerned mothers and the grandmothers who probably somehow knew.
The genius and efficiency of the crematoria were diabolical. The prisoners would be led to an underground anteroom, forced to undress and then taken into the gas chamber, where Cyclone B would be released and perform its job within minutes. Then the bodies would be moved along the assembly line, to the furnaces and then out the other end, the ashes to be strewn onto the ground. In one of the exhibits at Auchwitz, it talked about how because of the number of people who were put into the gas chambers and the amount of poison needed, it is likely that some of the prisoners weren’t even dead by the time they were cremated.
The wooded area beyond the memorial was almost beautiful and calm, serving only as a contrasting reminder of its location. Birkenau is big enough to walk around for hours, but I’d had enough. I walked back along the train tracks to the main building, saw a couple more barracks and latrines, and then left.
I made it just in time for the bus back to Krakow, which was thankfully a large coach bus, big enough to accomdate the 30 people who were waiting. It was a somber ride back as everyone considered what they saw and held their own moments of silence and remembrance. One of the first quotes you see as you walk into Auchwitz is the age-old one about those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it. In many ways I think it’s true, a trip to one of these camps where so many people were brutalized and killed stirs a storm of emotions inside you, many which will invevitably stay with you forever. But at the same time, I can’t say that I understood everything that I saw at the two camps. In one of the exhibits, an article from a 1941 American newspaper was displayed: the story described the conditions at Auchwitz, based on smuggled reports from insiders and those belonging to the rebellion movement, in sickening and horrifying detail. More than 65 years later, reading the same article, it was inconceivable to me that such atrocities could have occurred, with the knowledge of the Western world. It felt like a bad dream that the world could still wake up from, but one of those dreams that would still haunt your waking hours as much as it did at night. And whether or not we have understood our past — and I’m sure there are many who would argue we haven’t — maybe those memories are enough to make sure we do don’t repeat it.