Note: I tried to remember details from our tour. Apologies for any inaccuracies.
Our main purpose in traveling to Krakow was to visit Auschwitz.
At first, I was a little off-put by the tour buses outside. We had booked several days before and had trouble finding an available time slot. The idea of Auschwitz as a tourism destination was unsettling (even though by definition, I was there as a tourist). By the time we left though, I wanted more people to come to see what happened there. Every person in the world should go to Auschwitz.
I’d seen George Santayana’s quote at other holocaust museums, and here it was at Auschwitz:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Everyone needs to see Auschwitz, to try and understand, to feel, and to remember.
Ninety percent of the people who died at Auschwitz were Jewish, but the Nazis hated other groups. Six million of the eleven million people killed in the holocaust were Polish, at least 1.9 million of whom were not Jewish. The Nazis targeted resistant clergy, homosexuals, Roma people, resisters, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and people with disabilities.
I didn’t take many photos.
The second part of the visit required us to bus to nearby Birkenau. I did take a photo of the inside of one of the women’s buildings. You couldn’t see anything from the outside, but my iPhone pressed up against the window revealed the inside.
Four or five women slept on each level. The people on the bottom slept on packed dirt — there was no flooring. The building wasn’t sealed and there was no heating, so in winter, women, already weakened, died from exposure, and in summer they dealt with rats and disease. Diarrhea accompanies malnutrition. There were no toilets in the buildings.
It was all heart-breaking.
At Birkenau, we stood between the rail lines where over 500,000 people were immediately sentenced to death.
These ruins are one of two gas chamber and crematorium buildings. This building also contained Josef Mengele’s laboratory. No words.
Three things about the day hit me most profoundly.
Lies, lies, lies.
The Nazis told Jewish people that they were being ‘relocated’. Families actually paid down-payments on the new homes they thought they were going to move into. Some of them even paid for their own train tickets.
The Nazis crammed people into the train cars, and then they turned a journey that normally took several hours into one of several days so that people would be weak and disorientated at the end of it.
The Nazis separated the elderly, the sick, and the very young, from the rest. Little kids went with Grandma, thinking they would be safe. They thought they were going to shower.
The Birkenau gas chambers were made attractive from the outside. Our guide said the Nazis put flower pots in the windows. The chambers themselves had fake shower nozzles, so even when they were inside, naked, people thought they were about to shower. Instead, the Zyklon B gas, originally developed as a pesticide, was dropped through purpose-built holes in the roof. Victims’ lungs were paralyzed and started to bleed. Death could take up to thirty minutes.
One of the Nazis’ punishments was the starvation cell. The guide told us a story about a prisoner who escaped. As a consequence, the Nazis chose ten men to die by starvation. When one of them pled for his life, saying that his wife wouldn’t be able to look after his children, a Polish priest offered his life instead. After a couple of weeks of starvation, the priest was still alive, and he was killed by injection.
The Nazis pretended to hold courts, torturing people and forcing them to sign incriminating documents.
The Nazis cleared the area around the camps so that no one would know what was really going on. They did not want anyone to know the truth.
They evicted Polish families from their homes in the area. Many of the Germans who moved in were horrified to learn that families had been forced out so they could move in.
When women were gassed, before they were cremated, the Nazis cut their hair off to send back to Germany for use in the textile industry. Can you imagine?
We passed a glass-walled room containing several tons of women’s hair — except for the blonde, all faded to a light brown in clumps, curls, and braids. A giant pile of human hair, about ten metres long, two or three metres deep, and two metres high. This was the hardest thing for me to see. It was like a pile of women’s bodies. I tried not to imagine what those women had been through, but that was impossible. In another case in the same room was a piece of carpet with several braids on top, with a notice to say that DNA testing showed human hair in the carpet fibre. This section was much harder than the 80,000 shoes, the similar piles of hairbrushes and combs, the other evidence of these people’s lives. The hair was part of people’s bodies. I looked at it and saw a pile of people.
The second thing that was really hard was the crematorium at Birkenau. The Nazis used dynamite to destroy the building a week before liberation in 1945.
That was over seventy years ago.
It still smells of burning.
I thought I might be imagining it, but my friend could smell it too, and when I came home, I googled it and other people have smelled it too. When I was growing up in Australia, women’s bathrooms had these tiny sanitary incinerators on the wall.
Same smell. I can still remember it. I hope I don’t forget it.
There are many stories of bravery and love attached to Auschwitz. There was a great photo exhibit outside about March of the Living, a brilliant international education program to combat prejudice and hate. I read a great story about Hannah Szenes, a 23-year-old Jewish poet who joined the British Army as a paratrooper, and was dropped in Hungary to try and save a group of Hungarian Jews from being taken to Auschwitz. She was caught, tortured and executed. Her death was terrible, but her life — that kind of bravery — should be celebrated.
Let’s not forget any of it—the evil or the good. It’s hard stuff, but if you can, go.