It’s an early start this morning in order to reach Auschwitz before the 10 am compulsory, yet non-existent, tour guide cut off time.
We make it with minutes to spare, although it means skipping breakfast. It feels inappropriate to complain about being hungry in a place like Auschwitz. I fail to gain entry at the first attempt as I have left my passport in the car. Then there is an issue with the spelling of my name on the ticket. Finally, on the third attempt (fourth if you count yesterday), I am admitted.
The camp consists of around 30 blocks, most now form a museum detailing the history of Auschwitz. Some blocks deal with the history of the camp in general, while others recount the plight of specific nationalities of prisoners.
The general blocks contain a series of rooms of items removed from prisoners; there are rooms full of glasses, toys, suitcases, prosthetic limbs. But most harrowing of all is the room of hair. Upon arrival, women and girls had their heads shaved and the hair was used to stuff furniture. To me, this room portrays the scale of the horror of the holocaust. I have been here
once before and had nightmares about that hair for weeks afterwards.
The corridors are covered with the prisoners’ record cards. Thousand upon thousand of them, each representing a person who died here. When you reach the end, there’s a notice explaining that from 1943, prisoner record-keeping stopped. These people are just the first few thousand of the millions who were slaughtered.
I try to work my way through the blocks but the number and size of tour groups is immense. I keep getting stuck in buildings and panicking because I can’t get out. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been to be imprisoned here but I certainly wouldn’t have lasted long.
I move on to the nationality blocks, which are less crowded. Block 14, the Russian exhibition, is particularly interesting. The camp began in 1941 as a prisoner of war camp. In 1945, it was the Red Army who liberated the remaining prisoners. The exhibition charts both the plight of the PoWs and the camp’s liberation. Particularly mesmerising is the art work of a Ukrainian soldier who was among the liberating troops. He drew sketches of the horrors they discovered on entering the camp. When
he ran out of paper, he took some from the Commandant's office. Instead of turning it over and using the blank side, he opted to incorporate the Nazi letterheads and logos into the drawings.
Once the camp could no longer deal with the numbers being sent, a second camp, Birkenau was built. Prisoners were also held here, but it’s main function was as an extermination camp. The railway line runs through the main entrance, stopping at a platform next to the gas chambers. Many of the Jews sent here were marched straight from the train to the gas chambers, relieved of their possessions/clothes/hair and slaughtered. Their bodies were them cremated. Initially, the ash was used to fertilise the camp gardens, but later it was just shovelled into the neighbouring lake. The lake is still pitch black with the ash of murdered Jews.
In the afternoon we drive on to Krakow and it’s time for a trip to the laundrette. It’s a fairly long and stressful undertaking as there are more people than machines. My British predisposition to queue is at odds with the Polish predisposition to not queue, so it takes a while for me lay claim a
washing machine. And then the same palaver with the drier. Luckily, I have old man along for verbal support. He sees no need to involve himself in domestic chores but is keen to provide a running commentary on how I could do everything better. Finally, the ordeal is over and we return to our hotel for an early night before tomorrow’s drive to Warsaw.
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