Peter and Elizabeth - RTW 2009-11 travel blog

Snowman outside the hostel

More snowy scenes

Christmas Market and the Cloth Hall in the snow

Elizabeth and a big barrel of wine!

More Christmas Market scenes

Big Christmas Tree

It's Christmas!

The main gate at Auschwitz

The barbed wire fence surrounding the compound at Auschwitz

The main barrack buildings

Hundreds, thousands of pairs of glasses found after liberation of the Auschwitz...

 

The huge site at Auschwitz II - Birkenau

The memorial at Birkenau

One of the gas chambers which was blown up when the Nazis...

Looks so peaceful and scenic, yet millions died here

 

 

The train tracks which brought millions of people to their deaths

Another collapsed gas chamber

 

The sun setting over Birkenau

The main gate at Birkenau

The train tracks running from the main gate towards where the barracks...


November 30, 2010

Having made the effort to stay in Oświęcim we made the extra effort to be up early to get to Auschwitz for when it opened, too. Having gotten up at 7 and eaten a decent breakfast at the hotel, we headed out about 8 and were glad that it wasn’t snowing like yesterday even though it was bitterly cold. We bought one of the guidebooks there to help us around preferring to spend 4 zloty for that rather than 38 zloty each for a tour. Everyone knows the name Auschwitz and it is one of those places which is synonymous of the terror that most of Europe suffered under the tyranny of Nazi Germany and Hitler. What most people don’t know is that Auschwitz was in fact split into three sections. Auschwitz I was established in 1940 for Polish political prisoners but as time passed people were sent here from all over Europe, most of them Jews but also Soviet POWs and Roma and Sinti gypsies. The first inmates here were 728 Poles but as time went by the size of the site and the number of buildings increased and during 1942 the number of inmates reached 20,000. In 1941 a second camp was build 3km away, known as Auschwitz II – Birkenau and this was soon followed in 1942 by Auschwitz III – Monowice.

Monowice no longer exists but we were able to visit Auschwitz I and Birkenau. The entrance to the Auschwitz I site starts off with crossing through the gate with the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign. We’d seen the original one of these signs which was at the camp in Dachau but this one was much bigger and bolder above the gate as you entered the barbed wire lined enclosure. The main route took you into a number of barrack buildings which had various displays in them. The first group of these spoke specifically about the war and the setup and use of the camp, detailing the type and amount of prisoners bought here and the treatment most of them received, which was of course horrific even prior to an inhumane death. The first building we entered dealt with extermination and told the story of the many Poles who were killed here until, in 1941, Himmler decided that this site was the best suited for the “Final Solution to the Jewish problem” and in 1942 the site became the biggest centre for the mass extermination of European Jews. Himmler preferred this site as it was larger than most in the East and it was very isolated given that the Nazis had forced all the villagers in Oświęcim and Brzezinka (Birkenau) to other settlements and it could be camouflaged.

The Nazis kept quite detailed records of the activities here and although they tried to destroy them as they retreated some vital documents remained intact and really highlighted the atrocities carried out here. In contravention of international law, some 12,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war were bought here and during the first five months of the site opening over two thirds of these had been either gassed or shot or succumbed to sheer emaciation. The Nazis kept a book of death and it was quite telling that the list of Soviets killed had been completely fabricated to make it look like they died at exactly 5 minute intervals with completely fictitious causes of death.

Most of the Jews arriving at Auschwitz never made it as far as any of these barrack buildings as a large proportion of them were sent directly to gas chambers. The pictures of the train loads of Jews arriving from all over Europe were really horrible. When you think that these pictures were taken hours, maybe even minutes, before these people were exterminated it is really heartbreaking. The Nazis played a lot of tricks on the Jews to get them to come peacefully without too much trouble, too, and these methods were really snide. Most Jews were told they were being moved from their ghettos to be resettled in Eastern Europe and some, like those in Greece, were even made to buy a train ticket for their journey. The copies of tickets on display sent a chill down my spine. It was just a piece of paper but the fact these people paid for their rides to their demise just shows the lengths the Nazis went to. On arrival at Auschwitz, or from 1944 directly at the train ramp at Birkenau, the Jews were lined up in two rows – men one side and women and children the other. A doctor would check each one over and a decision would be made immediately whether they were to be sent to the gas chamber or were to be saved for the time being to carry out the hard labour required by the Nazis. This process was pretty arbitrary and according to one testimony given at the Nuremburg trial it was believed that around 70-75% of the totals were summarily gassed in this way. Even this process was stage-managed by the SS officers. They told the victims they were being taken to be showered and disinfected and to have their clothes cleaned and this was their way of avoiding a mass panic and to stop people revolting, or at least attempting to. The gas chambers were underground and the victims began by going into a room and undressing before anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 of them were forced into the “shower” room before it was sealed and the poisonous gas Cyclone B was poured into the chambers. Within 15-20 minutes all of the people trapped inside would have perished and it was then left to guards to collect anything they believed to be of value, including rings, ear-rings and even gold teeth fillings and their hair. The bodies were then taken to the incinerators or burned in open air mass graves. Upon liberation the Soviets found 7 TONS of bags full of human hair which were due to be sent to Germany for use as lining in coats and such like. Forensic evidence showed traces of the poison in the hair samples and proved the chemical used to kill these people. Some of the hair was on display here but it is currently in an area being renovated so we didn’t get to see it but given the personal effects we did see I’m probably better for not having seen it.

