With plans for a real rest starting today in Krakow, we planned to visit Auschwitz concentration camp today. From our campground, the endeavor involved a bus, a tram, and a minibus, (roughly two hours of transit in one direction) and an extra shuttle between the two camps making the visit an all day endeavor. Traveling by public transit is sure a lot of work.
Because we showed up during peak tourist hours, a tour of the concentration camp was obligatory. The lines were long, but eventually we circled up with a group of English speakers for a tour delivered by a woman who’s own grandparents were political prisoners during the German invasion of Poland.
The tour took us through a series of barracks, once a Polish military installment where the Jews, Romas, homosexuals, Polish, and other prisoners were brought here to work, and eventually die. Our guide explained that the Nazis brought prisoners here promising them farms and a new life, often even convincing them to buy their train ticket to Auschwitz or pay for the new land they would have when they got here. Once they arrived after arduous train journeys, the men who could work were systematically separated from everyone else. Those unfit for work were stripped of their luggage and clothing, their heads were shaved, and they were sent to the showers. In order to avoid panic, the Nazis installed real shower heads, though the lines were never hooked to water. There, they were gassed immediately.
The men who could work were packed into the barracks with little or no heat and woefully inadequate food, and forced to work twelve hour days. Those who weren’t shot or tortured for misbehavior starved or was literally worked to death. It is now assumed that those who survived longer than four months may have had access to a supplemental food source. As we walked the halls, black and white pictures of the prisoners covered the walls, their arrival dates and death dates printed at the bottom. I only spotted two that lasted longer than five weeks.
The luggage brought by the prisoners was confiscated and sorted, the valuables sent back to Germany or pilfered by the guards. At the end of the war, the Germans attempted to destroy the evidence but many of the personal belongings remained. Collections of these items were on display, rooms full of suitcases, eyeglasses, and shoes, all a tactile reminder of the sheer volume of atrocities committed here. The room full of shoes was astounding in sheer numbers and our guide informed us that they represented just a few days worth of executions in the camp.
The hair of thousands of prisoners was on diplay in one of the largest glass cases. The tufts and braids which were sent to textile factories to weave into uniforms and carpet went on and on and the intensely personal nature of such artifacts felt particularly raw. The already sinking pit in my stomach nearly doubled me over. So many lives, so much cruelty, so much loss.
After our tour was complete, we headed over to Birkenau, known as Auschwitz II, a camp nearly twenty times larger than Auschwitz I. We walked through barracks with slatted bunks and no insulation, viewed the crematoriums bombed by fleeing Germans, and observed the train tracks built by the prisoners to bring over one million prisoners directly to the gas chambers.
All this made for an overwhelming day, the sheer amount of awfulness that humanity is capable of is sitting heavy with us. No matter where we go, we’re torn between the incredible generosity we experience on the road and the terror of war, hate, and intolerance that has touched seemingly every corner of the world.