Saturday, 19 May 2012

Poland 2012: Part 3: Auschwitz

world-map krakow


Still in Poland, this week I talk about my visit to one of the most affecting places on earth; certainly one of the most affecting that I’ve ever visited. In this episode, Mike and I visit Auschwitz where over a million souls perished during the Second World War. Not happy reading but essential in my opinion.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:

Poland 2012: Part 1: Krakow

Poland 2012: Part 2: Czestochowa

Poland 2012: Part 3: Auschwitz

Poland 2012: Part 4: Nowa Huta and Emailia

Poland 2012: Part 5: Wieliczka and the (not-so) Beautiful Game

Flickr album of this trip

poland map krakow trip


There was one place that I knew I had to see on this trip and that was Auschwitz. I’m not a big believer in ‘must sees’ but Auschwitz is an exception. I need not explain why.

Yet at the same time I had apprehensions about my visit. Most people have apprehensions about visiting a concentration camp where thousands were murdered I would imagine, but mine were different. Over the years I have read so much about and visited so many places connected with mass slaughter in general and the Holocaust in particular that I was afraid of being numbed somehow to what had taken place there, unable to fully feel the horror that such a place warrants.

I can’t remember when I was first told about the Holocaust. It was probably in a primary school History or RE lesson. My first memory of being aware of the horror was watching Escape from Sobibor, an eighties film about the breakout of prisoners that took place from that camp in 1943.I never watched the entire film – it was rated 18 and my parents were always very strict about film ratings – but an image stuck in my mind of a cattle truck with dozens of human hands thrust out of the tiny ventilation holes accompanied by a barrage of screams and groans.


In the first year of high school we visited the Jewish Museum in Manchester. There was an exhibition on there on the Holocaust which included some photos showing emaciated bodies being thrown into a furnace. These images shocked me profoundly. Since then though, the feelings that I encountered at Yad Vashem, the Berlin Jewish Museum, Hiroshima, Tuol Sleng and other sites of great horror that I have visited have been more akin to an empty numbness.

Auschwitz – or ‘Oświęcim’ to give it ts Polish name – can be visited either independently or as part of a group. My initial inclination had been to do it independently but prior to leaving Britain I rang up Paul, an old family friend and leading light in the North Staffordshire Hebrew Congregation. He’d been to Auschwitz on Holocaust memorial and educational trips and I wanted his advice. “Go on the group tour,” he implored. “Seriously, go on the group tour. I know it’s a little bit more expensive but you’ll miss so much out if you don’t. For starters, Auschwitz is on two sites and they’re a couple of miles apart and getting from one to other can be a real pain.”

Thus it was that we were sat on a minibus rolling through the grey, sleet-covered Polish countryside. It felt like an ordinary group tour; in front of us were a young Liverpudlian couple who were waxing lyrical on what a fashionable city Liverpool is, (“Although the fake tans and false eyelashes can be a bit much like…”), whilst the guide warned us about the perils of not straying too far from the group. Only the catalogue of horrors that I was reading in my novel reminded me that this was no jaunt to a beauty spot.

It was cold and grey when we arrived at Auschwitz. We were assigned a guide with excellent – if curiously accented – English whom we listened to through a set of headphones. Then we stepped out of the entrance hall and into the camp itself.

Auschwitz was not how I’d imagined it to be. I’d expected a bleak collection of wooden dorms surrounded by a high fence punctuated by the infamous gate with the words ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’ written across the top.[1] Instead what I found was somewhere far more civilised. The dorms and other buildings were all built solidly out of brick and the site compact and tidy. “Plant some flowers and it might even look nice,” I said to myself. This looked more like the prison where Mike and I work than the jerry-built hell-hole of my imaginings.


At the Gates to Auschwitz

Our guide explained to us why this was. “This was a Polish Army barracks before the Nazis[2] took over and made it a prison. And Auschwitz I was never a death camp; Auschwitz I was a concentration camp, mainly for political prisoners.”



We went into an exhibition cheerfully called ‘Extermination’ in one of the old dorm blocks. The interior had been stripped and instead were a series of displays that attempted to explain just what had gone on during the war. The first gave a number – 1.6 million approximately – that had been murdered at Auschwitz. No bodies were left; the vast majority had been cremated and the ash spread on the fields as fertiliser. The only memorial was a large jar full of human ash. It could just as easily have been taken from our old coal fire at home. All that was left from 1.6 million, the equivalent of the populations of Liverpool and Birmingham combined, was a jar of grey dust.


The remains of over a million souls…

One room had been left as it was, a dorm where the inmates had slept on straw like animals. It didn’t look that bad, not as bad as I’d expected it to be, but it was. The corridor was lined with photographs of some of the earlier inmates, (after a year or so, the Germans gave up bothering to record their victims – there were simply too many), with names, arrival and death dates. The average stay was three months.