One of the most interesting and shocking things about this story was the amount of Cyclone B that the Germans required to be manufactured and delivered. Between early 1942 and the middle of 1943 some 20,000kgs of Cyclone B was used at the camps. After liberation of the camps piles and piles of empty cans were found as well as a number of containers still full of the lethal crystals. The museum has a couple of orders on display and this gives the reason for the large orders of Cyclone B as “in order to assist the resettlement of Jews”. The shocking part of this is that the manufacturer didn’t once question what was going on or why 20 tons of poison was required merely for “resettlement”. It was either a case of turning a blind eye for risk of losing their life or being in collaboration, for the same reason.

As I mentioned there were lots of personal items on display in the museum. Due to the lies told to the Jews about “resettlement” they had packed all their most valuable items in their bags to bring with them on their trip. As a result these items were thoroughly checked through after their deaths and were sorted with most items being sent back to Germany and sold to people. On liberation the storage area, known as “Canada”, was full of items which had not yet been forwarded and these included suitcases, reading glasses, pots, pans, brushes of all kinds and, most unbelievably, a whole mountain of shoes. It wasn’t unbelievable that the victims would own or bring shoes with them but the sheer number of them was hard to comprehend. A picture in one room showed a warehouse full of shoes but that still didn’t quite set the scene until you walked into one room and the display cases on either side were piled high with shoes of all shapes, sizes and colours. I think this was the first time that the sheer weight of numbers of people terribly murdered here hit me. It is easy to quote facts and figures but a tangible like an immense pile of shoes puts things into perspective. However, this was not the worst we saw as one display case full of prosthetic limbs and braces and supports was really quite chilling and creepy. It almost looked like a spare parts display. To trivialize it as such is quite an insult to the memory of these people but I just don’t know how to put into words which truly define the sensations I felt looking at these items.

The range of pictures throughout this part of the museum was really well presented and really gave you an image of terror, from simple acts like shaving a prisoner’s head to images of guards dragging dead bodies between the chambers and the incinerators or mass graves. There is never a nice way or a decent way to tell the stories that arise from these situations and it is impossible not to be truthful without showing the graphic images that were shown. However, the point was not over done and I think it is necessary in a memorial museum like this to assume that people have a fair amount of background knowledge about the dreadful acts which occurred here.

During the course of the existence of the series of camps, the records show that approximately 400,000 men, women and children of different nationalities were held here. This does not tell the whole story. It is believed that 1.5 million people were killed here in total and by the middle of 1942, when the large transportations of Jews arrived, it was impossible for the Nazis to record every single person and so only those that were “spared” were recorded, tattooed and tagged to show their prisoner number. One of the things which stuck out about the records and the photos is the number of children who were killed. Pretty much any child bought to Auschwitz who was under the age of 14 would have been killed almost immediately as they were too young to be considered for hard labour duties. The only ones who might have been out of immediate danger were twins but their fate took a turn which was every bit as bad. Many such children were selected for medical experiments and the reason twins were chosen was due to one particular doctor believing he could experiment on them and find a way that would cause more multiple births amongst German mother and thus increase the Aryan population quicker. If the reason for the experiments wasn’t complete lunacy, the treatment they were subjected to was truly the work of a madman. If during the course of a test one of the twins died, the other would be killed immediately so that a joint autopsy could be carried out. As if things couldn’t be much worse or implausible, the SS doctor forced a Jewish doctor within the camp to carry out the autopsies and report the conclusions.

I’m sure that many of the above things aren’t exactly a surprise to anyone reading this and most weren’t to me, either, but seeing them is a whole different experience. I didn’t feel quite as disgusted and wary as I did at Dachau where everything seemed to be quite enclosed but the sheer scale and size of the camp just at Auschwitz I was hard to comprehend.

