A Monstrous Vision…

After spending the day before wandering though the old Jewish areas of Krakow, I boarded a bus on a grey drizzly Saturday morning for my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I wasn’t sure what to expect – of the day or of myself – and the mood was stilted, even restrained, as the coach wove through the busy traffic and out into the green and undulating Polish countryside.

Auschwitz is actually 3 camps – Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz III (Monowitz-Buna, a work camp built near the I.G. Farben industrial complex, which wasn’t part of this visit) – as well as a network of 45 subcamps in the surrounding area. 

Our visit took us first to Auschwitz I, a group of 16 brick buildings surrounded by lush trees and the ubiquitous electric fence.

About to enter Auschwitz I

Once we’d passed through the gates and followed our local guide down the dusty path to the centre of the camp, it was obvious how compact the site was, not at all what I’d expected.

The buildings here were Polish army barracks prior to Nazi occupation and throughout the camp’s operation, more than 17,000 men, women and children marched under ‘work will set you free’, to the strident beat of the camp orchestra, and populated the bare floors, crowded beds, prison cells and medical wards of this, the base of the Third Reich’s Final Solution in Poland. 

Arbeit macht frei – work will set you free.

In fact, most of the inmates were not ‘local’. The camps were well-positioned for transportation from other points within Nazi Germany’s rapidly-expanding reach – places like Austria, Czechoslovakia and Romania to name just a few – and so this and the other camps became a veritable Babel, with the only common language being terror.

One display cabinet was filled with the suitcases and baskets that once held the possessions of these displaced people.

Auschwitz I was not only the base camp but also a place of significant experimentation. Genetic experiments were carried out to develop methods promoting multiple births, an essential part of Hitler’s plan to populate Eastern Europe with the Ayran Race he so admired. (During the same period, men were castrated to prevent the proliferation of undesirables.)

And the testing of the pesticide Zyklon B’s effectiveness as a human exterminant occurred here in preparation for its wider application at Birkenau.

After 2 hours walking in and out of the old barracks and even into the gas chamber where Zyklon B was first tested, all the while trying to absorb the overwhelming monstrosity of Hitler’s vision, we were given a short comfort break before boarding the coach for part two of our visit. (Believe me, paying for a pee here seemed a really small price to pay!)

Birkenau is enormous and it’s here where the largest number of people were murdered during World War II. Building (by the inmates themselves mind you) commenced in 1941 to ease congestion in the other camps but it was on such a scale that there can be no doubt that its purpose was to extinguish the lives of all who entered.

This photo was taken at the ‘sorting’ point looking back to the main entrance. This is the point where hundreds of thousands were bundled out of locked rail cars, separated from their loved ones and worldly goods, and selected to either remain in the camp or make the long march to the ‘showers’ at the back of the complex.

The ruins of two of the crematoriums have long since ceased to pose a threat but walking around the remains felt sinister – I could feel the absolute and unremitting purposeful-ness of Hitler’s Final Solution.

Between the two ruins lies the monument to those that died here.

‘For let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity. Where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from the countries of Europe.’
The plaque appears 28 times along the monument, translated into every langauge spoken by the inmates of Birkenau.

The bus was quiet on the way back to Krakow and alone with my thoughts,I tried to process all that I’d seen. 

I was horrified by Auschwitz. The inhumane experiments, the displays of surrendered possessions, the inmate photos lining the walls, and the prison – with its starvation and its standing cells designed to punish those who disobeyed by punishing their comrades. I felt the sting of tears blinked away several times here.

But I was numbed by the scale of Birkenau. It’s difficult even now to find the words. I still think about standing on those train tracks, watching them disappear towards the crematorium ruins and the forest surrounding the camp, and silently wondering ‘How? How could that be?’
It still catches me out, filling my mind’s eye in the middle of my day-to-day when I least expect it.

Perhaps it always will.

Other posts in the Krakow series:
It Starts With The Locals
Lightly Salted
The Dark Side 
Eat, Sleep And Be Merry

The Dark Side…

I’ve recently been to Krakow (regular Gidday-ers will already know this) and as I wandered its streets and gazed around the old town square, I thought how like Prague it felt. Right down to the bugler playing his doleful tune to all points of the compass from the tower of St Mary’s Basilica each hour.

