Our main reason for going specifically to Krakow in Poland was to visit the Auschwitz camps. How could we not? For me personally, to bypass such a visit was akin to ignoring the horrors of what happened. We just didn’t realize just how much happened there.
As we walked through the former Jewish ghetto, I suddenly realized that I was walking in the exact spot where about 15,000 Polish Jews were forced to relocate and live in cramped quarters, and where they were eventually massacred or herded onto trains bound for the nearby concentration or death camps.
The next day, we took a day trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. In the minibus, we watched a sobering documentary of Alexander Vorontsov, a Soviet photographer who was assigned to document the liberation of Auschwitz and his experiences there. Once at Auschwitz, we were introduced to our guide, a very knowledgeable Polish woman who told us to keep in mind that we were about to pass through a mass graveyard.
It’s one thing to read about or learn about the Holocaust in school, and another thing entirely to see these concentration and death camps with your own eyes. I just can’t fathom how it all went so wrong. How did the majority of a country go along with Hitler’s ideologies? I get that Germany was disillusioned and the people saw hope in this psychopath, but how did they completely lose their humanity in their efforts to become a strong country again? How did they reassure themselves that this was OK? These are the kinds of questions that ran through my head as we walked around the camps and saw the photos of the condemned prisoners, punishment cells, the living quarters, the gas chambers, the stolen possessions (piles of glasses, shoes, etc.) and the piles of hair shorn off of people’s heads and sold to German textile companies.
The extermination and labor camp of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is monstrous, especially compared to the size of the base camp, Auschwitz I. The sheer size of it is unbelievable. During its operation, there were 300 living quarters in the form of wooden or brick lodges, housing about 1,000 prisoners each. That’s right: 300,000 prisoners.
As we walked into Auschwitz II-Birkenau towards what used to be the two gas chambers and crematoriums, we stopped on a sandy open area by the railroad tracks. We were told that this is where the Nazis unloaded the cattle cars packed full of Jews and separated them by men and women and children. Nazi doctors then determined which were suitable for work and which would be sent immediately to the gas chambers to be killed. Looking around me at the now eerily quiet space full of somber tourists, it was hard for me to think that this very ground that I was standing on was where hundreds of thousands of Jews and other “undesirables” were forcibly separated from their loved ones, most to never see them again.
Those who were kept (barely) alive were kept in cramped, unsanitary conditions and literally worked to death. The Nazis not only inflicted physical harm, but they stripped the prisoners of every last glimmer of hope. By the end of the war, about 1.3 million people died at the Auschwitz camps, with the majority of them Jewish (Roma, Poles, Soviet POWs, religious minorities as well as homosexuals were also imprisoned and/or killed).
If you find yourself in Krakow, I highly recommend setting aside a day to visit the Auschwitz camps for an important lesson in one of history’s worst atrocities. Or if Poland is a bit out of reach, watch “Schindler’s List” for a glimpse into what happened in Krakow during World War II. As Elie Wiesel eloquently states in the introduction to his book, “Night”:
For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.
For more photos of our time in Krakow, check out our Flickr album.