A trip to Poland: July 24 to August 6, 1998
The second day we were in Krakow we planned a day trip to Oswiecim, the Polish city where the S.S. concentration camp Aushwitz was located. Oswiecim is an industrial town located about 60 km from Krakow. The largest concentration camp was located in this city. In 1945 the retreating Nazi's attempted to destroy the camp to cover up their crimes but much had survived. What has survived has been put together as pieces of a puzzle (pieces salvaged from other locations) to establish a museum to remember the horrors that had taken place here and at Birkenau (aka AushwitzII).
I have read in guide books that the museum at Aushwitz is one of the most moving sites in Poland and that is not an understatement. The night before I had nightmares and strange dreams, I truly didn't think that I was that prepared for what may lie ahead. This was a site I had wanted to see, but it was my spouse who was completely compelled to go. This is what he had spoke of the whole trip, he is somewhat of a WWII history buff and this is the place he wanted to see the most. My parents went along for the ride, I don't think they particularly wanted to vividly relive the WWII experience. My father was a slave for the S.S. for part of the war in a part of Poland known as the Mikolajki in the part of Poland known as Masuria on the eastern front. My grandfather (my mom's father) was killed by the Nazi's (he was hung) when she was 14 years old, in 1943. They went along for the history of it, they remind me how horrible and difficult life was and they're lives are forever scarred by their many experiences during the war, something "our children and their future generation will hopefully never have to encounter."
We decided to take the train there. On the train we met up with 3 students from the U.S. who were studying in Prague for the summer and stayed in Krakow for the weekend. They essentially followed us being that nobody in their group spoke Polish and it isn't the easiest language to master over weekend (hell, I've spoken it my whole life and I felt silly speaking it in the native land). Afterwards I had learned that a faster and easier route would've been a bus or even a taxi from Krakow, either which would likely be comparable in price. At the train station my parents picked up some kielbasa (sausage) and rogaliki (pretzel type bread, chewy) to take with. From that point we tried to figure out the bus schedule to the museum site. Luckily there was a nice girl who indicated the best bus to get on, on the bus she stood behind my parents and indicated to us when to get off. This was a good thing, there are no signs to indicate where you are to go and which stop to get off at. When we got off, the 3 Americans got off as well as well as a number (about 10) other tourists. I was being helpful without even trying : - ) .
At the museum, we bought a guidebook for a few zlotys and donated 10 zlotys (about $3 U.S.) for the museum fund. We would've donated more but the max donation card I saw was for 10 zl. We spent the few zlotys each to view the film before entering the camp. The film was informative, about 1/2 hour long. I am not a history buff, I only knew bits and pieces about Aushwitz (my personal feelings previous to this visit made me uncomfortable to think about the horrible events that took place during this time) My parents always talked about the war, my grandpa was killed by the Nazis, my father was in slavery for a number of years, the WWII history was something I didn't want to know about. Thankfully my views have changed since this trip. The film was a good pre requisite for entering the camp. They show it many times a day in many languages (Polish, English, German, Dutch...etc.)
After the film, we entered into the camp. The gate through which the Nazi prisoners entered under not so long ago is the entrance to the museum.
'Arbeit Mact Frei' (Work Makes Free) is the cynical inscription above this gate (note where the white triangle points)
As you enter through the gate you look to the left and right and you see spaces between two barbed wire fences. After this point there is the first building to the left which has this photo of the band playing. History has it that the band would be playing while new prisoners arrived:
The camp orchestra in 1944.
I can't even describe what I felt when I saw that there was a camp orchestra?!
We wandered around quite a bit at Aushwitz, the things I have seen will stay with me forever. Some of the things are indescribable in words, the only thing I can do is to urge anyone who has an opportunity to make a trip here to do so. It is invaluable that we never forget what has happened. The most horrific of all things is to know that these horrors took place not 200 years ago but little more than 50 years ago. The more horrific and disturbing thing is that right now the same treatment is being given to people in countries such as China and Bosnia. With such reminders available to us we humans still insist on being ultimately cruel and horrible to one another!
The second part of the Aushwitz camp is actually about 3 km away, the camp is called Birkenau. The museum bus will take you there for 1.50 zl. and the bus leaves about once an hour. There isn't much in the way of photos and exhibitions displayed at Birkenau but the sheer magnitude of the Nazi crimes are evident merely by the size of the place. It is unbelievably large. It took my husband and I an hour to walk around half of the perimeter. The place is massive, this is why Aushwitz is known as the largest concentration camp (Birkenau was considered Aushwitz II).
This is a panaromic photo of the remaining stacks of the barracks at Birkenau. This is not even 1/4 of the view of the place. Each barrack had two stacks, stacks can be still seen at the farthest point on the horizon. Absolutely unbelievable.