Auschwitz... Birkenau... Culture

Trip Start Jul 01, 2006
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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

January 15

I manage to reach the Youth Centre where Florian is volunteering and finally spend the evening there with and other germans who were all volunteering either at the camp or at the Youth Centre. Great evening, discussing about the different influence and life of this well... well known area (Auschwitz!)
I learned a lot of different point of view about the local life, about the WWII history and about the soldier who were here.
That was really culturally educating!

Later Marcin (HC: matdem - my host from tomorrow) called to make sure everything was alright.

Then the evening went around some Gluehwein before going to sleep in their rented flat room... in a typical Polish suburban are of appartment tower made of gypse and where coal is still the heating method (the wind and more chill winter feeling was felt... and the coal was smelled in the air!)
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January 16

A whole day visiting the village of Oswiecim, it was sunny and chill but that felt great. I walked around in that tiny town who has been witness of such an horrible moment of history just at her doorsteps. Still everything is beautiful in the historic centre and besides some notes where it said that 'here stood a jewish building', Oswiecim is a calm and untouch town.

I enjoyed my time at the sun, looking at everyone walking in this odd city (odd as from its history) and every corner and dead end of it, imagining that something obviously happened here 60 years ago.

Later by the end of the afternoon, I walked back to the Youth Centre where I met with Tilman (Florian's flatmate who is also volunteer from Germany) (HC: kartoffelmaus) and I went back into town with him to the place he is actually volunteering: The Jewish Centre at the old Synagogue of town. So I got a little explanation of things, watched a video there and talked with him. Tilman really has some positive vibes and really is a friendly guy... it was also really interesting to talk with him.

Marcin called and we were going to meet him, then I finally went to get my bag and moved to his place after having done some grocery at the Lidl. I cooked something, his friend came by and we had some Zubrvka (Special Vodka) and discussed all evening by. After the previous night, spent with Germans talking about the town and its history it was even more educative now talking about the history of Oswiecim with people who were actually born in this city... and had to get through the stigmate of its history. For them it is history, but it is also their hometown and people live in it.
Amazing moment!

At last I got the chance to do my laundry!
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January 17

I spent the whole day visiting Auschwitz-I, the camp was at walking distance from Marcin place and I was amazed by how it look. The barracks are purely brick house, looking a bit scandinavic, 2 storey surrounded by fence. I learned that prior the war it used to be a Polish military Casern.

The camp itself isn't huge, not as we could expect. But it still include several buildings, but the museum itself (the exhibits in the different block buildings) is extremely huge. You could easily spend 2 days learning about everything.

So obviously I lacked time, I didn't even see the Crematorium...
But I was still amazed by the fact that it is so close the city, in fact nearly surrounded by it and that it is so... clean actually.
One great thing was that by visiting the camp in mid-January, there was nearly nobody in it. So no stress in taking pictures or reading the information. I could be alone in most corner of the camp.

About my own emotion: well yes I did get some, but not as one could have expected. The fact that there is so many information and that it is a bit confusing to walk inside the camp doesn't allow you to really 'think' too much. Maybe the fact that I had already visited Majdanek few days earlier did have an impact too. But I didn't have the creep or felt stress or unease with what happened in this place.
I was also wondering if things were actually original?

One thing though, I was expecting someone to come to tell me to leave that the camp would close as I continued to roam around it and visit. This never happened, so I got trapped into Auschwitz by dusk, after dark still visiting and taking pictures. That someone could say was special, being alone inside Auschwitz by night was quite something!

I managed to find an exit and simply walked back to Marcin, he first was planning to go ice skating but I arrived probably too late for that. So instead we took the car and went to one of his friend in Katowice. Doing a fast tour of this 'Slaskie' industrial city, which amazingly still has a little but amazing downtown architecture.
We ended up in a pub and I took a local speciality: a hot-warm beer, so hot it was long before it got back cold and that I could finish it. But it was pretty tasty!

Then we slept overnight in Katowice.
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January 18

We came back early in Oswiecim before Marcin went to job, on my side I relaxed a little before taking the walk to the next camp which is a little bit further: Birkenau-II

I walked pass the station and some mansion who were obviously used by the Gestapo or main SS officer but that now on, simply host a polish family or some old lady who retrieved their property after the war.

I wanted to arrive to Birkenau 'the official way' so I went along the railroad and followed them. It's there that I ended up to the 'Juddenramp', the place where all jewish and other persons sent to Birkenau were unloaded prior to the time that the railway reached inside the camp directly. From this spot you could already see the famous tower of Birkenau pointing further.
There was also as monument, one remaining cattle-car which was used to transport many people... on such a single little carriage car, it was said that up to 200 persons were stucked. When you have seen the size and the look of the carriage car, you can't understand how some managed to survive the transport.

I didn't appreciate the look of Birkenau at first, mainly because from a planning point of view... this camp, located way outside town is slowly being eaten by housing popping out in its surrounding. So you easily have a house and a garage with all the rubbish that someone can accumulate on its ground standing on the way...
Another thing being that the parking lot stand just in front of the camp and that a car did park just in front of the tower. That was annoying.
There was also few coaches, meaning that there was more people visiting than when I was in Auschwitz yesterday. Though Birkenau is huge... by huge I mean HUGE! So it was easy to avoid them! But also complicated to visit it all.

So I toured some of the 'aisle' and did some reading. Walk over the land where ashes were sprayed :(
Walked next to some blown crematorium (there was several ones in Birkenau)... next to Kanada complex... as funny as it sound, the place were all valuables of the prisonner was stored was called by the name of my country, which was seen as a properous land where you would want to be.
Odd to know that my country had 'unofficially' taken part of this history... :S

It is hard to talk about Birkenau, hard to describe. I think I will mostly keep those thought for myself. Or brainstorm them logically one day in the future.

One thing that happened while I was visiting Birkenau is that the first and only European winter storm started... and the wind was blowing, in the meantime most cities were closing their park and forest so that falling trees would disturb people and everyone was on alert for flood. I was visiting Birkenau alone walking into barracks whose the strong wind clacking on the roof was giving a morbid feeling.

Birkenau's barracks looks a lot more like those you might imagine. Anyway, for more information, I would suggest people to read MAUS from Art Spiegelman.

Again, I did get stuck inside the camp by nightfall!

Later on, I walked back into town and was meeting with Lukasz (HC: schodek) nearby the Lidl and then we moved to the Youth Centre to gather together with Florian, Tilman, the other germans and later on Marcin too. Then we shortly all went to a pub into Oswiecim town (being the only people inside the pub and being above 10) having a wonderful HC party in Oswiecim. Actually, probably the first one ever.

In the meantime, the storm went raw and wild; thunder and lightning and strong wind and rain. We heard it from inside the pub but especially noticed the damage when we walked back, street signs flying around and in the middle of streets, and some trees had fallen. It was amazing in this desertic town to see all this while being tipsy. It was really a wild wild storm!!
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January 19

I was slightly hanged over, and it was rainy. So I did nothing special in Oswiecim. I was thinking of going back to Auschwitz but cancelled. So I took a calm day and prepared my thing before leaving with Lukasz (HC: schodek) to Kozy (near Bielsko-Biala) when he stopped by after his job to pick me up.
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