Hey everyone! Below are some media links that you might be interested in! Many of them feature our trip to Auschwitz for the Anniversary of Liberation in January, and some of them were written or produced by our trip members! Enjoy!
We left the hotel this morning and went back to Auschwitz II-Birkenau to see some of the things we missed when we were there on Monday and were unable to see because of all the security yesterday. First we went into one of the huge latrine buildings. The toilets were just one huge concrete slab with holes cut into it, and there was no drainage system. Imagine the stench. Apparently, the smell was so horrible that the SS guards refused to enter the building. This made it the ideal location for the camp’s black market, as well as apparently a good place to have sex (yes, people had sex in the latrines at Auschwitz). We were also told, that perhaps counter-intuitively, that cleaning the latrines was one of the most sought-after jobs in the camp. This seems odd, but remember that the stench was so bad that the SS would not go in there, so the prisoners had some security in that sense. Also, by the time they came out they smelled so bad that the SS guards didn’t want to get too close to them either. This means they were abused less than other prisoners as well.
After the latrine, we entered one of the wooden barracks that is still standing, I think it may just be a reproduction though, I’m not entirely sure. Anyway, we visited this barrack because it was much like the barrack Eva had been assigned to (which is no longer standing). These barracks were originally German stables that were disassembled in Germany and reassembled at Birkenau. Originally intended to house 52 horses, one of these barracks might have held up to 400 prisoners.
After this, we drove the 3 km back up the road to Auschwitz I to visit a few more of the exhibits we hadn’t seen on Tuesday. First we went to the killing wall, the back wall in the courtyard between two of the barracks. It was called the killing wall because this is where the Nazis would kill those prisoners (with a single shot to the back of the neck) who they had arrested (for whatever reason) and who had been sentenced to death. Also, area Poles who were arrested by the Nazis and sentenced to death were executed here. In just one day, after there had been an uprising at the camp, 250 prisoners were killed, one-by-one, at this wall. We then proceeded to the barrack which served as the camp prison. The cells in the basement were intense. The dark, or also starvation, cells were maybe 8×8 foot square and usually 10-15, but in at least one instance as many as 40 (I have no idea how), prisoners were kept in these cells at one time. Usually, the case would be that if one prisoner escaped, 10-15 of his barrack-mates (who may not have even known the escapee) were picked at random and sentenced to die in these cells. Cell 21 is one of these starvation cells, and it was in this cell that Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, voluntarily gave up his own life to save the life of another prisoner. This cell is now basically a shrine to this man, who was canonized in the 1980s. The standing cells were even worse than the starvation cells though. About the size of a phone booth, 4 prisoners would be kept in one of these cells overnight, sometimes for only a few nights, but other times for as long as 2 weeks or a month. During the day, the prisoners would be let out to work, and then placed back in the tiny cell again at night.
We left Oswiecim a bit before 2 so that we could get back to Krakow and visit the Old Market Square. That was awesome. The buildings are so cute and the churches we passed are amazing. I can’t wait to see more on our historic tour of the city in the morning. A few of us got some awesome Polish food at this really quaint rustic-y restaurant that Dan and I decided with our luck is the Olive Garden of Poland or something (Potato Garden perhaps?). It was really delicious though, and I was excited to eat real Polish food while I was here. I even tried Borscht! And I liked it too! I know, crazy. After we had our late lunch/early dinner we walked around the square for a bit and looked at all the shops.
