I don’t know if it was some sort of sign, but we had trouble finding somewhere to eat near Auschwitz. Tomas approached one place – a kind of food court affair with plenty of seating, and where he’d taken groups before – and was told they were closed. I don’t think she’d told the patrons sitting there. Whatever. We’d been warned beforehand that food was fairly hard to come by near Auschwitz, so we’d all taken Tomas’s advice and brought our own – in our case, cheese and meat rolls created (with the hotel’s permission) at breakfast. So we all piled back on the bus and ate as we headed for Warsaw.
Motorways are much the same everywhere. Tomas commented on the differences between villages in Poland with those in Slovakia, then put on the movie The Pianist. I had not seen it – like Schindler’s List, it’s not something I would automatically watch. I prefer light and frothy, like Star Wars. But this was about one man’s struggle to survive the Nazis in Warsaw, so, having just left Auschwitz, it was singularly appropriate. Roman Polanski drew on his own family’s experience in the war to create the movie, as he explains in this interview. It was compelling viewing, adding details about the ordinary folk the Nazis murdered.
We arrived at our hotel towards evening. There was a slight delay because the police had blocked off the road for security reasons, the Presidential Palace being located next door. The driver got out and had a word with the cops, who let us through.
That evening we had dinner at a Polish restaurant. The meal was forgettable, if generous, but the group of Polish entertainers made up for it. They performed a number of traditional regional dances, changing costumes several times. We were encouraged to join in with a few small contests, and some dancing. Pete and I passed on the dancing, but I won the shake-the-most-eggs-out-of-the-plastic-duck’s-bottom competition, and Pete won the loudest whip crack. I thought he’d do well at that since he’s expert at the tea towel flick. I have the bruises to prove it.
Next day we passed on the city tour, but we went for a walk to find an apothecary. It was in the old town, which had been rebuilt after the war. It wasn’t (in my opinion) as well done as the German towns. The painted-in cracks and ageing didn’t add anything.
It’s a clear indication of how unwell both of us felt that we didn’t take any pictures in Warsaw. Or if we did, we’ve lost them. Neither of us took a camera on our visit to the old city, although I’ve got one of the park outside the hotel. Although the sore throat had faded, we both had the cough that seems to be a prerequisite for the end of rivertrips. On a cold and damp day we didn’t do the city tour, so I didn’t get to see the Warsaw ghetto memorial. However, Tomas, knowing my interest in the Holocaust, used his phone to record the guide’s explanation to the group (with her permission) so that I could listen. That was well beyond his duty and I was very grateful. The Jewish uprising in 1943 is a part of the movie The Pianist.
Next day we would be catching a train to Berlin while our driver would set off early to meet us there.
Auschwitz. The very word is enough to send a shiver down my spine. It equates to unspeakable horror, monstrous crimes. Nazi Germany was the focus of my studies at university, so I can claim to know a little more than many people about the Holocaust. But the history degree was many years ago. Before we set out on this trip, I read Thomas Keneally’s award winning book, Schindler’s Ark, and I watched Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie interpretation, Schindler’s List, when we got home. Schindler’s enamel works was in Cracow, one reason I’d wanted to see the place. The factory is still there, something of a tourist attraction, but our tour director, Tomas, told me the Poles don’t think much of Schindler, since he exploited Jewish labour to make a profit. Yet in Israel, he’s a hero. Certainly, the twelve hundred or so Jews whose lives he saved appreciated his efforts. By some weird coincidence, when we came home I found myself stumbling over articles and documentaries about the Holocaust, as if the Universe was reminding me that this was real, this happened to real people of my parents’ generation. Yes, not long ago at all.
On a grey, drizzly morning the bus took us the short distance from Cracow to Auschwitz. I could so easily turn this post into an essay on the Holocaust, but other people, far more qualified than I, have done that. I shall try to confine myself to a tourist’s impressions. Even so, it’s worth giving a little bit of context.
Auschwitz was huge. It consisted of Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II–Birkenau (a combination concentration/extermination camp), Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labour camp to staff an IG Farben factory), and 45 satellite camps. Auschwitz I was a Polish military base which the Germans initially used for Polish political prisoners, and that is the camp with the famous sign “arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free). But Auschwitz II – Birkenau is the one I’m told you’re more likely to recognise – the picture at the head of the post.
When Himmler and the SS embarked on the ‘final solution’, the area within 20km of the old military base was cleared of all Poles, and their villages destroyed. There was a level of secrecy in the whole operation. The Germans didn’t want the Jews to know what was happening, or the local civilian population, or, indeed, the Allies. Auschwitz was run like a factory, with a production line. The start of that production line was the first place we visited; Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau.
