Auschwitz: a name that permeates world consciousness. I visited while on a trip to Krakow in southern Poland. It has become the must do excursion when you visit this lovely elegant city. Two days after our arrival we were picked up at our hotel in a minibus and along with our fellow passengers were driven the 70 kilometers to Oswein, the town’s Polish name. Parts of the countryside reminded me of rural Scotland, as did the weather it rained everyday but was sunny everyday too.
It was with trepidation that I arrived at the camp having been warned that the visit tended to hit home a couple of days later, when you realize as to exactly what you have seen.
The first thing that struck me was the normality of the town of Oswein, I had expected the camp to be in a barren area. The second was the sheer number of tourist buses; large coaches coming in from the Czech Republic and loads of minibuses that ship in the tourists from Krakow. On arrival we were given a fifteen-minute break. I chose not to have anything in the cafeteria, it didn’t feel right. I did visit the bookshop were there were books in a multitude of languages, one a collection of survivors poetry.
We were then walked through a large hall and given earpieces, connected to a Wi Fi system to listen to the guide and we were also requested not to speak during the visit and finally we were introduced to our guide.
The barracks remain and many of then are dedicated to different aspects of existence in the camp. In barracks one we were shown the map of the origins of the people who died in the camp, from every corner of Europe. Oswein is situated at a natural crossroads and has a large railway junction. The camp began as a Polish army barracks and when it was taken over by the Nazis, it was initially used as an internment camp for Polish people who fought against the Nazis and then used for Russian POW’s. When the camp received its new commander in 1942 he immediately saw the possibility as an extermination camp because it was so easily accessed by train. We saw the infamous train tracks at the end of the trip in the twin camp of Birkenhau.
From there we visited several of the barracks. We had to queue to enter each area, because of the volume of people who were visiting. The former dormitories have become exhibition areas, one side of the rooms have been made into large glass fronted display cases full of items, strewn in vast heaps. There were suitcases, clothes including baby clothes, cooking utensils, shoes, and empty gas pellet tins.
The display case of shoes.
The gas they used had originally been developed as an insecticide but my moment of realization came when I saw the one full of women’s hair. The hair was cut of the corpses and sent back to Germany to be woven into cloth. I shivered when the guide stated the Nazis had been industrialized in their extermination.
The penultimate barracks held the court were people who had helped the Jews were tried and always found guilty, though they were hanged instead of being sent to the gas chamber. In the cellars were the punishment cells; cubicles were people were locked up for up to a week, so small there was only sufficient space to stand. The last stop was to pass through the gas chamber were up to a 1000 people were gassed at a time. The people used to undertake this work were kapos, prisoners themselves who were given no choice along with convicted German criminals who had been released from prisons to work in the camp. The German military barracked themselves in the town.
After this we had another break then we were transported to Birkenhau where they still have a barracks with the bunk beds. Three tiers high made from wooden slated strips, with up to five and six people sleeping in each tier where many died from cold, hunger and dysentery. The effluent from ill people in the higher tiers made its way through the slats.
Auschwitz has been preserved – “least we not forget.” However, one of my impressions, due to it having been converted to the Holocaust Shrine and Memorial in the Stalin Soviet era, was it was a kind of propaganda. I feel the impacting nature was in part created to make the Soviets and their gulags with similar atrocities seem not so bad, though there are shrines where one can pay respects, I felt haunted by the place.
There is no entry fee to the camp but the price is between £25 and £35 to go on a trip from Krakow. I do not regret having visited though I thought with a wrenched gut of the slaughter in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and the current conflicts in Syria, and in sub Saharan Africa, evidence form the UN commission on North Korea of a woman forced to drown her new born child when held in a prison camp.
History shows us daily, man’s inhumanity to man continues so we must always be on our guard to attitudes that lead to the commission of atrocities. I finish with the words of Joseph Bronowski a Polish Jew whose family left Poland in the thirties. He went on to study Mathematics at Cambridge and became a great academic in the UK and in the United States, and I quote from his book “The Ascent of Man” –
“Into the pond at Auschwitz people were turned into numbers, it was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality that is how they behave.”