Sunday, July 1, 2012

Krakow, part 4

When I was in 8th grade, I read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time. As an adult, I taught the diary as well as Elie Wiesel's Night to my own middle school English students.  Then when I moved back down to teach elementary school, I decided to incorporate the setting of World War II as the setting for our literature circles that included a couple of fictionalized holocaust novels appropriate for tweens.  

My oldest daughter read the diary in 8th grade - just like me - while the younger daughter was assigned Number the Stars as one of her summer novels last year.  She'll have to wait a couple more years to study Anne's diary.

The holocaust is unspeakably horrific, one of those events in world history that will continue to be recorded in textbooks for as long as school kids across the planet learn about innocent victims ravaged at the hands of fellow human beings.  The number of survivors continues to dwindle as the generation who suffered at the hands of the Nazis continues to age.  

For our fourth day in Krakow, I decided that the whole family needed to see the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Turning to our trusty Rick Steves book, I found a local English speaking guide named Marta.  Since she was already booked for the day, we arranged for her husband to meet us at the hotel, drive us to Auschwitz and make sure we were included in an English speaking tour.

The ride from Krakow to Auschwitz took about an hour.  We rode through cute little villages that dotted the countryside, down a two lane road with no shoulder.  The van our guide was driving had AC, thank goodness, because the temps in the mid 60s from our first couple overcast days in the city gave way to a cloudless sky that warmed up into the mid 80s.

As luck would have it, we were assigned a rather slacker tour guide.  The guides around us seemed to be giving more information than we were hearing from our guy. Plus there was a rather annoying lady who appeared to be in her mid 50s that kept asking the most ridiculous questions. Is this railroad car how they transported them to the camp?  Were lots of Jews killed in the gas chambers?  

I swear it nearly drove me nuts, probably because I think it's just respectful of travelers to read in advance about what they're going to see so they can ask insightful and intelligent questions.  Or you could do your best imitation of someone who has spent her whole life residing under a rock and then ask ridiculous questions when the guide is wearing a speaker system thingy so the rest of us are subjected to your ignoramusness (technical English teacher terminology I'm throwing out here) by having to hear his responses in our receiver headphones.  

Our tour started in Auschwitz 1.  

Above is the infamously ironic "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate that served as the entrance to several concentration camps.  I took a shot from both sides since the tree makes it difficult to see.  In reality, the forced labor and pestilence of the camps didn't set you free but rather led you to an early death.

Above you'll see some of the electric fencing surrounding the old original barracks.  Below is a walled off area between two of the barracks.  The building on the right is Block 11, where punishments were carried out on prisoners in the starvation, standing and dark cells.  This is where Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, was killed when he volunteered to take the place of another man condemned to the starvation cell.

See that kid seated to the right of the entrance behind the iron gate?  That's our youngest getting out of the sun for a break.  

In this walled off courtyard area is where the Nazis executed prisoners against the grey portion of the wall.

Some of the old brick barracks contained examples of items gathered from the victims which the Nazis didn't have time to destroy before they fled in the face of Russians liberating the camp. Prosthetic legs and crutches, suitcases, shoes and glasses.  As a person who can't read the big E on the eye chart, seeing the glasses bothered me the most because I can well imagine what life would have been like for someone like me if the Nazis had taken them upon my arrival at the camp.  

There was a room with several tons of hair shaved from the victims when they were processed into the camp, but I didn't take a pic since it wasn't allowed.  

No tour of Auschwitz 1 would be complete without seeing the crematorium.  The ones in adjacent Birkenau were blown up by the Nazis as they attempted to hide their atrocities before the Red Army arrived.

Once this first half of the tour concluded, our tour guide shuttled us over to Auschwitz 2 - Birkenau.  This was built solely as an extermination camp.  I was sickened to learn that the Nazis were still adding onto it right up until the Russians arrived at the gates.

Above you will see where the railway tracks approach the gate to Birkenau and a Nazi physician decided their fate.  Those sent to the left were led to an immediate death in the gas chambers, while those sent to the right were sentenced to death by eventual starvation and disease.

These are historic photographs recovered from Nazi soldiers of the sorting process and placed at the very spot in Birkenau where it occurred.

Although the barracks at Birkenau were destroyed by the fleeing Nazis, several were reconstructed from the original materials left on site.  Originally sold as prefab horse stables, they were very basic and quickly filled with row upon row of beds for the prisoners.

Above you can see the original entrance gates to the gas chambers and crematoriums.  And below are the remains that have been left "as is" since January 1945.

As we were exiting Birkenau, the Romanian prime minister and his family (plus security detail, including local Barney Fifes with sirens blaring) arrived for a visit.  

Even before the term "bucket list" was coined, I've had it in my head that I must visit Auschwitz so I could witness firsthand the place where so many innocent people suffered, a place I have read about in various books over the course of my life.  Whereas our trip to Dachau a year ago made me sad, visiting Auschwitz made me incredibly angry.  As a society, we must be ever vigilant that killing factories such as these will never be allowed to exist in the future.  To paraphrase a famous quote... we must learn from the past in order to avoid repeating it.

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