Other rooms detailed just how the mass slaughter was carried out. It was explained that gassing people with Zyklon B did not happen immediately. Auschwitz had originally been a prison camp for political prisoners who, like those in the photographs downstairs, had been mostly Polish and had been worked and starved to death rather than murdered outright. It was only later on, largely after the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ had been decided upon[3] that methods for wholesale mass murder were explored due to several factors, such as worries about how shooting huge numbers might affect the German troops psychologically, economic factors, (the bullets were needed at the front), but primarily the sheer numbers involved. Early ideas involved carbon monoxide – a variation on the suicide tactic of putting a tube from a car exhaust into the car itself, shutting the windows and turning on the ignition – and indeed this system was used at Treblinka until the end of the war, but at Auschwitz experiments were done using Zyklon B and that was found to be more effective. Later on, when we visited the punishment block, we came across a cell in the basement with a plaque on the wall in remembrance of the 600 Russian POWs and 250 Poles who had died in the first experiments with the gas on the 3rd September, 1941. In the Extermination exhibition we saw a large-scale model of one of the gas chambers at Birkenau and a huge pile of empty Zyklon B canisters, enough to kill several thousand. What surprised me though is that it wasn’t a gas that was piped in but instead small pellets that only turned to gas in the humid atmosphere of the chamber, warmed up by the heat of hundreds of bodies pressed close to each other. It took an excruciating twenty minutes to die.[4]


Canisters of Zyklon B

There were other rooms of horror after that. A room full of suitcases, all from a single train, a ‘delivery’ of Jews from Holland; rooms full of glasses, shoes, cooking utensils and, most stomach-churning of all, human hair. Even this though, did not affect me like the room full of children’s clothing, many of the garments the same size as those my four-year old son wears. To murder adults is one thing; to slaughter innocent children is something else entirely.


Shoes of the dead


Suitcases from a Holland ‘delivery’

In the punishment block we saw cells were eight people were forced to stand in a space barely big enough for two; cells where inmates were starved to death including the one where St. Maximillian Kolbe died. He was a Polish priest who, in July 1941, offered to take the place of a condemned man because that man had a wife and children who needed him. The Germans accepted and the condemned man survived the war. Kolbe died in his place but for his Christ-like act is revered throughout Poland and beyond as a great Christian martyr.[5]

We saw also the wall against which thousands of inmates were shot, the ‘hospital’ block where the infamous Dr. Mengele conducted his hideous experiments and then the spot where, after the war, the former camp commandant Rudolf Höß was hanged. Near there our guide pointed out Höß’s former residence, a large house that is not part of the museum because it is lived in by a Polish family who have refused to sell it despite many offers. Why anyone would want to live in such a place though is beyond me.

Then last of all came the gas chamber itself, a non-descript brick bunker in which around three hundred and forty people could be herded and killed in one go.[6] Walking through the changing rooms into the chamber itself, it was chilling to think that these were the last scenes that sixty thousand fellow human beings ever saw of life on earth. As our guide explained things though, strangely, perhaps because the human mind cannot cope with so much suffering and death, more practical issues came to mind. It took around twenty minutes for all the people in the chamber, but the ovens next door had a much lower capacity – if worked constantly, it took around twenty-four hours to burn the corpses – and so emptying the chamber could take days. The biggest limiting factor for the Nazi operations was not the killing but instead the disposing of the bodies and for some reason that I can’t quite understand, that really shocked me.


Mike at Auschwitz

What most people do not realise unless they have visited for themselves is that what is referred to as ‘Auschwitz’ was not actually a single camp but instead a whole colony of them that got its name from that of the nearby town, the German rendering of which is Auschwitz but for the Poles it is Oświęcim. The institution that Mike and I had visited first was Auschwitz I, the oldest of the camps but that was not the biggest nor the place where most died. After the Final Solution was decided upon, Auschwitz II – Birkenau – was constructed, ten times the size of the original and unlike Auschwitz I its primary purpose was not as a labour or prison camp but instead extermination pure and simple. Auschwitz I was the concentration camp where inmates were worked to death, but Birkenau was a death camp where over a million, mainly Jews, met their deaths in the gas chambers. Most inmates of Birkenau went straight to their deaths from the trains; they were not there for long. In addition to these, there was also an Auschwitz III – Monolitz – which was primarily a labour camp for supplying the various industrial complexes in the town with slave labour and forty-five sub-camps mostly situated in or near to the factories where their inmates were put to work.

We now got on the bus and made our way the two kilometres across from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. If Auschwitz I had been a prison – not the most shocking of places to two people who spend their working lives within a similar institution – Birkenau was something else entirely. On a cold, windswept plain, huge, surrounded by a high fence and watchtowers, with row after row of wooden huts and a railway line leading through the brick gatehouse and into its dark heart, the railway line along which the doomed of Europe were transported to their deaths, this was the very realisation of one’s nightmares about the Holocaust.

