See Krakow - Auschwitz and Birkenau (Auschwitz II)

Trip Start Aug 07, 2006
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5
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Trip End Aug 18, 2006


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Friday, August 11, 2006

The only thing occupying my mind all night were the lives lost, homes and families destroyed and the complete injustice of the situation magnified by lemmings. The words 'how to win friends and influence people' spring to my mind and it's apparent that the worlds most influential 'leaders' are those who can talk the talk. How people can be so blindedly consumed by bigotry has always been a curiousity of mine. I have no inhibitions of doing things in a traditionally unconventional method. I have no prejudice against anyone, so to me these wars around the world are all just too destructive. It is the hardest thing to come between a person and their bigotry if the notion was built on sand and not solid fact.

This morning after a long and restless night we walked back into the Jewish Quarter opposite our hostel. We found a little cafe called Moment and had some bread and eggs. This was to be the only food we would have until late evening as the day ahead was going to be long and so emotionally draining it was uncomprehendable.

At 1pm we were picked up by the See Krakow van. It took almost 2 hours to get to Auschwitz as we picked up various people from other hostels dotted about the town. One thing was certain and clear on the journey. The was no talking, no whispers or even eye contact between passengers. My stomach was tied in knots and my gut feeling was making me ask the question if I was ready to view this 'museum'.

On approaching the car park by the old German camp the mood drops to an all time low disembarking the van as silently as our journey had begun. This was to be the biggest personal journey I had to overcome. My interest in the World Wars is not something I normally talk about.. and I'm struggling to put into words the feelings we experienced this day. No film about these German concentration camps can possibly portay what it is to actually be standing on the same soil where it happened.. and what I was about to learn on my journey changed me.

The sign above the entrance, 'Work will make you free" in scawled German. Freedom for who exactly?  Walking underneath the sign brings the fences closer into view. Double wired with what used to be 220 volts passing through them, lining the way to the red bricked buildings. Guard watch points stand tall over the walkways and are situated every 100 metres around the parameter of the camp.

Blocks 1 to 28 of the red brick buildings were woken by a bell in the morning just to the right of the front entrance. The bell was rung again once in the evening to signal the end of each day. In the evening rolecall was taken for all the blocks where everyone had to be accounted for. More mental torture bestowed onto them as 10 people were choosen at random to stand at the front of the prisoners. These 10 were then hung in the gallows that stand infront of the buildings by the bell tower. It was a way to inflict fear into the rest of them, the same thing happened every night.

Inside some of these blocks magnified the horrors the prisoners had to endure. In block 5 we witnessed over 2 tonnes of original hair which was taken from the prisoners before being gassed with Cyclone B. This hair was then sent to German factories to make clothes such as stiff uniforms. We seen glasses, suitcases and shoes collected from the prisoners. Most with family names on. These people were treated like meat, all their possessions and anything which could conceivably be used for something else had been taken from them before they were 'disposed of'.

Not far from exiting Block 5 we walked towards the end building. Block 11, known as 'Death Block'. On the ground floor is afew cells to the left and a large room with a table and chairs. This is were prisoners went to 'court' to explain why they hadn't been working fast enough in the camp. There is an 'administration' room to the right.

In the second room on the left there are simply mats on the floor.  The third room was for women to undress, the forth room were men were stripped. Anyone sent to these rooms and stripped were then led out to the courtyard by a door on the left and had to stand against a wall. 'Death Wall' as it is now known. The prisoner would be shot here. Standing by this wall and looking at it for this first time with my own eyes it's an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.

Not immediately apparent, there is a set of stairs at the back of this block leading down to a dark, cold corridor. This is were prisoners were sent to 'think' after the court hearing. Around the corner from these cells are 4 'standing cells'. Many prisoners who were sent down here would die from limited air supply alone, never mind the cold. We were told of a Priest who was kept down in one of these cells. He has been starved for many days as were all who were sent down here. He was lasting longer than expected though, and the guards soon grew impatient waiting for him to die. Eventually, when another prisoner in a cell next to the Priests was to be sent to the wall to be shot, the Priest volunteered himself to go to save the prisoners life. The guards agreed as they seen him as a martyr anyway who was living longer in these conditions than expected.

There are 'dark cells' down here too. They have solid doors and tiny slits for windows. Prisoners sent to these cells didn't live past a day for once the air supply was used up that was it. The guards would sometimes put a candle in the dark cell to suck up even more of the air to make the process quicker. It's the eeriest place I've ever been. Even surrounded by the constant flow of tourists coming down here it's hard not to feel the isolation and lonliness of these cells. The knowledge that this was 'the end' and wishing for it to be over fast. I can see how people could easily die from losing the will to live and fight on like the Priest did.

We walked through to the other side of the camp to block 28. This was one of three blocks used as an infirmary. The doctors here used to sleep with the female patients and the next day the patient would be sent to the gas chamber.

People were stripped and showered before being gased. About 5kg of Cyclone B was used to gas around 700 people at a time. Their bodies were transported by carts to the incinarator. It only took about 15 minutes to kill everyone in the chamber.There were 5 furnaces in Auschwitz I and only 420 bodies could be incinerated in a day which meant that the rest had to be put outside in massive open pits. They were burned here communally. I can't believe what I learnt about what happened to the ashes of those burned. I'm writing this almost a year after my visit as I didn't want to relive the memories of Auschwitz so publicly. The ashes were used as fertiliser for prisoners to sprinkle over food crops within the camp. It's unlikely those tending these crops were aware that their 'fertiliser' had been a fellow prisoner.

It's impossible for me to explain what it was to go into the gas chamber and see how small a space it was. The two remaining furnaces in the next room. The smell is intoxicating down there. I choose to wear trainers, and I'm glad I did. It was hard enough to be standing in the chamber let alone have my own bare foot in flip flops touch the ground here. I was repulsed and didn't hang about in walking through and out of the chamber fairly quickly. It isn't somewhere anyone of sound mind could spend time loitering in.Tears pricked my eyes again standing outside the chamber.

Once everyone had congregated outside the chamber we set off down the road to Auschwitz II (Birkenau). This is where the vast majority lost their lives and the furnaces behind the sleeping quarters were apparent from the moment we passed over the famous train track. Of all the people who died here, many died from the cold of the outhouses as Poland is extremely cold in winter and single brick heating down the middle of each of these houses barely heated the air a metre from them.. the toilets were little more than holes in the ground. Anyone who has watched Schindler's List will understand that these toilets were where some children took shelter from prison guards to try and save themselves.
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