Auschwitz-Birkenau

Trip Start Mar 16, 2004
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Trip End Jun 13, 2004


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Flag of Poland  ,
Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Auschwitz is a name I think most people are familiar with, and even if they are not sure exactly where it is, they know what it represents. Located about 60km west of Krakow in southern Poland, it and the much larger Birkinau a few km away, were the scene of one of man kinds darkest hours. One and a half million people were systematically murdered here, 90% of them Jews. I now firmly believe that everyone should visit these camps and see for themselves.

Cycling towards Oswiecim I crossed several railway tracks, I thought about the wagon loads of people deported to Auschwitz. Oswiecim is the original Polish name for the area, the Nazis called it Auschwitz. I arrived about teatime on Sunday 9th May. Opposite the car park for the museum I saw signs for a campsite. Following them led me to the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer. The large lawn doubles as a campsite. The sun shone as I pitched my tent.

the Auschwitz Museum is only a 20 minute walk from the Centre and I went there early next morning. I signed up for the 11am English speaking tour. As it was now only 10am I bought the excellent little guide book and went into the camp. I had been told that the tour did not visit the blocks which house the exhibitions maintained by the governments of the various countries whose citizens died here. I spent almost the whole hour in the Polish block. For me it was extremely educational as I have never studied much history let alone history of WWII.

It seems that Nazi Germany and Russia had signed a deal to carve up Poland between them. When the German army invaded the Poles fought the best they could in a hopeless defense of their country. They only saw defeat as temporary and their armed forces reorganised abroad, first in France, then Britain and fought as a Polish army throughout the war. According to one notice, it was Polish intelligence who broke the Enigma code.

Included in the tour is the 20 minute black and white documentary shown in the little cinema. Much of the footage was shot in the first days after the Soviet army liberated the camp. It shows dazed and bewildered, emaciated prisoners wondering what was going on. The film is very disturbing to watch. Some people coughed and shuffled in their seats during it and I saw a few people wiping their eye.

After the film you exit directly into the daylight, it takes a moment to adjust. the walking tour starts from the information area. When I saw the number of people waiting for the guide I was a little disappointed and thought it would be a bit of a disaster. However at 11.30 a guide appeared and called us to the exit. As people went through we were counted into groups of 15 or so and each assigned a guide. It was very professional.

Our guide was Yvonne, mid forties?, smartly dressed, and with a friendly but serious face that told us immediately that this was no ordinary tourist attraction.

Auschwitz is one of those places where you really don't know how to behave. there was not much talking within the group and everyone listened intently as Yvonne told us the story of Auschwitz-Birkinau.

Infront of the main gates we paused and she told us that the camp was originally a Polish army barracks which fell to the German army. In 1940 it became a detention centre for Poliah political prisoners, but over time the Nazis began to deport Soviet POWs, Gypsies, Czechs, Yugoslavs, French, Germans and Jews to the camp from all over Europe.

When the SS wanted a concentration camp this site was chosen as it was remote and had good rail links.

ABove the gate a sign reads "Arbeit macht frei", "Freedom through Work". The cruel cynicism of this is underlined by the fact that the camp commander greeted new arrivals with the promise that the only way out was through the chimney of the crematorium. EAch day the prisoners were marched through the gates to work. An Orchestra played music as they passed, it helped them march in time and made them easier to count.

The site was made a museum in 1947 by the Polish Government and is now on UNESCOs World Heritage List.

There was a lot of activity around the camp, numerous tour groups were being shown around, and many people chose to explore on their own. The groups ranged from schoolchildren to students to quite old people. I wondered if any of the men had fought during the Second World War. This is one place I think mass tourism is a good thing, people need to learn about this and it gives a feel for how the place looked when up to 20,000 people were detained here. Enclosed by a double fence of vicious electrified barbed wire and watched over by SS guards in wooden watch towers.

Yvonne led us through "roll call square' where prisoners were made to stand for hours on end in all weathers, burning sunshine, freezing snow, often in bare feet and always in the thin prison uniforms. The slightest movement was brutally punished.

The museum has various exhibitions about the camp in some of the red brick blocks that make up the camp.The Nazis..... The museum tries to convey the immense scale of what happened, but in such a way that the victims can be seen as humans and not a statistic. The corridors are lined with the photographs of prisoners taken as they were registered by the camp officials. Their name, profession, date of birth, date of entry and date of death is shown. Most died within three months due to a cruel combination of starvation rations, extremely hard work and executions, both of individuals and groups.. Eventually the Nazis stopped taking photographs because it was too expensive!!

There are displays of thousands of everyday items that people brought with them, they had been told that they were going to be resettled, toothbrushes, combs, kitchen utensils, spectacles. In one area 2 tonnes of the 7 tonnes of hair found in the camp on liberation is on display. It is all a uniform colour, the gas destroys the pigment. The hair was apparently used to make cloth. Yvonne said several times that the Nazis wasted nothing. I think she should have added except people.

In virtual silence we followed as she showed us the conditions in which people slept, on straw covered floors, on thin straw mattresses, in triple bunks, 5 to a bunk. The woefully inadequate washrooms where it was "impossible to catch a drop of water". Disease was a serious problem.

