Auschwitz

How and where to begin? I visited Auschwitz today, the infamous concentration camp located about an hour’s drive from Krakow. After years of studying the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, since I was a curious ten year old trying to understand a horror beyond my comprehension, I am frankly at a loss. Today the Holocaust became truly real to me, yet still unfathomable. It became solid objects at a fixed point; mortar and brick. I am still trying to process my experience.

I started at the first, original camp – Auschwitz I. The grounds outside the camp are rather dissonant with what awaits the visitor. A graceful, sunny park with benches and weeping willows. I could almost see myself having a picnic there. Then you walk a few meters inside the grounds and see the barbed wire and guard towers. Truly a bizarre transition. Walked under the main gate, with the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” which means loosely “Works makes you free.”  A chilling moment. I was walking under the very sign that twice a day taunted the prisoners as they marched to and from work, knowing full well the only way out was death.

Auschwitz I surprised me by how pleasant and residential it feels, unlike the images I’ve seen in photos and films. Our guide explained that this camp was originally a soldiers’ barracks, which is why everything is so well built. However, the horror was just as real here. The electric fence encircles the entire camp, and signs original to the camp still stand silently screaming “Halt! Stoj!” along the perimeter. We toured the exhibits inside the buildings: the piles of human hair taken from the prisoners and used to make cloth for army uniforms, piles of eyeglasses, clothes, shoes, all found by the Soviets when they liberated the camp. The wall against which prisoners were executed by firing squads.

Most significant were two buildings: the basement in which the Nazis first experimented with Zyklon B gas on Soviet POWs and the only crematorium still intact. The guides showed us actual crystals of the Zyklon B under a glass display and then we walked through the room in which people were gassed. Candles were burning in memorium and I began to get teary. Then we saw the ovens. Nothing prepares you for seeing this – no amount of study, reading, or films will ever prepare you for this moment when you become a witness to the evidence. I am forever changed.

Auschwitz II-Birkeneau is the camp most people recognize. I cannot even begin to describe its scale. Enormous, vast, stretches as far as the eye can see. That looming, menacing tower with the gate through which every train entered. The tracks splitting the camp down the middle. The platform where doctors decided who would work and who would go straight to the gas chambers. All the images we know. I stood in the middle of the tracks and I cried. Gazed out at all the little chimneys, standing a silent sentinel over the ghosts of this place. All that remain besides foundations for most of the barracks that imprisoned those millions of souls.

Immediately upon returning to Krakow, I made a beeline for Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter. I needed to see a living, breathing Jewish community. I stepped into the quiet sanctuary of a Jewish synagogue rebuilt after the war and took a deep breath. I sat there for a long time. Then I strolled the streets, watching people hurry on their way home from work. This neighborhood, though small, is still thriving, with at least five different synagogues. Silently I cursed the Nazis and smiled – despite their best efforts, this community is still here. Still standing, working, playing , loving. Still here.

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About chronictraveler

Chronic Traveler starts as a dream, one that I thought I had lost, but that has slowly changed into a mission to realize and live that dream every day. In December 2007 I became seriously ill and the doctors did not know what was causing my illness. I had to stop teaching as my life tumbled into a never-ending nightmare of doctors, hospitals and tests. Finally, in May 2008 I was diagnosed with a chronic condition - fibromyalgia. I was only 26 years old at the time. I have had to give up teaching, and now work part-time at a performing arts center as I learn how to manage my condition and improve my quality of life. What helped me through the months of uncertainty and sickness, and continues to inspire me, was a new focus on what truly mattered to me: family, friends, gardening, the arts, and especially travel. I have always fed my soul by traveling, ever since I first stepped off the plane at age 16 in Kathmandu, Nepal to help with an orphanage's building project. Meeting new people and experiencing how they live and how they view the world infuses my life with a richness I was so afraid I would lose when the doctor first said, "You have fibromyalgia". This blog is my story, as I begin to forge a new path. I am embracing my life as it is, with the fibromyalgia pain and fatigue, and learning to do what I love regardless. It may mean I have to go slower and take more naps or breaks! But I am determined to learn how to travel and experience the world, and hopefully what I learn will help others like me who believe their medical condition stands in the way of their travel dreams.
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One Response to Auschwitz

  1. Barb says:

    Your descriptions were vivid. I cannot even imagine that it must be like to stand in the middle of the camp.

    Your writing is so very eloquent. I cannot say that I enjoyed reading this chapter because of its content. But I look forward to what you have to say every day.

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