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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!