Note: All the events described in this entry occurred between late September to October 2006. For more updated entries and trips, please refer back to this blog at a later date. Thanks!
The next day I went to Auschwitz with the tour I had signed up for two days before. I will admit, I don't know if my grandfather was kept here, but I knew that at least I'd get a clearer idea of what he experienced. The bus ride from Krakow lasted a long time, like 3-4 hours, and I remember admiring how beautiful the countryside was. There were lots of quaint houses with gardens in front, rolling green hills, meadows covered in flowers. I remember this made me feel angry because I knew that Hitler and his cabinet chose this location on purpose-I realized it was in the middle of nowhere, which was primarily a major reason but its aesthetics were so beautiful to where it was hard to believe that this was the setting of one of the worst crimes against humanity in the history of human civilization!
We finally arrive in the city of Okeciec, and turn down a few streets until we reach Auschwitz, which was located just three blocks away from downtown. Once we are at the parking lot we are told to get off the bus. Our tour guide comes, and begins to show us around.
"Welcome to Auschwitz, everyone. Currently you are standing on the grounds of Auschwitz I, one of three Auschwitz located nearby, " she began. And yes people I'm not making this up, there are three Auschwitz concentration camps. "The name Auschwitz is the German name for the city of Okeciec, where we are at now. The buildings you see here actually existed before the Nazis, and is actually an old factory complex from around 1910 that was eventually abandoned leading up the start of WWII. At first, the camp was used as a POW prison for Polish soldiers-here's an area where they used to be taken to be shot at and here's the foundation of a gallows. I will please ask for all of you to be respectful as you pass through the grounds, remember that people lost their lives here so for many this is a grave site. It was about 1940-41 that Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals and Africans were first brought over to the camps for genocidal purposes. I will now take you inside one of the buildings to give you an idea of where detainees where held and show you the museum exhibits."
One of the girls in our group, a French girl with the Berlin exchange program from my dorm in fact, began to cry after seeing the first three exhibits. She too, had a grandfather who had been sent to a concentration camp and just the site of this place plagued at her soul. One of the members in the group stayed behind to calm her, and I gave her a pat on the back and told her that everything will be alright. I go inside to finish the rest of the tour, but I feel a knot in my stomach which worsen when I walk inside. The building inside smelt of death and decay, left over I can image from that period. We then see the compelling remnants of people encamped at Auschwitz-children's toys, locks of hair, suitcases with people's names on them (I desperately looked for my grandfather's but I didn't see his nor my great-grandparent's name), prosthesis body parts and shoes, all confiscated by the Nazis when they arrived in the camps.
It is after seeing the children's toys, especially the dolls that I begin to cry. I end up going to a small corner for a few minutes and just let my tears flow in disgust over what the Nazis did and in mourning of my grandfather's sufferings during those years. We are then taken to a gas chamber, and she (the guide) explains to us the procedure the Nazis used towards gassing people. "People of all ages and genders were told they were going to take a bath, however normally this happened to women and children. They were told to undress, and often times their hair was cut. They were then brought into the chambers and gassed to death. then their bodies were brought to a furnace and destroyed in order to hide the evidence."
She then takes us outside and we tour some more sites until she says "Alright everyone, we are now going to take a break before we head over to Auschwitz II. You can find bathrooms in the information center and there's a refreshment stand to your left." I head over to the refreshment stand to order an apple juice, however my Polish pronunciation is so poor that the cashiers just don't understand me so I have to say it in English. they laugh and give me my apple juice. Finally we go back onto the bus, with our same guide following us and we arrive twenty minutes later at Auschwitz II, also known as Auschwitz-Berkanau. We get out of the bus and follow our guide the rest of the way.
"Hello everyone again, and welcome to the second half of the tour at Auschwitz-Berkanau, also known as Auschwitz II. This was constructed in the year 1942 after Himmler suggested to Hitler that the camps were important towards the war effort and needed to be expanded. Himmler came to this spot, and found it to be an ideal location. There was a village here, Berkanau, however Himmler ordered the eviction of everyone and all the bricks of the old homes were used to construct the concentration camp. I'm now going to take you into one of the housing blocks so that you can see how prisoners were kept here."