Sixty-five years ago today, the Russian army liberated the concentration camp at Auschwitz, and today, I witnessed the ceremony commemorating that event. We only arrived back at our hotel 4 hours ago (it’s 11:30pm here), so the ceremonies ended about 6 hours ago. That’s not particularly long ago, yet it isn’t the ceremony that sticks out in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, they were nice. A number of Polish survivors spoke and big wigs including the President of Poland and the Prime Minister of Israel. It was difficult to really understand what was going on during the speeches because they were made in Polish, and obviously (because I am an American, and thus dismally ignorant of other languages) I cannot understand more than 10 words in Polish. There was a very nice woman behind us though that was from Krakow, at the ceremony with a few British friends, and she translated some of the speeches for us so we knew what was being said. After the speeches, which took place in a heated pavilion while we stood outside, the dignitaries and survivors came outside. There was a number of prayers in Hebrew, and then a number of Christian prayers in Polish. After that, notable individuals took what appeared to be either large oil candles or small lanterns to the base of the memorial. Eva was one of three survivors to place a candle at the memorial with the Polish president, so that was really cool.
But I said it wasn’t the ceremonies that are foremost in my mind. No, the ceremonies took up a mere 2.5 hours of the 6 we were standing out in the cold (essentially waiting for them to happen) and so what is foremost in my mind is the cold. The bone chilling cold that rose from the ground through my shoes, the three layers of socks I was wearing and the three pairs of pants. The frigid air that bit through my gloves and deactivated my hand warmers (yes, it is possible for it to be TOO cold for them to work). The fact it took me three times as long to tie my shoes because I couldn’t feel my fingers, and that I slipped countless times (only falling once though, thank you) because I couldn’t feel my feet inside my shoes.
I remember the cold, but also the measures that were taken to give us just a little comfort. The white tents set up along the path where we could step off the snow (you have no idea what kind of difference that makes in keeping feeling in your toes), be sheltered from the wind, and even get some hot tea. The coal burners as well, that were set up along the path, so that we could huddle around little fires to keep us warm. The press in their tent and the survivors and dignitaries in theirs had it much better. Heated tents, hot drinks, pastries, internet access. I wont say as much for the press and the dignitaries, but the survivors at the very least deserved this treatment. But how different it was from the treatment they had received that first time they entered Auschwitz more than 65 years ago. No pastries and hot drinks, only a little water, even less bread, and what Eva describes as white stuff that looked like Cream of Wheat, but you couldn’t cut it or chew it, and it appeared just to be given to them to infuriate them with their inability to eat it. There were no heated tents. Only stark barracks, with nothing to keep them warm but whatever they could scrounge together to start a fire in the tiny ovens. No coats and layers to keep them warm outside, only one skimpy dress for Eva and shoes with so many holes they were practically useless.
I felt lucky to have survived out there for 6 hours in 3 layers of clothing. Yet who am I? I was uncomfortable, no doubt about that. But so what? I almost feel weak for walking back to the warming tents to get tea. Weak for warming myself with a group of Italian kids at a fire. Weak for being cold when I had three layers of clothing on and only the slightest part of my face exposed. Weak for begging Kiel (our Museum Coordinator) to bring a pastry for us from the press tent. I don’t know that I could have made it out there for 2 days sans proper food and clothing, Eva and other survivor’s abilities to make it out of that camp after 7 months or longer (granted for Eva only 2 of those months were during winter, but still) is startling. The human will to survive must be a powerful force indeed.
We laughed the other day. Eva said she didn’t like making the trip in January, if only they had been liberated in April, it would have been a more pleasant trip, but then “I don’t know if I would have made it until April.” It was a joke, and she meant it as such. That is the way Eva is, more than willing to joke. Of course, we could have come in a warmer month. Eva’s made trips in the summer before after all. But I think this is better. Oh I’m miserable in the cold. But I think that’s the way it should be. I shouldn’t be comfortable at Auschwitz. Walking around in shorts and a t-shirt, with the warm sun beating down and perhaps a cool breeze? No. Not here. Not at Auschwitz.
After visiting Auschwitz II-Birkenau Monday, we made our way to Auschwitz I today. The first thing we did when we got there was watch a video about Auschwitz that was made up of photos and videos taken at the camp before and during liberation. I think it was a rather old video, though obviously it was hard to tell because you couldn’t figure the age out based on the footage. It was interesting though, especially because parts of the video were from the video shot by the Russians when they liberated the camps. There is a fairly famous part of that video when the Mengele twins are being liberated and walking between two sections of barbed wire. Eva and her twin sister Miriam were the two twins at the very front of that line, so being there with 75-year-old Eva and watching 10-year-old Eva on the video was interesting.
