Sunday, May 31, 2009

Auschwitz (Oświęcim)

I’ve always wanted to visit Auschwitz, the largest WWII Nazi concentration and extermination camp, to better understand the sufferings and losses endured during the holocaust but since it is in the rural south of Poland, I never felt quite right about making a trip solely for this purpose. So it was a happy coincidence when I had to make a work trip to Chorzow, Poland only 45 minutes away from Oświęcim, the Polish town later renamed by the Germans. I tried to emotionally prepare myself by reading as much as I could about the horrors that took place there, but there was no way to every fully ready to experience pure evil & hatred in such startling reality. My tour started at the lower camp, which was surprisingly small and pretty even, with neatly arranged red brick buildings that seemed much more reminisce of a college campus than a place of torture. Just after we walked through the barbed wire fences and gate with the motto, Arbeit macht frie, a cruel irony, roughly translating to “Work shall set you free,” we saw the spot where an orchestra played. Our guide explained this served two purposes, to keep the inmates in step so they could be easily counted and also to give outsiders the impression that this was truly a happy work camp. It is shocking that villagers, let alone world leaders, had absolutely no clue of the crimes being committed in their backyard. We visited several barracks in Auschwitz I, the walls adorned with photographs of victims and learned that many people – strong, young people – who came here did not survive 1 year. Inmate supervisors were threatened with their lives if their prisoners violated any rules, so often their actions against other prisoners was just as atrocious as the Nazis’. I fought tears near the execution wall and broke down completely when we visited the starvation and standing cells, a 1.5m space where four inmates would be forced together, standing for days. If anyone escaped from Auschwitz, 10 prisoners would be tortured or killed as retribution. Display cases in the barracks contained endless piles of items taken from prisoners, suitcases with names & addresses written on the outside, eyeglasses, shoes - one case just of children’s, and human hair. The Nazi’s recycled everything they took from their victims, for example Jewish hair was used as insulation in Nazi soldiers’ blankets. After the war, the camp commandant Rudolf Höss – who disguised himself as a farmer to escape punishment – was sentenced to death by hanging on the Auschwitz I grounds, across from the house where he lived with his family. Next to the gallows we saw the gas chamber, where pellets the size of an aspirin would be dropped through tiny holes in the ceiling to kill up to 1,000 people at a time. Immediately next door was a crematorium for easy disposal of the bodies. Feeling very somber and saddened, we boarded a bus for Birkenau, Auschwitz II, 3km away. This was the image of a concentration camp I was expecting, a massive barbed wire perimeter, huge wooden barracks, elevated guard stands, and of course the railway tracks that transported so many Jews to their death. It was here that over 1 million souls were taken, a drastic comparison to the 70,000 lost in Auschwitz I. I was immediately struck at how cold & windy it was, even on a June day, I could not fathom how anyone survived a winter in this place. The huge wooden barracks, which were originally designed as horse stables for 75 animals, slept over 1,000 inmates on wooden slab bunk beds. The toilets were a communal bench that did not have adequate drainage as such many suffered from disease. Our guide showed us the train platform where the selection process took place. Many believed they were coming to a work camp, which is why their arrivals were often so orderly and obedient. They were told that to avoid lice & disease in the camp they would first need to be showered so to leave their suitcases, with their names written, on the platform so that their possessions could be transferred to their barracks. One older Jewish woman even tried to tip a Nazi soldier who helped her with her bags they so believed their instructions. After the doctors separated the sick, elderly, children, & women with children from those who were able to work, each group would then be divided by sex. Believing they were only going off to the showers many did not protest. Inmates were assigned to take all the gold teeth off the bodies after the gassings, for them this was also a death sentence as eventually they would be killed to prevent them from telling the others what was happening.
When finally the Soviets came to liberate the camp, the Nazis bombed the gas chambers to cover up their crimes and evacuated the prisoners who could leave on a death march to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Only 1/3 of the 60k prisoners made it.
On the bus back, some people in our group who had remained very somber and quiet throughout the tour started to chat and we learned that an elderly Frenchwoman in our group had actually lost her mother in Auschwitz. Of course the entire experience there was extremely impactful but realizing that there are still victims of this incredible tragedy still living today made it all the more relevant to me. I can only hope that the past will set us of prejudice, free of hate.
But where there is hope, there is life. – Anne Frank

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