The final building in this part of the museum was the “Death Block”. This building was completely isolated from the rest of the camp and the building is completely preserved. The courtyard next to this building was used for punishment and execution with the “Wall of Death” at one end where the SS shot and murdered thousands of prisoners, mostly Poles, to the tables used for flogging and the hooks used for hanging prisoners by their arms. Inside the building the ground floor housed the Gestapo Police Court. Such a court was carried out at regular intervals and in a 2-3 hour session the court would issue the death sentences and regularly the number of these exceeded a hundred. The condemned were made to strip naked prior to execution and on regular occasions they never made it to the “Wall of Death”, officers beating them to death or shooting them on the spot. Many of the people in this building were prisoners in the main camp who had broken rules and were to be punished and the “crime” could be anything the SS wished it to be and so could the punishment. In the cellar was one of the very first gas chambers used at this prison. In a 1941 experiment using Cyclone B, around 600 Soviets and 250 infirm from the camp hospital were killed. Also in this area were some of the punishment cells including a tiny cell where four inmates would be placed and forced to stand. The cell was about 90cm by 90cm and there was no room to move with three other prisoners for company. There were cells with no light, where prisoners often suffocated to death, and cells specifically for people who had been sentenced to death by starvation. Walking in between the cells it is difficult to really comprehend what happened here. In so many ways the events almost seem too disgusting and vile to be real and you wonder what kind of human being could do this to another. The trouble is, as we’ve both learnt, that these incidents just aren’t as isolated and in the past as we’d like them to be with plenty of tyrants and dictators beating the same beat even today with little to no recourse from the global leaders.

The next set of buildings were taken over by individual countries who had produced exhibits detailing the suffering and devastation their own people suffered including the Dutch, French, Belgians, Czechs, Slovaks, Yugoslavians, Austrians, Poles, Roma and Hungarians. Without feeling like I am brushing over the amazing and tragic stories we heard from other countries I want to concentrate on the Hungarian story. Of the 1.5 million people it is thought were killed here, approximately one third of these were Hungarian Jews. The exhibit here really laid into the Hungarian government and administrators at the time, too and laid much of the blame squarely with them. After the Nazis occupied Hungary the leaders of the main parties did little to stand up to Hitler’s army and in an agreement designed to save the majority of their people, the Hungarian government pretty much just handed the Jews over to the Nazis. The general Hungarian population hid much of their displeasure, too, although they did make attempts to force the president from power. We didn’t really know whether these displays had been designed and detailed by Jewish groups or governmental agencies so it was difficult to tell if this was merely a major finger pointing exercise or if this was more an admission of guilt by a government now trying to correct the biggest of fuck-ups any government could ever be accused of. The Austrian exhibit contained a message from the government acknowledging their co-operation with Hitler’s Germany throughout much of the war so it led me to believe that maybe the Hungarian texts were a product of both government and Jewish groups.

The final building we went into at Auschwitz I was the gas chamber and crematorium here. Nothing about today was supposed to be fun but this was the part I was dreading the most but in reality it didn’t seem to affect me anywhere near as much as the gas chamber at Dachau did. The chamber here was quite small and the wall between the entry room and the actual chamber had been knocked down. In the centre of the room was a small memorial with flowers but otherwise it was just a dark, eerie, creepy room. At Dachau you were able to see the false shower heads and the holes where the gas crystals were emptied but this room showed no signs of either of those. I actually feel really guilty writing this because thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of people were killed here whilst the gas chamber at Dachau was never actually used. The furnaces were every bit as disturbing as those at Dachau and even without quite the same feelings I was glad to be out of there and back into the cold, bitter wind.

Many of the large scale atrocities that people associate with Auschwitz didn’t actually occur at the main site to the extent that they did at Birkenau. We took the shuttle bus from one site to the other and the first thing that strikes you is the size of Birkenau. I thought the complex at Auschwitz was big but this place stretched for miles. There aren’t many buildings here as many of them were wooden barracks and were burnt down by the Nazis as they retreated. It is believed that at its peak in 1944 there were around 100,000 inmates here although the barracks were designed to hold many, many less than that. One such barrack had originally been built as a stable for 52 horses but was modified to hold around 1,000 prisoners. The main gate house still remains and we entered through that and immediately you could see the train tracks leading through the central gate and up to the centre of the main barracks area. We had spent so long at the first site we only had just over an hour here so rather than follow the suggested tourist route we headed for the far end of the compound to view the memorial and to see the derelict gas chambers and crematoria. It was hard to really get an idea of the scale of the gas chambers here as not only had they been blown up by the Germans but there was also about a foot of snow covering them. It was hard not to be mesmerized by the beauty of the whole area, with snow-lined fields running as far as the eye can see in one direction and snow-covered trees in another. I’d imagined it would be quite atmospheric and poignant here with a covering of snow but it really triggered off emotions which belied the extreme horror carried out here. It was almost as if the snow covered up the evidence. In fact, that was exactly how we both saw the site and it was only the sheer size plus active imaginations which kept reminding us exactly where we were.

