Oswiecim, Poland – aka Auschwitz

Oswiecim   (Osh-vee-em-chim) is a town in Poland.  During its WWII occupation, the Germans called the town by its German name, Auschwitz.  The infamous Nazi death camp is still called Auschwitz.

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If you have ever seen it in movies or in pictures, it looks like an austere, orderly hell. Walking around the campus has a sickening feel.

 

Today we visited the preserved and restored Auschwitz and Birkenau camps.  This was a must; and I have read that many travel to Krakow only to see Auschwitz.  (That, by the way, would be a shame because Krakow is amazing–but more on that in a subsequent post!)

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A group of Jewish students enter the complex.

Although I understood the moral obligation to visit the site, I felt a bit resentful during the 3 hour tour.  I kept thinking, “I know all of this.  I have read the books, I have conscientiously done my historical homework!”  Why I was obligated to dedicate a precious half-day of my time in Poland to relive the misery and suffering inflicted by the Nazi’s in WWII?

And then, as if reading my mind, the tour, the guide answered this question.  He said this place of incomprehensible evil and suffering was preserved so that the world would remember what happened.  When history is preserved only in books it allows people to forget, and to distance themselves from it over time.

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This is the notorious gas chamber in which the Nazi’s would use poisonous gas to suffocate several hundred Jewish people at a time. They would have just arrived at the camp and be sent to what they were told were showers. Their bodies would be robbed of all personal affects after-which they were cremated in the next room. To stand in this room was simply sickening.

He told us we should take what we have seen and recognize where it is still going on in places around the world.  He invited us to live long happy lives while making an effort–with this place in our minds–to make the world a better place.

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Some of the world’s best writers have written on this subject.  The world’s best filmmakers have created monumental works such as Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Shoah, and several more.  There is nothing I can add to this discussion.  When a guided tour uses the word “atrocity” at every stop on the tour, how does one process that?  It is overwhelming.  Millions of people mistreated, tortured, driven into suffering by complete strangers.

The platform beside these tracks is where the "Selection" took place.  As people disembarked from the train, they were divided into two groups, those who could work--and would go on to endure a living hell--and those who were immediately sent to the gas chambers.  Families said goodbye on this platform, never to see each other again.

The platform beside these tracks is where the “Selection” took place. As people disembarked from the train, they were divided into two groups, those who could work–and would go on to endure a living hell–and those who were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Families said goodbye on this platform, never to see each other again.

I cannot fathom the evil that lay in the hearts of these German soldiers.   Visiting Auschwitz, although painful, was a worthwhile remembrance, and has etched certain imagery in my mind forever.  Few books can do what that visit did.

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Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II was twenty times the size of Auschwitz. The goal had been to increase the scale of the mass exterminations to what looks like a vast farm.

I have been struck by the number of Poles I have met who are concerned that I thought of it as a Polish concentration camp.  The Poles are deeply proud of Poland and extremely welcoming to us as visitors looking for a cultural connection.  Several have made the point that Auschwitz was a “German” camp in Poland, not a Polish camp.

It was time well spent and it will last forever in my memory.  I am pleased to say, however, that the trip lightens up significantly from here!  Next is dinner with the family of our Polish host and guide, and Krakow!

π

Comments

  1. Nancy Reply

    Tony, I have very much enjoyed your travelogues over the years (and your cooking). Please know that the role of the Polish people during WW11 has been very well documented and, unfortunately it is not nearly as black and white as your Polish friends and guides are suggesting. While certainly Adolf Hitler and the B German government at the time began the Holocaust, sadly there were many Polish people who were both victimized and who were complicit in the systematic deduction of the Jewish population living in Eastern Europe at that time. There is still much discussion about the inability of the Polish people today, to fully acknowledge their role in this atrocity. Please consider digging deeper, the Holocaust museum here in D.C. has many excellent resources to better understand the complexity that occurred in Poland and the other countries of eastern Europe that had large vibrant Jewish populations prior to WWII. Enjoy the rest of the trip and looking forward to hearing more about your travels.

    • Tony Reply

      Thank you for taking this time Nancy. I have read a fair amount on the subject, most recently a book on the aftermath of WWII called Savage Continent which I highly recommend. I most certainly agree with you that the issue is complicated and far from black and white.

      I was, nevertheless, struck by the passion of the many the young Poles I have met.

  2. Anna Reply

    Nancy – there is no dispute that there were Poles, who as individuals- collaborated with the Germans in many ways including betraying Jewish citizens of Poland. It was not the kind of wholesale government sanctioned betrayal that existed in other countries sush as Belgium or France. Also remember that the occupation there was the most brutal of any in Europe for both Gentile and Jewish citizens.
    There was a humongous amount of historical misinformation about what happened in Poland during the German occupation released by the subsequent occupiers – the Soviets. The best way to justify to the rest of the world why you occupy a county illegaly is to blacken its name , and send out a lot of misinformation – something the Soviets/Russians are expert at- as seen regarding the downing of the plane recently by Russian backed seperatists in Ukraine.
    It is very difficult to straighten 50 years of lies in barely 2 decades- since Poland regained its freedom.

