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Published: December 14th 2017
On this tour extension to Poland travellers were given the opportunity for a group visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. For various and personal reasons, a few decided against joining the group, but most of us went, some of us to show our respect and honor to all those who were incarcerated there. After visiting Mauthausen I wasn't sure my going would be the best idea, but felt I needed to go, to witness what remains of the horror that was. I knew I would pick up on any energy left in these places, but to me, any distress I would feel was a large part of my acknowledging the lives destroyed there, and a very small price to pay in comparison.
We arrived on another cold, rainy-snowy day in late November. Walking through the slippery, slushy, muddy snow again gave us an approximation of what the prisoners here would have experienced during the winter months, but unlike we were, they were not clothed warmly, nor had they any protective footwear or head coverings. We slipped and slid on the rocky and muddy paths to the entrance, and walked under the sign "Arbeit Macht Frei." Seeing it took my breath away, but this sign was a replica and only the beginning; unlike for those captured, we knew to expect what was in store. Walking through a few blocks (buildings) gave us an idea of what a part of daily life in Auschwitz was like, but block 5 was basically a museum: rooms full of displays of glasses, artificial limbs, baskets and suitcases, and shoes, with the children's tiny shoes achingly placed in front, added to the unbelievable range of trauma and abuse everyone here would have experienced. There were even two large rooms full of hair, cut off to send out to make into cloth. Who can think like this? Who can mastermind or even take part in such evil? But all this, of course, was not the worst; these were only things, belongings mostly. What was done to the people was far worse.
We moved on into block 11. This was the starvation building. (I wonder if they actually called it that?) Here there were tiny cells where people were punished (for doing what?) by not being fed. As it was we learned inmates here were fed at most maybe 600 calories per day; the average adult needs at least 2000 calories to minimally sustain a working life. They were all slowly dying of starvation. We walked past cells that held four prisoners able only to stand up all night as their punishment. Again, what had they done? As we exited block 11 our guide pointed out the building adjacent; that was where the medical experiments were conducted, primarily using twins, and women. We did not enter that block.
Our tour here ended by viewing a gas chamber and crematoria. But on one path very close by we could see fine buildings where officers and their families had lived, happily, we were told. Happily raising their families, surrounded by and amid the massive suffering, torturing, and killing. How could that have been remotely possible?
Back on the bus we arrived shortly at Birkenau, or Auschwitz II. This was the place I found most disturbing. We walked over the railway tracks, those famously photographed tracks leading to Birkenau, to a barracks not too far away. The mud here was worse, the cold was worse, or maybe we were already mentally beaten down after just walking through Auschwitz I. This barracks building was enormous; bunk beds, again three bunks high, were lined up on both sides stretching down the long central corridor. In the center row were "toilets," just row after row of holes with buckets underneath; no privacy, no dignity offered or allowed. Surprisingly, it was colder inside the barracks than outside. Our guide spoke of the fact that this was not yet even winter; the really cold weather had yet to arrive. Prisoners were given, at most, one pair of thin pajamas to wear for a week at a time, and only maybe one thin blanket to cover three to seven people in a bunk. How could anyone survive these deprivations? They were forced to work all day, relieve themselves only at specifically designated times, freeze all winter and roast all summer. Their lives were considered not of much value, except as workers. When someone became too weak or too sick to work, that was the end for him or her. This was life in Auschwitz; this was Birkenau.
Before we left I carefully walked along the slippery, muddy, icy railroad tracks to see the same view of the iconic photograph taken by Alana deHaan, the photo that defines the entrance to Auschwitz for many of us. Somehow it made a difference to me that these train tracks were arriving at Birkenau, not Auschwitz. And it was important for me to slip and slide along these tracks, to see what the prisoners saw as they were first deboarding the trains, seeing Birkenau for their first time. This was another difficult visit, but, unlike for so many others, we were able to leave, to board our bus and escape this dreadful place. It is still dreadful. I do not ever want to return.
But neither do I want to end on such an intense and disturbing note. Travelling through Poland was, for the most part, surprisingly enjoyable; I would not have wanted to miss visiting this country, which is not yet on most travellers' lists of desired destinations. It is very beautiful, cold even in late autumn, with snows in winter, much like where I live in Maine. Seeing how Warsaw had been meticulously rebuilt from its ashes, watching (from inside our warm bus) the glorious snow covered countryside rolling by, meeting friendly people everywhere, eating delicious handmade cabbage and forest mushroom pierogis, and realizing how very much I had enjoyed our time and experiences in Krakow were all highlights of this trip for me. If you get a chance, don't hesitate to go. Poland is full of wonderful surprises! I expect I might even return to lovely Krakow one day.
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