I saw many beautiful palaces, museums, castles, rivers, mountain vistas, and much more in our three week trip across Eastern Europe, but none of them made quite the impression, or will stick with me quite as long as one quiet field a few hours drive from Krakow, Poland… Auschwitz.
The name itself brings to mind some of the most horrifying images you may remember from history class and the movie theater, but no recreation hits you with quite the leaden hammer to the gut as actually standing on the horror-soaked ground they took place on. It’s more real, more concrete, no longer a matter of visualization, but real knowledge and understanding of the scope and depths of this permanent blot on humanity’s record.
We headed to the bus station as soon as we got into Krakow, since our early train arrival time meant we might as well keep moving and get to Auschwitz before 10 a.m., when it goes from free admission to mandatory paid guided tours to manage the massive amount of visitors. Our ancient bus ended up parked on the side of the road for 20-30 minutes with some sort of mechanic trouble resolved by banging on things with a pipe, so we missed that window… and I’m very glad we did. Absolutely take the guide- even if you are extremely knowledgeable about the Maximilian Kolbe’s and Rudolf Hess’s of this place’s story, the guide imparts such a sheer volume of information over your radio headphones in a properly sobering monotone that you’re bound to learn something new, or understand it better.
We began at Auschwitz 1, the beginnings of the camp in an old brick Polish military barracks, whose buildings now house exhibitions of the camp’s development and history. Here is where you see the straw mattresses and hard bare bunks the prisoners were packed in like sardines to sleep on, as well as heartrending piles of shoes, tooth and hairbrushes, and even massive piles of human hair attesting to the sheer scale and depravity of the Nazi’s treatment of its victims. They clearly didn’t even see them as human, just cattle to be harvested for whatever could be used. I just can’t understand how a German family receiving a lot of second-hand clothing and toiletries, or a fucking carpet made of human hair could not know what was happening (and most claim they didn’t). Where did they think these things were coming from, with all of their Jewish and Gypsy and homosexual and mentally challenged and conscientious Christian neighbors missing? It’s the shame of an entire generation, and an entire nation.
This is also where two even darker places are located. The prison was designed to show the camp’s victims that “there’s always somewhere worse”, with its isolation cells, Dr. Josef Mengele’s “experimental” torture rooms, and a pockmarked execution wall. Here is where Catholic Priest Kolbe volunteered to take the place of a randomly selected man who cried out about his family, and where he died in one of those isolation cells.
Worse yet, though, is the gas chamber and crematorium- the only surviving chamber after the Nazis blew up the four at Auschwitz II in front of the advance of the Russian troops at the end of the war. The skin-crawling feeling of entering this low-ceilinged concrete bunker, with its square holes for dropping in the Zyklon B gas (Auschwitz was the only camp to use it- the other death camps used CO2- as well as the only camp to tattoo its victims), and the disturbingly mundane brick ovens in the back, is nigh-indescribable.
Near the chamber, you can see the a corner of Camp Commandant Rudolf Hess’s house, where his wife and children lived in the shadow of the camp. His ghoulish wife even described it as a “paradise”, with sun and a swimming pool and even refused to leave when Hess was called to other duty later in the war. It was home to them. This is also where the gallows Hess was hung on still stand. At least one Nazi got precisely what he deserved.
After touring this camp we went to Auschwitz II, the large, barbed wire-fenced field full of the spare, barbaric wooden barracks and communal bathrooms which you are more likely to recognize from films and history books. Here is the ominous brick entry gate through which trains packed with sick and dying Jews entered, and here are the platforms where they were “sorted”, some destined for brutal work and some for the “showers”, the crumbled remains of which stand at the far end of the dreary expanse. A large stone monument now stands next to those piles of brick and mortar, but no more fitting monument to the murders and sacrifices this now grassy territory witnessed exists than the original barracks themselves, now empty of people, but full of the ghosts of a terrible past.