If you’ve seen Schindler’s List you’ve seen this portal, an entrance for the trains of cattle cars carrying the Jews to their fate. Black and white photographs, taken by the Germans at the time, have been placed on boards with explanations. When those still living exited the cattle cars, they were sorted; women and children on the left, men on the right. From there, everyone was inspected, and the old, sick, and infirm (anybody who couldn’t work) were added to the left-hand column, and the fit and childless women sent to the right. Our guide stressed that these people had no idea what was happening, and in fact believed after the ordeals of the ghettos and the cattle trucks, they’d come to a better place. Before they were sent away they’d been told to pack their bags and label them carefully so they could collect them when they arrived. Some Hungarian Jews actually bought one-way tickets to Auschwitz, believing they were going to set up new businesses.
The people in the right-hand column were marched off to the barracks.
The people in the left-hand column were marched off to the gas chambers.
Let’s follow the left-hand column – which would consist of around ninety percent of the group just processed. The guards continued with the subterfuge, telling the people they would need to shower. They gave them soap, told them to leave their clothes in neat piles. There were even shower heads in the gas chambers – but no plumbing. The people were killed with a cyanide based poison, Zyklon B. When the gas had done its work, Jewish special prisoners (called Sonderkommando) came in to shave hair from the bodies, remove any gold in their mouths, dispose of the remains, then clean out the chamber ready for the next lot.
Birkenau was a death camp. The gas chambers and crematoriums, and the wooden barracks, were destroyed by the Germans as they retreated, but they ran out of time to destroy everything before the Russians arrived. A few of the horrible barracks have been rebuilt to show visitors how the prisoners lived. Our guide showed us inside one, explaining that six to eight people slept in each bunk, across from side to side. Although they were expected to do hard physical labour, they were given starvation rations. When they could no longer work, they were sent to the gas chambers. A lucky few had skills the Germans prized, like the women who made fashion garments for the officers’ wives. This story is particularly confronting because our guide told us that when Rudolf Hoess, the first commandant of Auschwitz, was transferred, his wife didn’t want to go. She lived a life of luxury next to that hell-hole camp.
So how did Birkenau affect me? The photographs were the thing. Look at the people, the women and their kids. They look tired, perhaps a little apprehensive, but not frightened. They’d swallowed the con, and in a couple of hours, they would be dead. Their hair would be cut off, any gold in their teeth broken out. Everything of value had been stolen from them, including any last vestige of dignity, then they were burned. In the Spring of 1944 the SS killed as many as 6,000 people at Birkenau every day. The air was thick with ash, drifting down like snow.
When I watched the scene in Schindler’s List where the 300 women who were supposed to have been sent to Czechoslovakia are driven through that dreadful archway into Birkenau I felt a shiver of recognition. Our guide told us that no one – not one person – escaped from Auschwitz. Some escaped from work parties, but no one from the camps. Yet Schindler got those women out of there. He negotiated their release, paid for them. He was offered a different 300, better able to work, but he refused. The SS put his Schindlerfrauen into cattle cars and sent them back out that archway to Schindler at his new factory in Czechoslovakia.
We all climbed back onto our bus in the now-crowded car park and were driven the short distance to Auschwitz I, where we saw the famous sign erected at every concentration camp; arbeit macht frei – work makes you free. It’s not the original. The sign has been stolen, more than once. At first the camp is like any other military establishment – neat rows of brick buildings surrounded by grass and trees, quite pleasant, really – but then you notice the electrified fences with regularly-spaced sentry boxes. We were taken inside several of the buildings to see how the prisoners lived, and hear the stories about the morning roll-calls. If someone died while on a work detail or overnight, his colleagues had to bring the corpse out to the roll-call, otherwise that person was listed as an escapee, and ten people from the barracks were killed. Our guide took us to block 11, where any prisoner raising the ire of a guard was incarcerated, never to return. It was here in the cellars that Zyklon B was tested on people for the first time.
Our visit to Auschwitz I is something of a blur. Our group of sixteen was dwarfed by much larger groups, all pushing to see the same exhibits in a given time. We shuffled along through cramped, crowded corridors, never given time to look at things, to pause and reflect. One corridor had glassed-in exhibits of piles of reading glasses, boots and shoes, and human hair. Another had documents, in German and Polish, some with the orders to carry out killings or move prisoners, others more poignant – like the one-way tickets to Auschwitz. But never time to look and consider. People pressed behind, or tried to push past if there was room.
