Friday, October 19, 2012

The Tragedy in Oświęcim: Afield in Krakow Part 3 of 3

Oświęcim is the Polish name of the town where the German Third Reich established the Auschwitz concentration death camps in 1940.  The site where over 1,100,000 men, women, and children were murdered over the course of five years.  While Jews were the majority, I learned that many other groups who were victims, such as gypsies (romas), Soviet pow's, and homosexuals.

It's tough to write this entry, as I typically tend to keep things lighthearted.   We felt honored to have the opportunity to visit the memorial, and thought our friends and family would appreciate reading about our experience, just two of roughly one million visitors the museum will see this year.  

On a very busy Saturday, the museum and memorial was managed with the utmost respect to the victims of the camp.  Expert tour guides in a multitude of languages spoke in low voices wearing wireless lapel microphones, as we tourists listened through wireless headsets.  I'll mention some of the facts that had a lot of impact on me, but for more information, the museum's English website is a great source.

We booked this tour in advance - a van picked us up from the hotel in the morning along with some other British tourists in nearby hotels, and we watched a video on the one hour drive to the memorial.   The documentary covered the story around footage taken by the Russian camera crew the day Auschwitz was liberated, which was used as evidence of war crimes.

Once you start the tour and step into the camp, the gravity of the history sets in and leaves you speechless.  I can say during the 3.5 hour tour, I was completely absorbed, almost in disbelief of what I was seeing.  The silly things I tend to worry about day to day completely left my mind.
Entry gate into Auschwitz I - "Work sets you free"  

Our excellent English-speaking tour guide

Two electrified fences surrounded the camp

The buildings are mostly in their original state, with the museum performing what maintenance is necessary for the visitor experience.  Some of the buildings hold exhibits to help visualize the death which took place here.

Cans of zyklon B cyanide crystals used in the gas chambers - just 5 cans would be used to kill 1500 people

The victims were stripped of all their belongings before entering the chamber.  There were many displays of their belongings.

Artificial limbs from the disabled

Cooking vessels



Pictures were not allowed of the display of human hair from women and girls who were shaved upon entering the camp.  The Nazis would make fabric and socks from the hair - a massive pile was on display from the stockpile which was left behind when the camp was liberated.

Boarded up windows in the barracks facing the  execution wall

Reconstruction of the execution wall where prisoners would be shot in the back of the head.

We then walked through the gas chamber and cremation furnace - one of five that were used between the three sites.  I found it to be one of the more difficult parts of the tour.

After a short break we headed to Auschwitz II - Birkenau, a larger camp which was set up to handle the large number of prisoners.  A large amount of Birkenau was destroyed by the Nazis when they evacuated - the tried to cover evidence of war crimes.  But many of the original structures remain.

The train entry to Birkenau

Perspective of the size of the camp

A railcar which would bring in prisoners

“Forever let this place be a cry of despair
and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis
murdered about one and a half million men,
women and children, mainly Jews,
from various countries of Europe”

Human ash pit memorial

Rows of barracks

Four to a bunk

Latrines - always overcrowded.  Most had diarrhea or dysentery.  
The drive home was somber.  Our wonderful driver must have to deal with this every time.  After she dropped off the other passengers, I started to decompress and stroke up a conversation.  Her English was good enough to let us know a great dinner spot in Krakow near our hotel, we found a very nice street where we probably walked past 30 bars in less than five minutes.   She said it was the most concentrated watering hole in the city.   

We also had some time to finally walk around Krakow and see some of the famous buildings, like Wawel castle.  However we were too late to go inside any of them.  Oh well - time to order another wodka.

So long, Krakow!

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