The main exhibit here is within the bathhouse, known as the Sauna, and the building is laid out in such a way that you follow it through as a new prisoner to Birkenau would have. You started in the room where they are recorded, before entering the room where they were stripped. The next room they shaved completely which was extra embarrassing for the women as the male guards took great pleasure in abusing them as they did so. After that you saw the large steam ovens where the clothes were cleansed and then you were into the large shower area. This area was quite big but they would pack the prisoners into here and often the water would be an extreme temperature – either very hot or freezing cold. If the weather right now had taught us just one thing, it taught us that the prisoners must’ve suffered horribly in winter regardless of other factors merely due to the bitter temperatures and inadequate clothing provided. The next room was where the prisoners “dried” although they had nothing to dry with; they were expected to just stand around and wait, sometimes for hours, whilst new clothes were readied for them. After that they were led out and back to the barracks.

After taking a slow walk back through the complex and following the snowy trails around the buildings we were back at the main gate and had a few minutes to wait for the shuttle back to the main site. It proved worthwhile both coming here for a couple of nights and getting up early today. If we hadn’t spent two nights here we’d have either had to have gotten here early today or get back late and given how cold we were it was a nice thought to be back in a warm hotel room rather than 2 hours on a train. The sites here are open from 8am until 4pm and we’d spent just about every minute of that 8 hours walking around, too.

Back at Auschwitz we decided to have a late lunch in the same restaurant as yesterday rather than having to order pizza again or having to come out later for food. The temperature was about -10C and was only colder with the windchill so I was going nowhere once I was back in our warm room! I had exactly the same food as yesterday but Elizabeth had lasagne but we both had soup to start to try and warm us up. Our efforts to warm up weren’t helped by a group of ignorant Singaporeans who left the door open every time they went out to the toilet. We were back at the hotel by about 6pm having been out since before 8am and almost all of the day we’d been outside so after taking some time to warm up we were finally comfortable. Elizabeth kept saying she felt guilty whenever we talked about food or about getting back to warmth after our experiences today but I guess that rather than feel guilt we should be thankful for those people who lost their lives fighting for future generations to have choices and freedom and liberty.

December 1, 2010

We got up this morning and had a nice breakfast at the hotel before braving the snow for the long walk back to the train station. I had a timetable that indicated a train at 11.15 and this was just about right for us having to check out of our room at 10 and walk to the station. After a very cold walk, with strong winds in our faces and icy pavements, we arrived at the station to find that the next train was not 11.15, but 12.15, meaning we had an extra hour to wait. Thankfully the station had an indoor area but the doors were constantly opening and closing and a draught was blowing in. It was a relief when it got to just past 12 and we were able to get on the train, which was sort of heated! At some point during the two hour journey the heating didn’t seem to be doing its job and our views of the gorgeous scenery were replaced by iced windows and blurry views! We were glad when we got into Krakow station but not so glad when we felt the temperature outside and the winds which greeted us.

Given we were back where we’d started two days ago, it was good that we knew exactly where the hostel was and that it was close. We got up the stairs and were relieved our suitcases were still there and we were able to get checked in quickly and hurried around the corner to the other building where our room was.

We soon headed out for lunch and made our way into the nearby shopping mall for some big bowls of pasta before sliding around the train station to get our tickets for Friday before returning to the hostel and doing a small bit of laundry and lazing around. Our late lunch meant we weren’t overly hungry so we made use of the free cereal in the hostel for dinner! These days doing nothing other than either travelling, or wandering around, or eating/drinking, or all of the above are sometimes just as much fun as actually going and doing something!

December 2, 2010

Our last day in Krakow before heading back into Poland and we decided to have a walk around the Christmas market in the main square and indulge in some mulled wine whilst looking around the interesting stalls with a variety of sweets and toys and Christmas ornaments and such like. It was another one of those days where we just walked around and enjoyed the sights in the city and even though it was cold it wasn’t so bad that we weren’t able to actually see things. When the wind is blowing and it is snowing it is hard to lift your face to see anything but today it was just cold so we were able to have a good look around. There was even some sun but it didn’t warm it up very much so we relied on the mulled wine to do that! We also bought some chocolate covered strawberries and satsumas to have after our dinner tonight and there was no chance of them melting in our bag in these temperatures!

After a quick lunch at a place called Aperitif where I tucked into a lovely burger and Elizabeth had meatballs. They even came with some salad which is probably the first healthy thing we’ve eaten in months! We walked around for a bit longer and on our way back we stopped at the supermarket for some sandwiches for tomorrow’s train journey. We were amazed how busy the supermarket always seems to be in the middle of the afternoon and today, at around 3pm, the queues were crazy. I can’t fathom out what time these people work or if they even work at all. It doesn’t matter what time you go out there are always loads of people around and in the supermarket surely most of them are local rather than tourists?

In the evening I popped out to the Christmas market and bought some goodies for Elizabeth and I. We hadn’t bought them earlier as we wanted to wait to see how much zloty we had leftover before splashing out on sweets and gingerbread biscuits!



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