After the video we toured the camp itself. Though in reality, we had been in the camp the entire time. The visitor’s center was not built post-WWII when the site became a museum. The building used as the visitor’s center was actually there when the Nazis were there, and had been used to register and tattoo the prisoners, preparing them to become prisoners of the camp. I find it interesting that this is now where the visitors are registered and prepare to enter the camp.
Auschwitz I is significantly nicer than Auschwitz II-Birkenau because before it was taken by the Nazis and turned into a concentration camp, it had been Polish military barracks. All of the barracks were made of brick, they were two-stories and were actually divided up into rooms (though I’m not entirely sure if these were there when it was a camp or not). Auschwitz I is also much more of a museum than Birkenau. Most (I wont say all, because I don’t think this applies to quite all of them) of the barracks now serve as exhibit spaces. It is rather interesting for me though, as a museum person, because the majority of the exhibits in the barracks haven’t really been changed at all since they were first installed in the ‘50s or ‘60s. It’s pretty obvious that that is the case too, they aren’t modern exhibits at all. For most places I would definitely be unhappy with an exhibit that hasn’t changed in in over 50 years, but at Auschwitz it works. I didn’t know what to expect from the exhibits, but having seen them now, I can’t imagine them any other way. They are very stark. Very black and white, I don’t think there was any real color in the exhibit installations at all. Very blunt and to the point. That’s appropriate for Auschwitz. It is what it is, there’s no use trying to doll it up or present the material in an interesting and innovative way, it speaks for itself.
I noted yesterday that visiting Auschwitz II-Birkenau didn’t seem to affect me in the way that it affected many of the other people on the trip. I didn’t sense any physical, emotional reaction in myself, I just felt numb and empty. Auschwitz I was very different. The victims are remembered by their absence here, by the things they left behind. A toothbrush, a pair of glasses, clothing, a suitcase. Only they aren’t singular. There isn’t one toothbrush, one pair of glasses, one shirt, or one suitcase. There are cases, rooms even, full of them. In one of the barracks, an entire room in the upstairs was merely a corridor flanked on both sides by glass. Behind the glass, filling the rest of the room on both sides were shoes. Mostly brown, but occasionally a white pair, or a red pair of women’s shoes that were stylish in the ’40s. There were just thousands of pairs of shoes. It was really overwhelmed by the magnitude.
What really affected me most of all, out of all the exhibits was the hair. 1,950 kilograms (that’s 4,300 pounds) of hair cut off of the heads of women who were killed in the gas chambers before they were burned in the ovens. I walked into that room, and I had to catch my breath. It knocked the wind out of me. Looking at this hair, which filled the entire lengthwise wall of the room, just a sea of human hair, it finally hit me. The emotions that I should have been feeling, they finally came alive for me at that moment. These weren’t glasses, or suitcases, or shoes. Not commodities that could have been bought or sold. It would be possible to buy thousands of pairs of shoes and visually replicate that exhibit. But hair. Human hair. Hair that, 65-70 years ago, had literally once been part of a living human being’s body. That affected me.
