poland and auschwitz

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

We got to have one week of vacation from school to travel around and we decided on Krakow in Poland, Prague in Czech Republic and Budapest in Hungary.  The first and last couple days of our trip were in Krakow because we were flying in and out of that city.  Mostly I just wanted to go to Krakow because Auschwitz is just outside of it, but it turned out to be one of my favorite cities.  
We walked around the old town part of the city and there's lots of shopping of course and old buildings and touristy kind of riding in a golf cart around the city tours.  We made it up to the top of the hill to see the castle but instead we found a ledge to sit on where the sun was beaming down on us and we just sat there and loved every minute of it.  We had woken up at 4 am to make our flight that morning, we were tired from walking all day around the city, and the 75 degree sun felt uuuhh-mazing after being in cold, rainy Lithuania.  Would you judge me if I told you sitting on that ledge and making fun of the tourists walking by was the best part of that day? 
Someone suggested that we go to U Babci Maliny, a restaurant with the yummiest local food called Pierogi.  We didn't know what pierogi was, but we were on a mission to try it.  So we found it on a map, made it to the address, and couldn't find the restaurant.  We started asking at nearby places and everyone just kept saying oh yeah it's right there down the street.  Somehow...don't ask me how....we found it inside some doors, down the hall, back outside to the back, through some more doors, down the stairs and there we found the entrance. Turns out that it is the creepiest decorated place with the most amazing food.  It was decorated with weird baby doll stuff, a big fish tank in the middle, hardly any lights (perhaps they're going for the romantic mood?) and the walls were covered with photos of the same man posing next to other people holding up his fist like a fighter.  I got white borscht soup with potatoes and the pierogi which turns out is kinda like fried chinese dumplings with beef and cabbage inside.  I don't have the words to describe but yes it was worth the effort to find.  
As we left I noticed this doll and stroller outside on the street with advertisements of the restaurant sprinkled on top.  THIS is what they decided to put on the street to advertise that here is the restaurant.  How did we miss this when we were looking for the place?? I should have known that creepy doll in a stroller meant delicious food.  

 The pigeons here are everywhere in masses and they just walk around your feet pretty much immune to the fact that humans are there.  So, you could walk right behind a pigeon trying to chase it away and it will just calmly walk away.  Obviously this creates the game of trying to scare the pigeons. Sometimes you have to really run into it with full force to get them to fly off, you know?

 On the second day we made the trip to Auschwitz, which is about an hour drive outside of Krakow.  I almost didn't want to include this in the post because it was one of those experiences where pictures don't say it quite right.  The feeling there isn't one I can really describe.  Or want to describe. But, it is pretty rare that I had the opportunity to be there, so I'll share what I can. 

We had a tour guide who took a group of us through the camp.  He knew just about everything there is to know about what happened there and I learned so much from him. We asked why he chose to be a tour guide here and he said it was because his grandfather was actually here at Auschwitz. Even though there were lots of people there, everyone had to wear headsets to be able to hear their tour guides, so it was silent as we walked through other than what you heard from your guide.  Almost everything is in tact. Every building. Everything that was found when the camp was liberated. It took a few hours to walk through and see everything, but even then I could have spent more time in certain areas.

The main gate.

The camp was lined with electric fences to discourage escape attempts.

There are amazing photographs that somehow survived the whole thing and are around for us today. The images were so striking to me.  There are even a few pictures that were found that had been taken illegally by prisoners there.  They could have been killed if someone saw them taking photos but they did it anyways. 