This was only our introduction to the camp. Block 11 was known as the block of Death. Inside Gestapo police courts met and in a couple of hours would hand out hundreds of death sentences for immediate action. We filed past the cells in the basement where prisoners were crowded into tiny spaces. Up to 40 in a 4m x 4m cell. Even more cruel were the punishment cells were 5 prisoners were stuffed into a brick cell a yard square. It was entered by crawling through a gap at the bottom. The only ventilation was a 5cm x 5cm hole. Prisoners couldn't sit or lie down, slept and often couldn't breathe, resulting in death by suffocation. Those still alive in the morning were send out to work and returned in the evening.

It was in a cell in this basement that Fr Mazimillian Kolbe died after volunteering to take the place of a condemned man. The man who he saved lived into his nineties.

This same basement was also the location of the first experimental mass murder by gas, 600 Russian prisoners. The precursor to the huge gas chambers at Birkenau.

The "Wall of Death" was located in a sealed of courtyard between blocks 10 and 11. Thousands of prisoners were shot and tortured here.

Birkenau is about 3km from Auschwitz and we went there by shuttle bus. Auschwitz was too small for the Nazi's purposes so they cleared a village, demolished it and built Birkenau, 25 time the size of Auschwitz. Hundreds of acres devoted to killing people on an industrial scale.

We entered via the gate beside the railway track. After seeing the dehumanising sanitary conditions, toilets, sleeping and washing, we walked up to the platform where the trains arrived. By the time they arrived here many people had spent a week to ten days sealed into a railway wagon.. On the platform a doctor separated the passengers by pointing left or right, like the Roman emperors deciding a mans fate by a twist of his thumb. The old, infirm, and children were directed straight to the gas chambers, the healthy to the work camp where they would be worked to death. The gas chambers are now in ruins as the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence of what they had done.

The camp stretches for hundreds of metres on either side of the railway. One side still has many barracks, the other had wooden barracks which were dismantled after the war. Only the brick chimney stacks remain. the prisoners were rarely given fuel for heating.

Our tour ended by the International Monument to the victims, thought to be about 1.5 million. No on knows the exact figure as so many were sent straight from the train to their death. The tour is a s shocking as it is educational, strong on facts and figures.

However it had raised many questions in my mind, did the prisoners never fight back? What where the circumstances that lead to such genocide, ok a madman can dream up the idea, but to get a system of thousands of people involved? When did the rest of the world know about the concentration camps? AS I said I have never studied history and many people out there have probably tried to answer these questions before.

After the tour I spent an hour exploring a few parts of Birkinau that we did not visit as a group. I wandered past the sewage works and up to the shower block where prisoners for the workcamp and there clothes were disinfected. All the while sang in the trees of the forest, woodpeckers drummed and fieldfares feed on the grass. No doubt as they did 60 years ago when people were forced into the ruined gas chambers nearby.

Next morning I returned early to the museum at Auschwitz. I wanted to get a better look at some of the exhibits and info when there were fewer people around, and to see more of the national exhibitions which the tour does not include.

I found the answers to a few of my simpler questions at least. Upstairs in block 11 there is an exhibition about the camp resistance. They saw much of their role as the recording of crimes committed by the SS and who did what. Through contacts with the Plish resistance they smuggled info to the free world. They also helped plan escapes. the escapees carried first hand reports to the allies.

On the walls are photocopies of reports about the camps printed during the war, the Polish Fornightly review had a report in 1941, there is a Report by the US administration in 1944 and in the same year a report in the Los Angeles Times. So the world did know.

There was also a prisoner rebellion at one stage in which a crematorium was destroyed.

the Nazis robbed, brutalized, murdered, and desecrated people. They tried to dehumanise them. It would be easy to believe they succeeded. They didn't! Resistence to the Nazis included underground recitals of poetry and music, artists worked when they could and the strong helped the weak. You have the case of Fr Kolbe sacrificing his life to save someone else.

By far the best of the national exhibits is the Hungarian one. It is innovative, combining film footage use of computers, excellent lighting and beautifully designed glass information stands. It pulls no punches as it describes how in 1944 over 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered at Auschwitz-Birkinau. That is well after the Allies knew about the camps. I also learned a little about the ghetoising of Jews in Budapest.

I had intended to spent Tuesday afternoon in the city of Oswiciem itself. I think it is a little sad that so many visitors arrive and I'd say most never see the town let alone stay there. However a violent thunderstorm of rainforest proportions put paid to that. Torrential rain and marble sized hail stones.

I did pass though it on Wednesday morning as I headed for Krakow. What can I say, its an ordinary town with an extraordinary past. Earlier as I left the Centre for Prayer and Dialogue I asked the receptionist what people thought of the history of the area and what they said to the children when they asked why so many people came here. She replied that many people asked her how could she live near such a place, (thats not what I asked). She said people were used to it, it was "normal". She couldn't remember what she had been told at school.

At the church in Oswiecim I saw a statue of Fr Kolbe outside. I stopped for a look. I noticed the decorated bronze doors and went for a look. One door showed Fr Kolbe radiant above a scene of prisoners and their Nazi guards, including fierce dogs. The people clearly do not try and hide what happened here.

Auschwitz certainly made an impression on me, you'd never guess would you. I certainly intend to learn more about the whole thing when I get home.

I know that the immediacy of what I saw here will fade as I travel on. However I hope I never forget it, somehow I don't think that will be possible.
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