Sunday, October 19, 2008
Today was our trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau. As we drove the hour long trip to the notorious death camp, we went through nervous laughter attempting to settle ourselves prior to arrival. The town of Oswiecim came upon us suddenly as did the camp of Auschwitz I. What struck us all was the location of a school, hotel, fast food stores and other businesses across the street from this most famous of death camps. As Doug said...it was like coming upon a local zoo...with dozens of tour busses parked outside the visitor center. Apparently their was a battle about 10 years ago with the museum and the city over the businesses location...but the city won out. It reminded me of the battle over civil war sites in the United States and the creep of modern civilization.
Once we entered we met up with our guide who took us through the camp. This was not the camp built for Jews and the buildings here were all built of brick (with a few exceptions). It had been originally built for the Polish Army...but was quickly converted to deal with all of the prisoners they were arresting in Poland. These prisoners were used to build Auschwitz II (known as Birkenau).
We started in the building that took us through the Final Solution and the remains for what was left upon its liberation in January 1945...to include hair, shoes, suitcases, personal effects and much more. Each room was more sobering than the last. Many of the exhibits I had seen before on the Oprah special with Elie Weisel...but being there was something else entirely. We went into other buildings to include Building 12 the "Prison within a Prison" and its adjoining execution wall. We toured the cells and witnessed the hell that was Auschwitz I. Starvation cells, suffocation cells...designed for the joy of sadists. How does one resist his madness???how does one fight back??? The penalty for escape was the death of others...to include yourself when you were caught.
After taking a tour of a modern exhibit from Hungary...we finally toured the Gas Chamber...small by comparison to Auschwitz II...but still 350 at at time with adjoining crematorium. What upside down madness was this place? Far more questions than answers could ever provide. You leave Auschwitz I in a somber contemplative place...only to take the short bus ride to Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Again its simply out there...and you can drive right up to the gate...that infamous gate to hell. We climb up the observation tower and stare in horror at the scope...the immense size of this place that can be seen from this tower. Here were 4 Gas Chambers with Cremetoria...Over 5000 a day at its peak...We spend only a short time there...looking at a barracks and a shower/toilet room...one could see the cruel joke of both buildings on the prisoners who worked in this hell. Work...certainly did not make one free...only death.
We left Auschwitz II to have a short dinner and contemplate...joking largely subsided amongst our usually jovial band of teachers...jokes simply lost their place in the shadow hanging over us. How does one take this all in? I still don't know...none of us do. As we drove away...we see many houses that look old enough to have been around during the war. We ask...what did they see out those windows? What did that mean to them? Simply more difficult questions....