It was freezing cold. An arctic wind blew from the grey sky and chilled our bones. On the platform where the incoming trains were once unloaded of their human cargo – and where today stands a single cattle truck as a reminder – our guide told us of what once happened there. “The train would arrive and an SS doctor would stand here. He would look at the prisoners quickly. If they were fit and healthy they went to that side and they would live. This side was for the gas chambers. However, if they had enough workers already, then the train would just continue straight past here to the chambers and they would all die.


Birkenau – where the prisoners were unloaded from the trains

We walked up to the place where the railway tracks ended and where today a memorial now stands under which are a series of plaques which read, in many languages:














Next to the memorial are the remains of Crematorium IV which were blown up on the 7th October, 1944 in a revolt of the Jewish Sonderkommandos – inmates kept separate from the rest to work in the crematoria disposing of the bodies – who attacked their SS guards with makeshift weapons and blew up the crematorium with explosives smuggled in from a weapons factory by female inmates who worked there. This was also the crematorium depicted in the model we’d seen at Auschwitz I and so recreating it in our minds was easy if horrific.

We finished our tour off by visiting some of the barracks, firstly one in the women’s camp and then a toilet block which inmates were allowed to visit twice a day only and then for only a minute at a time. These were depressing places, originally designed as stables. To live in them would have been hell and to live in them on a cup of ersatz coffee, watery soup and slice of bread a day even worse. But at Birkenau few ever lived long. Well over a million passed through its gates. Upon liberation by the Red Army on the 27th January, 1945, only around fourteen thousand remained.

Our guide though, did finish on a positive note. Stood in the toilet block, he told us the story of Jerzy Bielecki, a Polish inmate who fell in love with a Jewess, Cyla Cybulska. He managed to acquire an SS uniform and escaped with his love by walking out of the gates with her in tow, telling the sleepy guard that he was taking a prisoner to be interrogated. After the escape they hid in different places and lost contact with another, he returning to Kraków and she, after the end of the war, moving to the USA. Then, in the 1980s, after a chance conversation with her Polish cleaner – Cyla had told her that she’s been at Auschwitz and had escaped with Bielecki and the cleaner recognised the name since he had been on Polish TV – they were reunited thirty-nine years later. In 1983 she arrived at Kraków Airport where he stood waiting with thirty-nine red roses, one for each year they had spent apart.

On the way back to Kraków I read Schindler’s List. I felt numb. On the one hand I felt guilty for not having been more horrified; on the other hand I knew that what we had seen was beyond the human capacity to understand. That evening we went out to a bar to do what we had originally booked our holiday to do, watch Stoke City do battle in Valencia. The football took our minds away from what we had seen that day and for ninety minutes we were engrossed in the Beautiful Game, as Stoke fought pluckily but went down a goal to nil and ended their European adventure. In the next room crowds were watching the local boys, Wisła Kraków as they travelled to Belgium, needing a win to progress. They drew and so we all ended up disappointed.

After that we moved on but despite the fact that the beer was fine, we were on holiday and the company good, Auschwitz remained with us for long afterwards. It was almost like a delayed reaction to the shock. “I can’t get that place out of my head,” I told Mike. He nodded. “The second one, Birkenau, it was horrific,” he agreed. After that, we had no more to say.

Next part: Poland 2012: Part 4: Nowa Huta and Emailia

Flickr album of this trip 

[1] Literally ‘Work Makes You Free’. One of the many lies – or cold jokes – used by the Nazis at Auschwitz. I’d read about the gate before and so expected it. Mike on the other hand, hadn’t heard of it and found it a shock. He later told me that for him it was one of the most affecting parts of the visit.

[2] Interestingly, he always used the term ‘Nazis’ and not once ‘Germans’. At the end of the tour I asked him why and he replied that it was “not politically correct” to use ‘Germans’.

[3] Agreed at Wannsee Villa, Berlin, January 20th, 1942.

[4] Actually the time that it took to die depended largely on how near the vents you were. For those lucky enough to be directly under a vent, death was virtually instantaneous.

[5] The man in question was one Franciszek Gajowniczek. An inmate had escaped and the Germans selected some prisoners at random to be starved to death as a punishment. Upon hearing that he had been chosen, Gajowniczek cried out, “My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?” Upon hearing this Fr. Kolbe offered to take his place and the Germans permitted it. Kolbe was starved for fourteen days and during each day he celebrated Mass and sang hymns. At the end of this time all the other condemned men had died but Kolbe was still alive. He was then injected with a fatal dose of carbolic acid. Gajowniczek survived the war and was reunited with his wife but sadly not his sons who were killed in a Soviet bombing raid in 1945.

[6] This was tiny compared with the four chambers at Birkenau which had a combined capacity of 4,420, with two accommodating over a thousand each.

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