It was our last day in Krakow. We were leaving Poland the next day for Ukraine. We had set aside the whole of the last day for a visit to Auschwitz.
We had arrived in Poland during the Fourth of July weekend. My memories of having turned in my resignation were very fresh. My last day at work had been 30th June, just a week earlier. We set out of Chicago right after. I had worked for the same company for over 12 years. In the days that followed, I was still waking up in hotels in Warsaw and Krakow dreaming of my list of things-to-do at work, and the clients I needed to meet. It was mildly disorienting to realize that I didn’t have any clients anymore, and that I wasn’t even working and that none of it mattered. Some part of my psyche hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t employed there. The trip to Eastern Europe was intended as a quick transition from my work life. And we had planned to the visit to the Nazi concentration camp to be the last thing on our itinerary in Poland, before crossing the border.
I wanted to wait for several months after visiting the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau and to put some time and distance before writing about the visit.
First of all, I wasn’t prepared for the crowd, which reminded me of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago during summers. They have a movie auditorium with timed shows, kids running around, various language audio-headsets for hire, and it was very much like any of the other museums we had been to. It wasn’t how I had visualized Auschwitz.
We walked past the all too familiar sign Arbeit Macht Frei (Work makes you free) which no movie director has been able to resist showing in their movies. The two dozen buildings beyond the gate look exactly like apartment blocks, and each one has been converted to a museum to show a different aspect of the concentration camp. It was so big that we had to choose the buildings we would be visiting in the time we had.
By all expectations, the piles of children’s clothing; the stacks of shoes; the replica of the train compartment that brought the Jews in sandwiched tightly; the large piles of hair shorn from the heads of women as soon as they landed in the concentration camp; the staggering statistics of the number murdered — all of this should have been deeply moving.
However, everything seemed so nicely cataloged and over-interpreted at Auschwitz that I had a tough time feeling anything. Perhaps having watched too many movies about Jewish concentration camps, it didn’t have the emotional impact I had been gearing up for. In these exhibits, truth seemed weaker than fiction. Even when you are inside Auschwitz, Auschwitz seems someplace far away.
There were exceptions. Quite a few things did manage to break through this sense of familiarity that was blocking my feelings: The crematorium oven, with this rails, carts and an efficient system for dumping bodies; the hooks on wooden posts from where they hung dissenting prisoners were hung are still intact. The public hangings were meant as a lesson and deterrent to the other prisoners. The infamous “wall of death” against which they’d line up prisoners and shoot them, while the rest of the inmates could hear the screams and the sounds is still there. It was difficult to watch the display of rusted piles of Zyclon B canisters with their labels clearly readable. Zyclon was the lethal gas released into the gas chambers to kill multitudes of inmates in one go.
We got of the buildings, made one final circuit of the whole camp and walked out.
It was early afternoon, and we weren’t in the mood for lunch. Since we didn’t know if we’d ever be back, we decided to take the bus to the sister site of Birkenau, a couple of miles away. This turned out to be a good decision, because everything about the Birkenau concentration camp was different.
The Birkenau gate lends itself to being photographed. There are two train tracks that pass through the dreaded gates. Most of the Jews who were brought in railcars knew that they weren’t getting out of this place.
A hundred meters inside the gate, was the Birkenau railway siding. Again, perhaps because of watching one too many movies, the railway siding seemed familiar. As has been shown in numerous movies, this siding was where the women and children were separated from the men, and the old and the weak were condemned to die right away.
Without any of the crowds, Birkenau felt more atmospheric. The whole place was silent, no sounds at all. The concentration camp is huge and it takes well over twenty minutes to walk from the far ends of it to the main gate. Birkenau was created because Auschwitz simply couldn’t handle the volume of killings required.
On the day we were there, a group of yarmulke-clad Jewish boys were also visiting, along with their Rabbi. They spoke to each other in British-accented English. The stout Rabbi led them to the sites in solemn files, where they gathered and broke out in Hebrew songs. Many of these boys must have lost relatives from their grandparents’ generation in the Holocaust.
It was a gorgeous summer afternoon. Once we left the crowds behind and walked away from the main gate and the railway siding, it was just me and my wife, walking silently from marker to marker, rendered mute by the sheer magnitude of everything in front of us. Our walk was deceptively idyllic, until we wandered into the next site and read the chilling site marker about what that place was used for – for stripping, for gassing, for burning people and to dispose off the ashes.
In one site, the suitcases that people brought with them are stacked and on display. What do you take with you if you have to leave everything else behind but one suitcase? Walking around, in the clay soil underfoot, we could see find several spoons, forks and combs that people had brought along with them, things that they had felt was worth including.
After a very long walk, we reached the crematoriums. Clearly, the previous visitors had ignored the ‘no trespassing’ signs and so we walked into what has left of the gas chamber building. The roof has fallen long ago, the brick walls have been left to crumble. Most of the original walls of the crematoriums are still standing though they are only one or two feet high. It is still easy to pick out the entryways, the changing rooms and the gas chambers. We walked around. In and around the crumbling bricks, visitors had left small blue candles with Hebrew writings. I later learned that these are the yahrzeit Jewish memorial candles, left as remembrance on anniversary days.
We had spent hours wandering the vast wooded campus of Birkenau. It was evening as we made our way back to the main gate. The only sounds we heard were the Jewish boys singing Hebrew hymns – low-pitched melodies that carried a good distance. It comforted me to think of them as songs of forgiveness.