In the afternoon after lunch we visited the gas chamber and crematorium that is at Auschwitz I. This gas chamber was not nearly as effective as the ones at Birkenau, where the actual mass killings took place. The gas chamber at Auschwitz I was the first one they used before Birkenau was built, it’s where the Nazis perfected their abilities to kill more quickly and effectively than ever before. Here we had our own memorial ceremony. It was actually a bit amusing. There were signs in the crematorium that said candles could not be lit inside the building and there was a rope blocking the ovens off so you couldn’t get next to them. Well Eva completely disregarded both, moved the rope, walked right up next to the ovens and proceeded to have us all bring our candles up so we could light them and have our ceremony. No one tells that woman what to do. We each walked up to the ovens and light a candle, saying “I light this candle in remembrance of…” and then whatever we wanted to say after that. I lit my candle in remembrance of all the victims of the Holocaust, and all those before, during, and after who have been victimized for who they are and how they were born. The ceremony affected me pretty strongly too. I’m not one to cry , but I was choked up when I went to light my candle, and my voice shook when I spoke. Afterward, I was still choked up, my eyes watered, and I had the beginnings of those dry, shaking cries, the ones that just rack your entire body. It was truly powerful for me, and I know for everyone else too. After we had all lit our candles, Marv (one of the Jewish men on the trip) sang Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. I love Hebrew and think it’s a beautiful language, so that was lovely as well.
As we left the camp for the day, I stopped by the book shop and picked up a package of photographs. The photographs are of many of the things I had taken pictures of myself, but they were taken by professionals, so of course they are far more beautiful than any of the pictures I’ve taken myself. They only cost 20 zloty for the two packages, that’s about $8 US maybe, so it was definitely worth it.
We left at 9am (3am EST) this morning to travel to Oswiecim (which is pronounced/spelled Auschwitz in German), the town where Auschwitz is located which is about an hour away from Krakow. The Polish countryside from the window of our bus was gorgeous. Lots of hills and forests, and the snow on the trees in some places was just absolutely beautiful.
We arrived at Auschwitz I to pick up our official Auschwitz tour guide, Bogushe and then we drove the 3km to Auschwitz II-Birkenau which is the camp that we were going to visit first. Apparently it is basically obligatory to have a tour guide when you go to Auschwitz, and I definitely understand why. The information provided at Auschwitz II-Birkenau is really quite limited, but the guides are incredibly knowledgeable and can answer your questions and provide information and background on just about everything.
Actually being at the camp was odd. I can’t entirely describe the way I felt there. I didn’t get emotional or choked up, that’s not what I do and it didn’t happen here either. In some ways, it all felt unreal. I knew I was there, I walked along part of the selection platform where hundreds of thousands of families were destroyed, and yet I almost feel that I couldn’t fully grasp the fact that this was the actual site. I almost felt awkward. As if I was supposed to feel something that I couldn’t. As Eva spoke about the last time she ever saw her mother, some of the women started to cry. While we were there many of the men were visibly shaken as well. Yet somehow I wasn’t. Somehow I didn’t want to cry, or kiss the ground (as one participant observed) or anything like that. I guess I almost felt empty. But maybe that’s a reasonable way to cope with being at a place like Birkenau. Emptiness.
It was frigid again today, -16˚ C. My toes and legs were so cold. It was really uncomfortably cold, and my hand warmers and 3 pairs of socks really just weren’t cutting it. Though the weather here usually isn’t quite so harsh, being so miserably cold today made me realize—at least in some respects—how difficult it must have been for Eva and the other twins and prisoners in the camp. They didn’t have the warm clothes and hand warmers I had. Auschwitz was liberated on the 27th of January, 1945. At that point, after being in the camp for 7 months, Eva only had a dress, no underwear, and shoes that had many many holes in them. How she was ever able, so sparsely dressed, to get by on a day-to-day basis in the barracks, let alone stand outside for potentially hours on end during roll call, I cannot even begin to imagine.
We walked around a large portion of the camp (it’s 400 acres, so definitely not all of it). We saw the selection platform that I already mentioned, the barracks, the place where the twin’s barrack had been (it was made of wood, and all the barracks that had been made of wood were dismantled for lumber by the inhabitants of the nearby town in the post-war years). One of the brick barracks was open so that people could see inside of it. The floor was terribly uneven, and many of the bunks had huge exposed nails sticking up out of them. There was also a lot of graffiti on the walls, people’s names, Stars’ of David, and whatnot. I can’t possibly understand why someone would etch their name onto the wall at Auschwitz. This too seems disrespectful of the dead. I’d like to attribute all that to children or adolescents, but I’m probably giving adults too much credit. After the barrack, we viewed the ruins of the crematorium and Bogushe explained to us exactly how the gas chambers and crematorium worked.
