In two consecutive Skype conversations, I’ve recounted my trip to Auschwitz on request. I guess that means people want to know about it, huh? Believe me… it’s a crazy story, so here goes.
Since all licensed-to-drive family members were otherwise occupied, Niki and I took the train. Our particular train was really old and rickety, and Oświęcim, the Polish name for Auschwitz, was the final stop, so the train said “Oświęcim”… it is a pretty scary and powerful thing to literally take an old rickety train to Auschwitz.
The trip was 1 and a half sweltering hot hours, and once we dragged our sweat-soaked butts into the train station, Niki asked the woman at the desk how to get to the concentration camp. She was kind enough to give us some simple directions, which we promptly botched and ended up at the Birkenau site instead of the main Auschwitz one. This ended up being good, though, because I got to see the (massive) Birkenau camp, which we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to fit into our day, and we got to take a comfortable bus over to Auschwitz.
At this point, it was almost 3 PM, so we were able to enter the camp (it’s technically called a “museum”) for free without a tour. It’s really surreal to see this sign in person:
But otherwise, besides the barbed wire, the camp just looks at first glance like a particularly-ugly suburban neighborhood. You can see above that all the barracks are basically just brick houses, and they’re lined up tidily in rows and there are trees everywhere. The true power lies inside the barracks, many of which have been converted into museum exhibits that recall the injustice and inhumanity that this place has seen.
The first few exhibits we saw were relatively tame… mostly documents pertaining to the liberation of the camp and prosecution of those responsible. Though there were some recounts of the horrible things done to prisoners, it was all conveyed through documents and forms.
But then, in probably our 3rd or 4th building, we walked down the stairs, turned the corner and were immediately met with probably 25 prisoners’ uniforms, propped up so they looked lifelike–like people were wearing them. It was absolutely insane and really drove home the point–people used to live here, except you would never know that they were actual humans from the way they were treated. We got to see a room in the barracks outfitted like it would have been at the time–some of them just had straw on the floor, or the thinnest blankets, for the prisoners to sleep on. Many of the hallways were lined with pictures of the prisoners, labeled with their names, ages, occupations, and prisoner numbers. If that doesn’t give a sense of humanity to the Holocaust, I don’t know what does. It really struck me how young some of the prisoners were… one of them that I saw was only 19 when he entered the camp and 20 when he was killed. That’s how old I am!
The emotional/traumatic high point of Auschwitz is definitely the Material Evidence of Crime exhibit. It has huge glass cases full of things collected by the guards upon the prisoners’ arrival: shoes, glasses, suitcases, artificial limbs, combs. I’ve never seen so many shoes in one place in my life. I’ll never forget walking into the first room. There’s a huge glass case filled with… something… it takes a little while to figure out what it is you’re actually looking at, and then you realize… it’s a huge mound of human hair. A fraction of the hair collected after shaving all of the female prisoners’ heads. It weighs several thousand kilograms and scientific testing found traces of the chemical gas used in the extermination chambers in it. Not to mention that, in the same room, they had displays of blankets that the Nazis made out of the hair that they collected. It truly was a testament to the cruelty and downright inhumanity that occurred at concentration camps like Auschwitz.
We saw several more exhibits on daily life at the camp, and then we came to the Death Wall, where many prisoners were executed due to things like accountability for escapes. There are little memorials at the wall itself to those who died there, and the very next building was the Death Block, where prisoners were kept in a variety of manners, but all for a common purpose: their eventual death. One of the cells in the Death Block was the one I most anticipated seeing: the starvation chamber. That probably sounds funny, that I looked forward to seeing the starvation chamber, but one of my personal heroes died there in the act of saving another man’s life.
The next room in this building also contained Maximilian Kolbe’s rosary, some of the Communion hosts that he and his fellow priests snuck into the camp so that they could continue to celebrate Mass, and an elaboration of his story. Since this was one of the last buildings we went to, it was really wonderful to see how God works for good in even the most horrific, terrible places.
Once we finished looking around and reflecting on the gravity of this place, we made our way back to the train station, where we were promptly hit on by some (either quite drunk or extremely friendly and delusional) guys who wanted to know if we were going to the beach with them. Considering that there are no beaches anywhere near Krakow (and that these guys were seriously creepy) we got on the train back to the city instead.
Niki took me to a nice restaurant on the main square, where we shared a huge plate of pierogi and each got a Polskie Martini, which combined 2 Polish alcohols, honey, and apple juice to create a drink that, according to Niki, “tastes like Poland.” Delish. Then, we commenced our night tour of Krakow, where we saw…
and lots of other cool stuff too! Krakow is a magical city!
When we’d finally had enough of our nighttime wanderings, we headed back to the main train station only to find out that it had closed for the night, so instead we found another tram stop for what we thought was the other appropriate line to get us to where Niki’s parents were supposed to meet us. Turns out the routes change at night, so we shortly found ourselves getting kicked off the train at the end of the line, not knowing where we were and unable to get in touch with anyone but Niki’s sister, Marynia, who was conveniently in Austin. Luckily, through some miracle, they found us and we got home safe and sound… but not before a few moments of anxiety!
Strangely, I think this was my favorite day of the trip. You know… despite the multiple times we got lost, and the fact that it included a concentration camp, and getting stranded in Nowa Huta… but I guess that’s how memories are made.