Monday, January 25th
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.