We walked along the filled road until we arrived into one of the housing blocks. The bunk beds were still in tact and the beds were made. It felt eerie being in there, as if someone was still living there and was going to come back to their bed. She then tells us how prisoners were often segregated according to gender, and were not allowed to leave their bunks for anything unless ordered to do so, this included going to the bathroom, so often people would sleep in their own diarrhea and it would flow down to the beds located underneath.
We are then taken outside and shown a gas chamber the Nazis attempted to destroy towards the end of the war to hide the evidence behind these acts. Then we were shown the train tracks where victims were brought in via train. "the Nazis transported thousands, probably millions of Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals and Africans from all over Europe in trains that had covered windows. These people were told that this would be a holiday trip and was for their health, they were not told that they were going to their deaths until they got there and even then efforts were not disclosed until the last minute. The weak like children under six, the elderly, sick, most women, disabled and injured were the first to be killed. Families were immediately separated and divided into who was fit to work and who was fit to be killed. They were either shot, put in gas chambers or shot and burned like babies were.
We were then taken to a huge gravestone that was built in recent years to commemorate the dead. It's in 10 different languages and covers most of the edge of this site. After we stood here for a while and paid our respects in silence, it was time to head back to the bus. On our way back, I couldn't help but to look at the beautiful, flat landscape surrounding the camp, observing the tall green grass and thinking: when there was a city here, children must have loved to have played out here. This is such a beautiful, peaceful place. I mourn the loss of the town here, because I can almost see the children playing hide and seek, or with their toys. to think that was stolen from them by Hitler and Himmler.
All I could do now was mourn for the dead, however I was ready to get back to the hostel. From the moment the tour started at Auschwitz I, I felt horrible-I had a knot in my stomach, emotionally I felt numb. I only cried once, however my sadness and anger for what the Nazis did and the existence of this place was so profound, I couldn't even emotionally react to it. However, I just had a bad feeling, I wanted out now and was glad for the tour to be over. I accomplished my goal to a certain point, I just wanted to go back to the hostel and move on with my trip.
On my way to the bus, I tell the tour guide my grandfather's story and I ask her if she knew about the experience of gentile Poles in campus like or at Auschwitz. She said she didn't know how to answer that question or who to refer me to, however she did say that a lot of Poles, whole families in fact during the Warsaw Uprising in 1945, however I told her that this doesn't fit in with my story. I realized then that I needed to do actual genealogical research but also see if I could find books on the subject that fit in closer with my grandfather's story. One of the first thing I did when I returned to the US was that I combed Amazon and other bookstores for books on German Occupied Poland. The two best I found were Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation 1939-1945 and Did the Children Cry? Hitler's War Against Jewish and Polish Children 1939-1945, both by Richard C. Lukas. In both books he discusses how Hitler's first aim was the Poles because he deemed Slaves, especially Poles as inhuman and a danger to the success of the Aryan race. So in 1939, Polish families were captured and sent to camps, or killed randomly just for fun, the most notable near Poznan and Lodz and also Lublin. However, Hitler and himmler realized that they needed the Poles, so they started concentrating their efforts on the Jews. However, Poles were rationed like 900-1,000 calories per day of food in comparison to the German 2,000 calories and the Jewish 600 calories, and the use of the Polish language was banned, as well as all nationalist related music, art and culture. Universities were closed, at attempt to burn the works of Chopin and other famous Polish composers, artists and writers was initiated. The intelligentsia in Poland was immediately executed and placed into camps. Polish people were sent to work in labor camps in Germany where they worked for slave labor and were refused regular meals and medical care and also from sexual intercourse. Germans were forbidden from showing hospitality to Poles; if disobeyed they would be executed. So I have learned over time that my grandfather's story is a piece of Holocaust history that has been forgotten by so many. I will continue my reading, however my next task will have to be genealogical research, which I hope to start in 2-3 months time once I get a job.
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