And yet there’s something different about Krakow, a darker undertone.

In planning my trip, I had pre-booked a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau (more on that in another post). But Krakow was invaded by the Nazis on the 1st September 1939 and remained occupied for almost the entire period of the second world war so I wanted to understand how things were closer to ‘home’. And this needed going a little further afield so on Friday morning I headed south along the banks of the Vistula River for a day exploring Podgorze and Kazimierz.

View of Podgorze across the Vistula River from Kazimierz

Let’s get one thing straight. I am not well-versed in Jewish culture and history, despite having lived in Jewish areas both in Melbourne and now here in North London. (Just to clarify – I am not Jewish.) And I don’t have a particular interest in it so I was not planning a day of traipsing through synagogues. But the Jewish population of Krakow decreased from 65,000 before the war to only 200 today and I find it extraordinary that one of our ‘species’, if you will, could become so endangered.

Podgorze was where my walk was to begin. This was where some 15,000 Jews were herded from Kazimierz across the river to live within the walls and gates of their ghetto home before being deported to concentration camps, the closest being Plaszow, a labour camp built in 1942 and then converted in 1944. I wandered through the busy streets of this now everyday suburb of Krakow, past the piece of ghetto wall, tucked between modern structures along a main road, and into Plac Bohaterow Getta with its rows of empty chairs, a tribute to the thousands of Jews who left their worldly goods behind and boarded trains there.

Part of the old ghetto wall still stands in Podgorze
Plac Zgody, which stood in the centre of the ghetto, has been renamed Plac Bohaterow Getta as a monument to’ the heroes of the ghetto’

The enamel factory of Oskar Schindler is not far from here and just a short walk across the train line brought me to 4 Lipowa Street.

The factory houses an extraordinary permanent exhibition, Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945, which gives a fantastic insight into this short but defining period in Krakow’s history. There are lots and lots of details throughout the 28 exhibits and in some parts, it was a bit too much to digest. Nevertheless, I spent just over two hours here – there is a ‘ghetto walk’ and a fascinating display detailing the occurrences in the city in the days  right before and then during Nazi Germany’s entry into the city. If any of you are wondering about the must sees in Krakow, this should definitely be on your list.

Two moments in Krakow’s history illuminated by the sun.
(Under the rail line between Plac Bohaterow Getta and Lipowa Street) 

I began my slow and thoughtful walk back to Plac Bohaterow Getta and a short tram ride across the river, I found myself in Kazimierz, ready for a spot of lunch and a meander through this vibrant neighbourhood. There’s a different feel here – it’s industrious and dotted with craft and artists’ shops. Only two corners of the market on Plac Nowy were in operation as I walked through and I can imagine that the flea market on Saturday must have the whole square thrumming with activity. Alas, I was a day early and booked for my excursion to Auschwitz the following day.

Artistic expression reigns supreme in Kazimierz

I found a spot for a late lunch. My experience of Polish food so far had been wholesome and tasty and in huge portions – Miodowe Smaki (or A Taste Of Honey) was no different – and I settled in for a while to reflect on my day.

I don’t think a visit to Krakow can really be complete without an ackowledgement, amidst the music and medieval splendor of this wonderful city, of this particular piece of its history – in essence a reflection of our own darkest hours as a human race. A history, not only recent, but one littered with horror, tragedy and shame.

My trip through Jewish Krakow had left me filled with something that even now I can’t put into words. Sombre, respectful certainly, not quite sad but there was a sense of melancholy that stayed with me for several hours afterwards (and re-emerges as I type this). It felt like this day had given a depth to my Krakow experience that I hadn’t expected. I felt like I had some sense of a people who had lived their lives in hope and peace and, in an horrific injustice, met their end at the hands of their fellow man.

And in that, I felt a little more prepared for my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau the following day to confront the end of their story. 

Other posts in the Krakow series:
It Starts With The Locals
Lightly Salted
A Monstrous Vision
Eat, Sleep And Be Merry