Touring Auschwitz on an empty stomach contributed to the atmosphere. I feel rather irreverent saying that because we had chocolate in the car and even a cookie The tour is over three hours so we were pretty hungry!. But the weather definitely contributed – our mild autumn day was getting progressively colder and wind was progressively stronger and as we left Birkenau the sun was setting. A good visit.
You will recall that after leaving our parking ticket incident the feelings of being in Eastern Europe while listening to and learning about Nazi occupation had left us a little unsettled. Then getting into Auschwitz really did take about 30 minutes. The first line led to a small tent. When we went to Dachau there was a small tent to show our vaccination cards and register our presence there. When we got to this tent we learned that each person stood there individually and was misted with hydrogen peroxide. A buzzer would sound when you were done. For some reason it seemed that they misted Mark an extra long time. What was that about? They must have gotten wind of that parking ticket!? Hahaha. Then regular security screening and then a line to get our “English tour” sticker. It wasn’t bad at all.
Our guide was a Polish woman in her early 60s. She has worked as a guide at Auschwitz for 30 years and we both felt that she made the tour special. As we entered the infamous gates we passed the two tall barbed wire fences and then the death zone – anyone who steps into that was automatically shot. The guards received bonuses like leave, liquor and cigarettes every time they were able to shoot someone there so it was very difficult to escape. She told us of one man who managed to escape and was helped out of town through the local underground resistance. A couple months later he was recognized and returned to Auschwitz where he was “interrogated” until he agreed to divulge all information of those who had helped him. Of course there had been no names, but they drove him through the villages and countryside and he showed them each house that has assisted him. They were all brought to Auschwitz and executed. Two hundred people killed because of this one man. Our tour guide had two uncles who were members of the underground and had been executed during this roundup. This is why she is here.
Our tour guide made it very clear that there are still many questions about Auschwitz/Birkenau. She repeated several points over and over during our 3 hours together and with her Polish accent and manner of speaking she made a real impact on us. Birkenau was a death camp. As the inmates were unloaded from the freight cars they had to leave their luggage on the platform. There was a “selection” and 75-85% went straight to the gas chambers while the remaining 15-25% worked as slave labor until they died. What is important to realize is that of the roughly 80% who were immediately killed, their personal records were burned. They did not keep a record of these people, but they killed them – within a couple hours of arriving they were ashes. So what are the real numbers of those who were murdered here? Well over a million are documented but it is likely much higher.
She also spoke quite a bit about the testimonials of survivors and how important they are. Her two uncles were killed here but there is no official record of their death. She has searched the archives and did find one uncle’s name on a record. However, a testimonial by a former inmate included the name of the other, giving proof that he was here. So how many others were brought there and killed without an official record?
Many of the things which touched me deeply at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC were here. The thousands of eye glasses and the tens of thousands of shoes all piled up. The shoes make these innocent victims so much more real, especially the children’s shoes. Children were always included in the 80% because they could not work. There was a display where we could not take pictures (I didn’t want to anyway) that contained two tons of human hair. After the gassing and before the ovens they took all gold teeth and shaved the hair which was bundled and shipped to Berlin to be made into a special fabric and mattresses – which have been tested and shown to contain cyklon b (the poison used in the gas chambers).
A few more interesting things. Of all concentration camps only Auschwitz/Birkenau prisoners had tattoos. Also – the undressing chambers and gas chambers in Birkenau were underground. The chamber in Auschwitz could hold 700 people, in Birkenau it could hold 2,000 at once! They had four of these, two of them hidden in the forest. These individuals from so far had been told they were being resettled and this is why they were as compliant as they were. They brought along their most valuable possessions for their new life which they left on the train platform for the Nazis to have. Many of the shoes have been sliced because the Nazis knew that this was a hiding place for jewels and other valuables. No waste.
Of course there were the horrors of torture, crowding, lack of sanitation, starvation, suffocation, hangings, medical experimentation… it goes on and on. I’ve read a lot of books over the years and it is helpful to be on site. As we ended our guide told us again how important it is to visit these sites. We were standing at Birkenau, the wind was cold and strong and the sun was setting. She said it doesn’t matter how much we read or watch excellent shows on the topic – we must stand right there stand on the train platform looking at the immensity of Birkenau, process your thoughts and truly know that it happened.
Ugh – now I am thinking too much about it. How could the Nazis be so evil? They taught them young – our society has got to be careful or we are in trouble!.
We drove back to Krakow and enjoyed dinner on the market square.It was much colder than the night before but there were heaters. It was such a pleasant evening together. The day had been full of adventure and we are loving our time together!
So – we know the stories about the concentration camps. As the Soviet army approached the Nazis took the prisoners who could walk on a forced death march and tried to destroy the camps. They didn’t want to get caught, didn’t want the world to know what they had been doing. So they knew it was wrong!! Most of the barracks at Birkenau were wooden (they ran out of bricks and someone said they should just make stables so they did. Imagine wooden barracks in a Polish winter! So when they left they destroyed the crematoria and burned down the wooden barracks. They didn’t want the world to know their heinous crimes. My questions is how they continue this evil work day after day if they knew that it is so deeply wrong? We all end up doing things we know are wrong, but for those who are living dark lives… son’t you just want to help them find happiness with better choices?!
Anyway – here are a few photos. I didn’t take many. I’ll try to zoom in on the chimney forest at Birkenau – when the burned the almost 200 barracks the chimneys remained as testimony. The women had the original brick barracks. The Nazis got those bricks from several nearby villages where they evacuated the occupants and tore everything down (except the nice houses where they lived) .Food – we finally tried the fried camembert cheese and the ugly soup is a delicious traditional Polish stew.