Saturday, January 12, 2008

Death in the afternoon

The train tracks at Birkenau. There were about 5 of us waiting forever for those dicks to get off the train tracks, but my patience ran out before their desire to stand in everyone's way did...

Endless rows of barracks at Birkenau

Me in front of the famous Auschwitz gates

'Arbeit Macht Frei'

The last remaining gas chamber/crematorium

Barracks behind barbed wire

The 'wall of death' where prisoners were executed

Today we were up at a reasonable hour to get ready for our 10 am departure to Auschwitz and to tuck into an - I presume - traditional Polish breakfast laid on by the hotel - heavy on the sausages. Yum.

The trip to Auschwitz took about 1 hr 20, during which we watched a film about the liberation of Auschwitz, which was interesting. I never knew before that much of the film footage of the survivors' living conditions was actually re-enacted with survivors a few months after liberation, once they were strong enough to do it.

Upon arrival, the main thought was that it wasn't what I expected. Everything about Auschwitz that I read talks about the different atmosphere within the camp - nothing grows, people say, birds don't sing, it's colder in there. Perhaps they just say what they think they should say, because I thought the camp had a reasonably pleasant atmosphere. Don't get me wrong, I don't think it would have been a pleasant place to be in WWII, by any means, but it didn't feel like a horrible place to me now. It was a beautiful sunny day, warm for winter, and there was the occasional tweet of birds. The barracks themselves were pretty well-built, and it looked like what it originally was - a Polish military camp. There were plenty of spots inside Auschwitz where you couldn't really see the electric fences and barbed wire.

That's not to say that the exhibitions and the guided tour weren't chilling. Particularly moving were the rooms filled with items found that were confiscated from the victims upon arrivals - piles and piles of shoes, clothes, a tangled mess of eyeglasses, suitcases with names (I spotted a Kafka and a Pasternak amongst many others) and dates of birth daubed on them, and worst of all, a huge case filled with human hair shorn from the inmates, along with a roll of surprisingly normal-looking cloth manufactured from said hair. The crematorium also had a particularly depressing air, as you'd expect. It was freezing cold in there, and the sight of the ovens was unforgettable. The 'punishment cells', too, were very moving - 'dark cells' where the prisoners were deprived of light and fresh air, 'standing cells' where they were crammed 4 at a time into a 1 m sq cell, and the 'starvation cells' where prisoners were sentenced to die.

The tour was okay, although as usual with these things we didn't see everything. I think it was still better to go with the tour option though - entry is free, but the museum wasn't really information-heavy, preferring large photos and small amounts of text, and the original documents etc. on display were untranslated, so it was helpful to have things put into context.

After Auschwitz, we took a shuttle bus to Birkenau - this is the one that really looks like a concentration camp 'should' look. Purpose-built by the Nazis, it's much bigger than Auschwitz, and just consisted of block after block of wooden barracks, set in a giant and very muddy field. Birkenau is also the one where the railway tracks run right into the yard, and you can't help thinking of what it would have been like coming in on what really was a road to nowhere. We didn't spend long in Birkenau, and it felt like a more depressing place than Auschwitz. There weren't any exhibits or anything there - it was just the camp as it had been - the Nazis, however, destroyed the gas chambers and crematoria before liberation to try and destroy the evidence of their crimes.

It's definitely a moving experience, and something I've wanted to see for a long time, and am glad I did. Funnily enough, I've felt more moved at other Holocaust memorials - the Pinkas synagogue in Prague and the war museum in London come to mind. But there's nothing like seeing the real place to really understand what it was like.

We got back to Krakow about 4 pm, very tired again, and had some delicious goulash and more pierogi for dinner. Yeah, Auschwitz didn't dent our appetites, though in our defence, we hadn't had any lunch amongst the dead of Auschwitz. We were planning to go out tonight, but we took an afternoon nap and Carolyn's still in bed (at 21.20) so who knows what'll happen there. Tomorrow it's back to Prague, not on the night train, thankfully, although with another 8 hour trip, we'll probably end up falling asleep, so will have to work out a better way of guarding our valuables!

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