    • Tony Reply

      Thank you Anna! Great content and thanks for reading!

  3. ChrisJ Reply

    To be clear, this was a German Nazi camp in German Nazi OCCUPIED Poland. Non-Jewish Poles are the second biggest category of victims (75,000 murdered including 149 Catholic priests and other male clergy). The place was started by the Germans for Polish prisoners.
    Hence, why it is inaccurate and considered offensive to think of it as a “Polish concentration camp”.
    Incidentally, over half the town’s population was Jewish before the Germans invaded Poland and started the brutal Nazi occupation. Please do not forget that for HUNDREDS of years Poland was the center of the Jewish world since it had been the only country to offer Jews sanctuary and legal rights.

  4. Yvonne Reply

    Nancy, please be aware that the first victims at Auschwitz (and the other German camps) were Polish Christians. By war’s end, their number was exceeded only by Jewish victims. On the Germans’ scale of subhumanity, Poles were considered one degree above Jews. Hitler extolled Germans to “kill without mercy all men, women and children of Polish nationality and language.” Ultimately, equal numbers of Christian and Jewish Poles perished during WW2. The Polish “role in this atrocity,” the Holocaust, is greatly exaggerated in the US (and other) media, sometimes out of ignorance of the severe and brutal conditions in Poland under German occupation, and often for political motives. I urge you to do some research of your own: Jan Karski (whose personal entreaties to FDR were ignored), Witold Pilecki, Henryk Slawik, Julian Bilecki, Eugene Lazowski, the Ulma family, Irena Sendler, ZEGOTA (the only government-sponsored organization in Occupied Europe created solely to aid Jews). However, most Polish Christians who helped Jews will forever remain anonymous because Poland was the only nation upon whom the Germans carried out an automatic death sentence on anyone rendering even the smallest amount of help to a Jew. Ask yourself whether you would risk you life (and the lives of your family members) to help someone. In fact, countless Poles did. Despite this great risk, more Poles are honored as Righteous Gentiles than any other nationality, but those are just a fraction of the true number since those who helped were executed along with the Jews they aided. Unfortunately, the media prefer to emphasize isolated events such as Jedwabne and to judge an entire nation by the bad actions of a relative few. Finally, I would point out that the sizeable role of Jewish collaborators (under both the German and Soviet occupations) has been almost completely whitewashed, but I’ll leave it to you to look into this further if you are interested.

  5. JuRo Reply

    Tony, thank you for this blog and for your kindness to the Polish people, who suffered unimaginable horrors under the German occupation, and who are now unfairly maligned for alleged “complicity” in the Holocaust. I should mention that two of the movies you named propagate this negative misinformation about Poland. However, “The Pianist” treats the subject fairly, showing good and bad examples of Poles, Jews, and Germans. It is easy for us, who are fortunate to live in a place where we are not faced with the difficult choices of that time, to declare unequivocally that we would have acted only by the noblest standards. But as another commenter pointed out, many Poles did.

    • Tony Reply

      juRo, thanks for your comments. It is a very complicated issue and you point out correctly that we view it through a lens of relative peace compared to the world back then. That is just one of the complicating wrinkles!
      TT

  6. Kathleen Greeley Reply

    Tony, I am really enjoying following your journey via the interweb. This post struck me in a very deep way. I will be the first to admit I was not a good student when it came to history. I never understood why it was important or even relevant. As I’ve gotten older and I’ve seen history repeat itself time and again, I am reminded that the importance of learning about our past is to help stop or at least lessen the chance for repeat occurrences. I will also be the first to admit that I never wanted to go to the Holocaust museum here in DC because I already read about it, already saw the movies, why do I want to see more about that, etc.. You visited one of the actual places. The actual site of those horrible and heinous acts. Where I know you felt as I did and didn’t know why you needed to spend that time visiting the site, I know you took away exactly what you were supposed to. I hope the rest of your trip is as enlightening, but maybe a bit more uplifting! Trip of a lifetime, indeed!

    • Tony Reply

      What a nice message Kathleen, thank you! I’m always happy that people are interested in reading my blog; but if I also made you think, even better! The trip to Auschwitz surely made me think!

  7. phat50chick Reply

    In 1982, my short term studies at Bates took me to what was then the USSR. We spent a number of days in Latvia and visited Salaspils, which was a concentration camp just outside of Riga, the capitol of Latvia. It housed both Latvians and some Germans that were sent there and we were told that it had a large number of children as residents. I recall there were children’s drawings on some of the foundation walls.

    More than 30 years later, I still remember the feelings that we all experienced while visiting the camp. It’s something that never has ever left me and I still think about it regularly. While I don’t feel compelled to read much about the Holocaust, I have that experience which exceeded anything I could have read.

    Thanks for this post.

    Leigh

    • Tony Reply

      Thank you Leigh. I found it to be a sickening scene of a crime against humanity.

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