08.09.2016 - 08.09.2016
Today was the first of several days that focuses on the Holocaust, a history that is sadly unavoidable when visiting Poland.
I was picked up from my hotel around 07:30 and we started the hour-long drive out to Auschwitz. En route we watched a DVD about the Soviet liberation of the camp in late January 1945; the film interviewed the cameraman who was with the Soviets and was the first to film the camp and the survivors. It included several scenes that he filmed, many of which I had never seen before; it was not easy to watch, especially when they showed the dead bodies (and the Soviet doctors performing autopsies; this was used as evidence against the Nazis after the war).
We arrived at the Auschwitz I camp and I was surprised how much the surrounding town had built up around the camp. During the Nazi era, nothing was allowed within 40km of the camp complex. This was to help keep the activities of the camp secret. When the camp was being built, the Nazis relocated the Polish population and cleared away the buildings they left behind. The Auschwitz I camp, though, utilized the buildings that were already on the site.
I was surprised by how small the Auschwitz I camp was. This was the first camp of the larger complex (Auschwitz II - Birkenau would grow to be about 20 times larger than Auschwitz I). Our group met with our camp tour guide and we were given individual headphones and receivers so we could hear her speaking as we walked around together.
We made our entry into the camp through the main gate with the famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign ("Work sets you free"). Walking past the barbed wire fencing and entering the camp proper was somewhat eerie, knowing that thousands of people had made this same walk and had never left the camp alive.
We made our way through several of the camp blocks, which had been converted into museums. There were several pictures and artifacts from the camp on display, as well as a map of the European camp complex that fed Auschwitz. There was an interesting glass container on display - our guide explained that it contained the ashes of some of the camp victims. There was a display case with a small metal container and dozens of small pellets next to it - Zyklon-B gas pellets and the container that it was transported in. Next to this was a larger case full of empty Zyklon-B containers from the camp.
There was one room where pictures were forbidden: on display was a fraction of the human hair that was found when the camp was liberated. There was one display with the hair and an example of the cloth fabric that was made using the hair. The primary exhibit was a large room full of human hair; the mound was immense. After this we were shown a room with several suitcases and dozens of shoes that were taken from the new arrivals at the camp. The final room showcasing the looting the Nazis carried out contained hundreds of pots, pans, and other kitchen tools.
The next block building was the so-called "Death Block" where several prisoners would be kept before being sentenced to execution. The walls were lined with the ID photos that the camp guards used to take of the new arrivals (this process would be replaced by tattooing the inmates' numbers on their arms). The photos had their birth date, occupation, date of arrival at the camp, and date of death. So many of the people died within only a few months (a year max) after arriving at the camp. Seeing all of their pictures put a more personal touch to the horrors of the camp. One photo really struck me: it was of a woman who was grinning in her photo; it was the only one I saw that showed any emotion (the rest were dead-pan stares). It made me wonder what made her grin in the photo: defiance against the Nazi cruelty? Ignorance as to what was in store for her?
The basement of the Death Block was the only other area where photos were forbidden. We were able to see the cell where a Franciscan monk was placed to starve to death; he volunteered to take the place of a fellow camp inmate who was sentenced to starvation. The monk survived for an unbelievably long time and the Nazis eventually had him killed. The other inmate survived the camps.
We were also able to see some of the standing cells: small, windowless rooms of 3m by 3m where the guards would force four or five people to stand in overnight. To enter the cell, the inmates had to crawl through a small door along the floor. The inmates would often die of suffocation; if an inmate survived the night, they would be sent to work the next day and be brought back to the cell the next night; this cycle would continue until they died.
In a courtyard next to the Death Block was the execution wall (today it is a reconstruction). This black wall was where the executions would take place. The block building next to this one had it's windows blocked out from the outside so the inmates couldn't see what was happening (though they could of course hear the gunshots). Up to 200 people could be executed here each day.
Next we saw the roll call square and the small guard tower for the guard responsible for the roll call. It was here that the inmates were counted every morning and evening. If there were missing people or any inmates committed any infractions, they could be forced to stand in this square for hours; the longest time spent standing was 19 hours.
There was one somewhat good sight that we got to see, if there's anything good to see at such a place: the gallows where the first commandant of the camp, Rudolf Höss, was hanged after his trial. He left the camp in 1943 and went into hiding after the war; thankfully he was soon captured and brought back to Poland for trial and execution. He was brought to Auschwitz for his execution; a fitting place for him to meet his fate.
