When I wake up at 3am, I think of my nights in Kajuraho India where I barely slept last summer. It was one of the worst bouts of jet-lag I’ve ever had. Just as I decide to get up and make some coffee I fall back asleep.
Today is not a day I want to be tired.
We get out the door around 10:30 and walk to the town square ‘Rynek Glowny,’ a cheerful place with tourists, horse rides, bubble blowers, tour operators and the usual cafes. The square is separated by the ‘cloth hall’ or old market now filled with garbage souvenirs.
We eat some street food for breakfast, Lily gets some beef pierogies and Emma eats an ‘Obvarzank Krakowski’ which is a bagel-like bread they sell from stands on busy corners.
Underneath the Cloth Hall is a remarkably designed and curated museum about very little. They excavated down to the mideval foundations of the original Cloth Hall and square, dugout enough dirt to have a museum and built a very modern museum in the cavity.
Krakow trade routes, old spoons, a model horse and cart are all brilliantly displayed and fun to look at, but we aren’t learning much. The best is a small section on vampire graves. They dug up people in the fetal position which were usually those accused and killed for being vampires. Burying them that way prevented the vampire from coming back.
I’m glad we saw the museum because it’s so beautifully designed. It reminds me a bit of The Tomb of Emporer Jingdi museum in Xi’an, China or the Museum of Mayan culture in Chetumal, Mexico. Both of those were substantively better but still quite narrow. Why can’t Luxor or Jerusalem get something like these? (Luxor does have a pretty nicely done Art museum but it’s very traditional.)
After a look at the main Cathedral St. Mary’s, we grab some decent Pizza for lunch at a cheerful place deep underground. Emma comments rightly that every place we go seems to be deep underground. Later we learn that the whole town was raised up a full floor because of flooding problems, so most buildings have two basements!
The service is so slow that we have to dash off. We have a 3:30 entrance to a place I have wanted to go for many, many years; Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
We catch a lucky break and find a taxi driver that will take us there and back for cheaper than a one-way Uber. He even gives us a DVD documentary about the camps as we ride toward Osweicem (something like aus-VEE-en-sheem).
Auschwitz is the German name. As we approach I wonder what it must be like to be from a town known primarily for hosting the greatest atrocity of modern Western civilization?
We are late thanks to the slow pizza and maybe my poor planning. The museum staff are extremely helpful. Multiple young staff really care that we get connected with our group which is 15 minutes into the tour. I’ve generally found the staff of museums to be officious and aloof. We catch up and listen to a guide walk us through the buildings and it’s exhibits.
The exhibits need no fancy design. Merely walking the grounds of the camp where prisoners were industrially tortured, experimented on, dehumanized and horrifically gassed all because they (mostly) were Jewish is more than enough to learn and feel something of the history.
It’s difficult to talk about this. Nothing I could describe would do it justice. It’s harder to take photographs, but I do take some. Emma agrees it’s indescribable. She compares it to the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. Many of the exhibits – hair, shoes, glasses are the same but stepping in the mud and waling the stairways worn down by hundreds of thousands of doomed feet is totally different.
We all are moved by the pictures of the dead prisoners on the wall, not because of the faces but the arrival and death dates. It’s nearly impossible to find someone that lasted a year as a prisoner – Most are 4-8 months. We hear about survivors a lot and the total dead (1.5ish million at Auschwitz) most of whom died immediately in gas chambers.
The guide talks about Mengle’s and Clauberg’s medical experiments, the rare escapes, contact with locals, the black market, the Sonderkommandos who were prisoners elevated to guard level that helped commit the crimes. She adeptly refers to the gassing in Syria. “Gas is still in use today”
Much of the tour I already knew but there were a few things I had not thought about. One is that the sterilization experiments were part of a larger attempt to ‘humanize’ the genocide. Himmler was aware that the concentration camps were gruesome to most and sought ways to kill that would be more palatable to the public.
Another is the debate about whether the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz – something that appears obvious at first ‘Yes they should have’ and gets more complex as you realize they would also have been responsible for killing prisoners as there was no way to be so precise. Would that end have justified that means?’ Tough question.
1 in 8 of the SS at Auschwitz were punished. Most went back to Germany and had relatively normal lives, protected by the former Nazi police and judges that still held local power. The head of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoss, was hanged here in 1947, just steps away from the cute home he had with his family, itself only meters from the first gas chamber. His only regret: ‘not spending more time with family.’ The banality of evil.
Birkenau is shocking for it’s size. Here nearly a million people, 90% jews, were gassed or possibly worse, died in the camp. A few rows of housing has been reconstructed but most of the camp has nothing left but the chimneys that might have heated the prisoners in the coldest months but probably were barely used.
Never have train tracks been so haunting. Through the main gate of Birkenau to the selection point where all but the abelest of men would be sent to the right, a few hundred yards to the gas chambers. At peak in 1944 there were 14,000 (mostly Hungarian) Jews arriving a day. The five chambers could kill 2,000 each at a time. The bottleneck was burning the bodies. The Industrial scale is imponderable.
As is the peacefulness. White birds fly around the chimneys. The grass is green (something no prisoner ever saw, there was only mud). As the sun sets, you can hear chirping and birdsongs. I recorded this just feet from the entrance to the most active gas chamber, where 200,000 people were murdered. Surreal.
There is a memorial at the end of the tracks and plaques in major world languages that starts ‘Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity..’ We walk back on the path to the main gate, a walk few prisoners ever made. The sun sets, fittingly, and we walk slowly. The girls stop at some yellow tulips placed on the tracks, a memorial to a lost loved one. It’s likely that the girls have distant relatives that died in the chambers. We pause before leaving for the night.
We pass out on the ride back, all of us. In fact I wake up feeling like it’s a different day – that jet lag sleep that is so disorienting. We go eat some delicious Indian food and feel grateful for what we have.
And the there is laughter We crack up telling Lily stories of how Emma used to boss her around as a kid. They would play restaurant and Lily as the customer would order ‘the wrong thing.’ ‘NO, Lily’ Emma would say sternly. ‘That’s not what the customer wants to eat.’ Lily would just laugh and play along because she adored Emma. We are lucky to live the way we do.
My heart is aching…..
There are no words for such a horror. But do check out the classic short documentary by the French New Wave director, Alain Resnais, “Night and Fog.” It may be the best movie about the Holocaust.
Thanks for your account of your visit. My wife and I also visited there. At first I didn’t want to go but glad I did. That is the least I can do to learn about people that were there and to tell others about it so that we can hopefully prevent anything like that from ever happening again.