Monday, November 25, 2013
To continue our trend of using this trip to learn about atrocities people have committed against each other over time (Cambodia's killing field and S-21 prison, Beijing's Tiananmen square), we chose to take a day trip from Krakow to see Auschwitz.
The camp is about 1.5 hours by bus from Krakow, in the town of Oswicim (Auschwitz is the German word for this village), and is made up of 3 separate sites (Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II - Birkenau, and Monowice), but only 2 survived WWII. Although it is free to see the sites and remember those who died there, it is required that everyone pay for a guided tour, which turned out to be a really good thing. The tour started by walking thought the famous Arbei Macht Frei ("Work Will Set You Free") gates and onto the grounds. We visited at perhaps the worst time of year, on a gorgeous fall day. With the sun shining and the leaves changing colors, it looked more like a college campus than a memorial to a horrific time in history. And it was especially challenging to imagine what it was like for the millions who were sent here in the middle of a bitter winter, with only a thin pair of pajamas to keep warm.
We toured through the Auschwitz I camp, which now stands as a memorial to the millions of Jews and others who were killed here, and is described as the worlds largest cemetery, as the ashes of the bodies burned here were spread all over the grounds. We saw piles (which as a word doesn't begin to describe the sheer amount) of suitcases, shoes, eyeglasses, prosthetic limbs, and hair. Photos of the inmates line the hallway walls, with the name, arrival dates and date of death. Inmates who arrived in spring and summer sometimes stayed a few months before death, but those who arrived in the middle of winter rarely made it more than a night or two.
We then took a shuttle to Birkenau, the much larger camp that was built to overcome the technical limitations the Nazis had regarding the ability to kill as many people as possible. We had seen the movie Schindler's List, where you see the prisoners taken off the trains onto the platform where a doctor assesses whether they are fit to work or if they would just go straight to the gas chamber. Despite already seeing photos and film of this camp, we found the sheer size to be staggering. On either size of the train platform, there are rows of bunkhouses stretching as far as the eye can see. Even in early fall, the bunkhouses were freezing, and though there was a fireplace in the center of each, we were told those were only for show in case inspectors came through and needed to see humane conditions.
It is overwhelming to imagine how many people perished here because of hate and fear. Our tour guide has been giving tours for almost 20 years and she said it sometimes made her sad but mostly reminded her of the need to be joyful and grateful of life while we have it. Although this wasn't an uplifting day, it was a very important trip to make to see the horrors that can transpire from fear of others and fear of the unknown, as a reminder not to fear people we just don't know enough about.