We made our way through the camp to our final stop: the gas chamber and the crematorium. This facility wasn't destroyed by the Nazis when they evacuated the camp, so we were able to see everything. The gas chamber in this camp wasn't disguised as a shower, that was saved for Birkenau and other death camps. We saw the holes in the ceiling where the gas pellets would be dropped into the chamber. A door opened directly into the crematorium where the bodies would be burned. I found myself wondering how many bodies each of the ovens could hold at a time: the gas chamber could kill a massive number of people in 20-30 minutes, but the ovens seems quite small to handle that kind of volume. It's scary to think of such a methodical murder and disposal of human beings.
We made our way out of the Auschwitz I camp and then drove over to the Auschwitz II - Birkenau camp complex.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is the camp that everyone thinks of when they speak of "Auschwitz" - the train track leading into the camp; the deciding area where the guards would point to the left or right (the gas chamber or the camp); row after row of barracks.
We entered the camp along the train tracks running through the main gate. The tracks ran into the middle of the camp: on one side was the original camp area (later turned into the women's camp), on the other side was the enlarged camp area (expanded into seven different small camps for different prisoner groups). Along the train tracks was one cattle car - an original car that was used to transport the prisoners to the camp. The car was amazingly small; to think of 60+ people crammed into such a place for days at a time is unthinkable.
The larger camp area is largely in ruins now; the block buildings had been built of wood and were burned down by the Nazis when they evacuated. The only things that remain are the foundations and the chimneys. In the women's camp are several brick buildings that had survived; the bricks used for these blocks came from the former Polish homes that were demolished to build the camp.
We walked along the train tacks, down the path "to the left" that thousands of prisoners had made over 70 years ago. At the end of the path were the ruins of two more crematoriums; the Nazis blew up the buildings prior to evacuating the camp in 1945. Much of the complex is still visible and the ruins have been left untouched. We could see the long room where the prisoners would undress; the would turn into a side room where they would be gassed; the bodies would be brought up on a lift to the ovens that were above ground.
Between the two ruins is a beautiful memorial to the victims. The various sculptures are designed to represent the burial markers for each of the areas where the victims came from. At one end of the memorial was a sculpture that was supposed to represent the oven chimney. Along the memorial were signs, all stating the same thing in different languages (one sign for each language spoken by the various victims).
We walked into the women's camp, walking among the rows of blocks. On the way we passed by a small memorial and a pool of water. The water was pooled in an area where the ashes of victims were buried; now the ashes are in the water.
Inside the women's camp we were able to enter one of the blocks - the one for children. Most of the children who came to the camp were immediately sent to the gas chamber, but those who weren't stayed in this special block for them. We were able to see the crude bunk beds where they would be crowded into. One inmate was allowed to paint some happy pictures in the block for the children and the paintings are still on display.
This concluded our visit to the Auschwitz camp complex. It was a sad, depressing and very moving couple of hours. I'd visited the Dachau camp outside of Munich in 2001 and this brought back many memories of my time visiting that camp.
We arrived back to Krakow shortly after 14:00 and I spent the afternoon walking around the old town area. I stopped at a Georgian restaurant for a late lunch. I ordered a meat dish with some rice; as a starter they brought me some traditional Georigan bread and sauces (spicy, mayo-based, and garlic).
After lunch I did some more exploring and saw some more street performers around the main square. One group was dressed in traditional Polish clothes, playing some pretty music and a woman was signing with them. I stopped to listen to them for several minutes.
I finally stopped by Starbucks to relax with a coffee and read. I treated myself to a pumpkin-spice frapuccino! I spent some time reading before finally heading back to my hotel for the night. On the way back I found a large sculpture of a head in the main square; I'd walked by this area yesterday and didn't see it (not sure if I was just oblivious or if it was moved there today).
I did venture to the shopping mall near the train station during the afternoon as well. My beard trimmer finally died early the morning and I needed to find a replacement. The razor itself still works, but the charger broke. I plugged it in to charge before I showered, planning to let it charge during the day. After the shower, right before I left for the tour, I noticed a strange smell and saw that the charger light wasn't actually on, despite being plugged in. The smell was coming from the plug and when I pulled it out, it was very hot. I'm not sure what happened, but I decided not to try plugging it in again. Thankfully I found a new razor for less than $10 USD!