Many people were taking pictures all day long, a lot of the pictures were just of what we saw, but some of the people took pictures of themselves at the selection platform for instance or with the main gate of the camp in the background. Once again I was at a bit of a loss. Do people smile in these pictures? Can you smile in a picture at Auschwitz? Or does that trivialize things, turn them into a tourist attraction. I don’t know. And I don’t mean to call out people who did take pictures and smiled in them. It’s an automatic response, and I think you have to be conscious of it in order to avoid it, which many people aren’t.
Before we left, we stopped at the gift shop (essentially a bookshop) at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. I liked the way the gift shop was handled, thank goodness, because I had been concerned about how that would be before we got there. The main things for sale were books—about Auschwitz, the Holocaust, Mengele, etc. In lots of different languages too, which was cool. There were Auschwitz postcards though. That kind of put me off and confused me a bit. I mean, does anyone actually send a postcard home with a concentration camp on it? How does that work? Again it makes me feel like it might trivialize things…make the camp seem touristy in a way. But I don’t know, that’s just me.
Hey everyone! It’s Laura, the museum intern here. In the next few posts, I’m going to be sharing with you my journal from my time on our trip to Auschwitz last month. I hope you all enjoy it!
Sunday, January 24th
Saturday morning we all met terribly early at CANDLES to leave for Chicago. So we all got loaded up into big passenger vans and drove to Chicago from Terre Haute. The plane ride to Warsaw was far too long (9 hours) and really rather uncomfortable. The guy who I sat next to was really quiet and we didn’t talk much, but when we did he was pretty nice. I slept a little, thank goodness, but not quite as much as I would have hoped. We finally got into the Warsaw airport, which was really quite a nice airport in my opinion and had to go through security all over again. Our plane was much smaller, but more comfortable, from Warsaw to Krakow (Krakoof as they pronounce it in Poland) which was only a quick flight, 40 minutes or so. The Krakow airport, Pope John Paul II the holy airport (seriously, it’s something like that), was really very small and not nearly as nice as the one in Warsaw.
We left the airport and went to the hotel around 2pm Poland time (so that’s 6am EST time), it’s so cute and modern, I like it a lot! After getting situated in the hotel we left on the bus to go to Schindler’s factory (from Schindler’s list, if you’ve seen the movie) which would have been cool if they hadn’t closed early assuming nobody was going to come (it’s the off-season here). We’re going to try to go back another day though maybe. After missing the museum we went to the site of the concentration camp where the Jews who had worked for Schindler were taken, Plaszow. The camp is no longer there, but there is a memorial. I was really struck by how close to Krakow it was, it was basically right there in the city! The memorial was cool, I saw some kids there as we were walking up with sleds (it’s on a hill). That was strange. Perhaps good sledding hills are hard to come by around here, but really. Sledding at the site of a former concentration camp? Very wrong. I just felt guilty when I giggled. Just giggling seemed wrong there.
We were at the Plaszow site for about a half hour or so, but I couldn’t feel my toes, fingers, or thighs by the time we got back onto the bus. It is absolutely frigid here! Seriously, our tour guide (also named Eva interestingly) says this is the coldest winter they have had in YEARS. Just our luck I guess.
Hello everyone! Welcome to the official blog for the museum!
This blog is basically a forum for those of us here at the museum to keep everyone updated on what’s going on around here as well as share links that you all might be interested in. In the near future look for posts about our trip to Auschwitz in January as well as media links to information that was published about that event.
If there’s anything that you like, don’t like or wish you could see on this blog, let us know! We’re here for you and this blog is a resource for us all to stay connected, so the most important person of all is you, our readers!