This was just facts about who was taken prisoner to be held there.  Mainly jewish of course, but also POWS, gypsies, anyone that they wanted.  People from all over Europe were brought here.  It was built with intention to house and/or kill about 11 million people.  They succeeded with about 6 million.  
When they entered the camp, they were told to go either to the left or the right.  Those on one side were sent straight to death and the others were sent to work.  Because weak women and children were of no use typically, they were sent straight to death. So, we know that the people in this image had just been sentenced that way.  They were calmly walking, minutes before being murdered, because they had no idea.  They were told they'd be given a shower before entering the camp.  
These are the canisters of poison that were dropped into the rooms filled with people waiting to shower.  There was a little hole in the ceiling where they would drop the canister in and recover the hole until the poison killed everyone inside.  For the first attempt at using this poison, they weren't sure how much to use or how long it would take.  So the first, unlucky group, suffered for two days before they finally passed on.  They eventually mastered the amount and were able to get the time of death down to a couple of hours, allowing more to be killed per day.

They brought their belongings because they thought this was another camp where they would be living, not dying.  Some even purchased their own train tickets to get to Auschwitz.  All of their belonging were taken and put into a section of the camp that was known as "Canada" because that was synonymous with "land of plenty". The nazis were very organized and resourceful and everything that could be used was.  When the camp was liberated there were rooms full of personal items that were being held.
Many people were P.O.W.s so confiscating things such as wooden arms and legs was not unheard of.  They even took gold teeth from the deceased. 
Pots and pans and kitchen supplies. Again, brought because they thought they would be living out their lives here. 


There was a room full of hair as well.  Even hair was shaved off their heads and used for different things.  The room that I saw had 2 tons of hair and that was so overwhelming to see.  It was so much.  But they actually found 7 tons of hair so that amount that I saw wasn't even half of what was found.  Pictures weren't allowed in that room but that was fine because I was mesmerized just standing there, seeing it all.  Seeing THEIR hair.  Right in front of me.  

Another room was full of shoes.  70,000 pairs of shoes.  They were dirty and old and well worn.  As I was walking through, just the large quantity of shoes was a lot to take in.  But 70,000 is only about 5% of the people that came through the camp, so it really wasn't much in comparison.  I spotted a pair of shoes as I was scanning the room and the thought entered my mind, "hey those are cute, I would wear those."  I know, I know, that's a pretty strange thing to think in a place like that. But I love shoes and it just hit me that these people were real with hopes and dreams and maybe they loved shoes too. It could have been someone just like me.  Out of every disgusting room in Auschwitz, that room hit me the hardest.  

People who assigned to work and live at the camp.  Because living conditions were so harsh, most of the dates below their photos show that they only survived there for a few months.

Trials were held at the camp for "cimes" committed.  Many times the crimes were made up, or sentences were held for many groups at once. Crimes could be anything such as praying or not being in line at the time of count.  These people were killed at this firing range.  

This is one of the gas chambers where people were murdered by poison dropped into the room.
There is a second camp, Birkenau which is also known as Auschwitz II.  It is just a few kilometeres away from the main camp.  This camp was built a couple years into the war, after Auschwitz had already been running.  It's sole purpose was mass murders. The train tracks were built so that trains could bring in groups of people straight into the camp more efficiently.  There were four gas chamber rooms here and this is where the number of deaths really raised.

It was pouring rain all day and we were soaked and cold. It was fitting for the mood but also helped me understand why people didn't survive living through this weather for more than a couple months.  During the winter they often froze to death overnight.

Trains that would bring people to the camp jammed full.  There was a photo at the camp that showed a line of people who had just got off the train and were being directed whether they should go to the left or the right, to death or work. We stood right at the spot where that selection happened.  It wasn't hard to imagine it happening because the image was so clear, but also impossible to put yourself in their shoes and into their reality.  Our tour guide told us about someone who looked at the photo not that long ago and recognized one of the guards making the selection as his father.  They checked the records and it really was his father.  The guy had no idea that his father had even been to Auschwitz, let alone worked there as a guard.   Our guide told us that only about 10% of the guards that worked in the camp were caught and punished for their crimes.  Pretty amazing to think that many are still alive and holding on to that secret.  

There are a lot of really amazing stories that happened here as well such as daring escapes, people dying so that someone else could live, and families reuniting after surviving the war.  There's so many books out there if you're interested of personal accounts.  So interesting!  And humbling.  If you ever have an opportunity to visit this place, do it.  

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