Wednesday, August 17, 2005

No jokes here

We're taking advantage of our last few days of cheap internet (before we hit Switzerland and its $4/20 minute rates) to try and get caught up with all our posts. We're only about 2 weeks problem.

We've had some time to digest our experiences with Auschwitz and thought we'd share some thoughts and impressions. I had been to Dachau (in Germany) a number of years ago and also to the excellent Holocaust museum in Washington DC, while Brian was new to the experience.

Some observations:

There are actually two camps to visit when you take head to Oscweim, a town about 70 km from Krakow, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (or Birkenau). You start at the museum at Auschwitz I with a film taken by the Russian troops as they were liberating the camps. It actually had some new footage for me of the survivors being examined and treated, and the soldiers inspecting the camp facilities and warehouses. Most of what I had seen before was mostly corpses, etc., so this was a new perspective.

Auschwitz I itself was in many ways kind of anticlimatic for me (in much the same way that a good part of Dachau was). I think this was so for a number of reasons:

1) The mental imagery that most of us have when we hear the name 'Auschwitz' is actually from Auschwitz II/Birkenau. (More about that later)
2) Like in Dachau most of the barracks have been converted into exhibit halls, and while there are some very powerful exhibits, it still distances you from what it was like for the people imprisioned there.
3) The camp itself was located on a former Polish army base and so the buildings themselves are a lot more 'normal' looking. Plus they've been repainted and landscapes so as you walk around and in them, it just feels like a normal place (with the obvious exceptions of the sinister barbed wire fences, famous "arbeit makes frei" gate, etc.).
4) Most of the things that you are seeing are inside buildings, where there are lots of other people talking/laughing etc. and the god-awful, omnipresent tour groups. It makes it a little difficult to be alone with your thoughts and contemplate what you are seing.
5) Like at Dachau, the one type of exhibit that was not translated were all the documents, letters, reports, diaries, newspaper clippings, etc. as well as the labels describing them. That was a shame, as it would have given us a whole other perspective.

However there were still many powerful elements of the camp that still successfully conveyed the horror of the atrocities there:
1) The "Death Block" with the execution courtyard and wall, the sham trial room that led out directly to the courtyard where the condemmed immediately met their fate, and the prison cells in the basement.
2) The exhibits of all the plunder the Nazi's took: just rooms full of suitcases and dishes and clothes and shoes and hair(!).
3) The gas chambers and cremetorium. Like at Dachau, this is where it all hits home. We were particularly uncomfortable here, because of all the other people walking through this hallowed ground with very "touristy" attitudes. There just wasn't the respect for all the people murdered there that you would like to see (or it was their way of dealing with their discomfort....). Like Brian, I was eager to get out of there.
4) All the pictures of people. The hallways of a couple of the Blocks that you walk through are just covered with hundreds of pictures of who had come through the gates. These weren't the skeletal pictures you see that are horrible, but that allow you to distance yourself from them. Rather, these look just like you or me. The pictures of the mostly women and children who have just been unloaded from the train and are now being herded unknowingly straight to the gas chamber are heartbreaking. Also, there are hundreds of mug shots of the people who were chosen to live for a bit in the camps. You just look in their eyes and wonder what was going through their head and what they had seen and experienced. Each photo had a name, sometimes a birthdate, the date that the person entered the camps, and the date they died (often just a few weeks or months later).

After you finish walking through the camp, you board a shuttle bus for the 3 km trip to Birkenau. Birkenau was built when the first Auschwitz camp was deemed not be efficient enough in killing the train loads of Jews arriving (it took 4 days to process through the cremetorium all the people killed in one day in the gas chamber. unacceptable.).

Like many people, we found Birkenau to be the nightmare place that we had always associated with Auschwitz and ultimately to be much more affecting and moving:

1) Birkenau, more than any other camp, makes it clear that its purpose is solely a death factory, not a concentration camp. It basically is a set of railroad tracks that lead straight through the main gate to 4 gas chambers/crematoria, with some basic barracks on either side for the overflow of people over the daily killing capacity (and to do some labor around the camp).

2) It turns out that a large number of the photo images with which we are all familiar (passengers being unloaded from box cars, being lined up on the platform for the selection, being herded toward the gas chamber, etc.) were all taken the the echos are very strong. You'll be walking down a path and all of a sudden realize that you are in the exact spot that you have seen people being sent to their death. It's impossible to escape that feeling...that you are walking in their you walk around the place.

3) The vastness of the camp is mindboggling. While only a dozen or two structures remain intact, as far as the eye can see are the remains (the chimney stacks and outlines) of the more than 300 other buildings that had been built and the electrified barbed wire fences that turned the 425 acres into many mini-camps. You can picture it teeming with emaciated, terrified people, with only mud to walk on and the smoke constantly belching from the crematoria..but you can't really believe it.

4) Because most of what is here to see is outside (versus inside buildings) and because it's so much bigger than Auschwitz, it is much easier to get away from other people and to experience it in your own head and to feel a little less like a tourist and more like somone trying to pay their respects.

5) The few barracks that are left are not exhibit halls, rather they've been left (or restored to) the way that the camp inmates experienced them: dank, dark, with the bed bunks that so many people had to crowd into. (The wooden barracks were prefab units designed as stables for 14 horses. Meanwhile, more than a hundred people were kept there). It was incredibly powerful to imagine 5 people lying sideways to fit into their assigned one bunk amid the straw and mud and filth.

We continue to believe that everybody who can should visit one of these camps (or the museum in DC). You may read about it in books or see things in movies, but it remains academic and an intellectual exercise until you can see the cold efficiency with which so many millions were murdered. The more people experience this, the better chance that there may be people to stand up when situations like this arise in the future.



Anonymous said...

Thank you guys for sharing your thoughts on this. I've been really eager to read them, but I know how hard it can be to describe experiences like this in writing and feel like you've done them any justice at all. I particularly agree with your last point. I remember feeling exactly the same way first when I visited Hiroshima on the 44th anniversary of the bombing there. Seeing the shadow of a person on a set of stone steps or the shreds of clothing remaining from one of the victims...there was no way you could absorb those things and not walk away committed to seeing it never happen again. I felt the same way both times I visited the National Holocaust Museum in DC and Theresienstadt (Terezin) in the Czech Republic. The few photos kids see in history class just aren't enough.

I think of you guys often and love your posts. But I hope you aren't stressing yourselves out with undue pressure to update the blog. Remember, the idea is to RELAX, right? :)



Anonymous said...

This was a beautiful post - thank you so much for sharing it with us!