Thousands of people must have been at Auschwitz when we were there, busloads of them. Many were young, students in their mid-teens no doubt taken on a school excursion. I was told selfie-sticks have been banned after smiling pictures of teenagers appeared on the net – ‘me at Auschwitz’. One gas chamber did remain intact. You might have seen images on the net, complete with scratches at about fingernail height. But they’re not fingernail scratches. That gas chamber was a temporary one, not blown up because it was used for storage and later as an air raid shelter, so the marks have a much more prosaic origin.
I was frankly disappointed in how the visitors were handled. Perhaps more buildings could be opened to the public, giving guides choices in where to go, instead of squeezing everyone into the same space with hardly enough time to shuffle past. Maybe visits could be timed for a certain number of people. One can’t help but feel it’s a money-making concern these days.
I wonder how much those kids, whose great grandparents were of World War II vintage, would have made out of the visit. Like those black and white photographs, the reality of the Holocaust is fading into the past. I suppose that’s inevitable. Time marches on. But I, for one, hope it’s never forgotten. I know that genocide still goes on. The killing fields in Cambodia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and right now the Rohyngya in Burma. Terrible as they all are, what the Nazis did is worse because the SS set up a factory process to murder people after first exploiting them for everything they had. It was systematic and absolutely ruthless, designed to wipe Jews from the face of the earth.
Lately I’ve seen growing signs of anti-semitism. A post appeared on Facebook of a car in the US with a sticker on the bumper proclaiming ‘proud anti-semite’. Here’s the story. I read another story of a sixth-grade Jewish child (in the US) finding a sticky note on her locker with the words ‘Jews will burn’. Here’s the story. I know anti-semitism is old – two thousand years old. It was why Hitler found it so easy to blame the Jews in Germany, why the civilian populations in Eastern Europe were not averse to the ghettos and such. It needs to stop. Visits by young people to places like Auschwitz will help – if it is supported by proper education about what it is they’re looking at. In the US and Australia, young people need to know what the swastika stands for.
Young people MUST learn history. If they don’t, somewhere, sometime, the Holocaust is going to happen again.
And one more factoid I didn’t know – the famous tattooed number was only ever used at Auschwitz, only on people who were in that right-hand column, and only towards the end of the war (1944), when so many people were being pushed through the camps.
If you’re interested in why the Germans wanted human hair, look here
The last night of our Amsterdam to Budapest cruise was awful. My throat felt like I’d swallowed a bucketful of rusty razor blades. Breathing hurt, swallowing was excruciating and sleeping was impossible. We had our bags packed and standing outside the door, ready to be on our way for the Eastern European leg of our tour, but frankly, I would just as soon have gone home. But that’s easier said than done – flights, hotels etc. Apart from that, I didn’t fancy the prospect of a long-haul flight feeling the way I did. I consoled myself with the knowledge that it was going to be a big bus with only sixteen passengers so we could spread out, and all but two of our fellow travellers had already been subjected to the lurgy doing the rounds on the ship. A few of them still had vestiges. Besides, what I had was a throat infection, not a virus. If nobody tried kissing me they should be fine.
Our new tour director, Tomas, was informed of my situation and arranged for a doctor to call on me when we reached out hotel in Cracow. With something to look forward to, I did my best to enjoy the drive.
On the way through the Hungarian countryside, Tomas explained a few things about being on this side of what used to be the Iron Curtain. One of the most important issues for us was that everybody became so accustomed to drinking crappy coffee that they persuaded themselves they liked it, and that was how it came. When we stopped for lunch in a small town, he was proved right. Being a Sunday, not much was open, but we snared a couple of take-away sandwiches in the equivalent of a 711, and then bought coffee at an ice cream shop (as you do). We opted for a latte, and Tomas was absolutely right. It was horrible.
The roads were packed on what we were told everyone assumed was probably going to be the last sunny weekend before Autumn took hold. The skies were packed, too. This is just a small number of the hang gliders floating around up there in this area. It’s a national forest, and bears and wolves live in there. We also passed by Orava castle, perched on a rock above the river of the same name. It looks a bit like Bran castle (Dracula’s castle) but that’s in Romania.
Eventually we made it through the thick traffic to our hotel in Cracow, across the road from the Vistula River, next to the castle and not very far at all from the Old City (as we would soon discover).
We passed on the city orientation tour, more interested in the arrival of the doctor. She was escorted up to our room, a pleasant young woman who spoke good English. We still had to resort to a bit of body language every now and then, but there was no doubt she understood. My lungs were clear (good) my throat was inflamed. She wrote out a note for me, explaining how I was to take the medication she would prescribe. Then on a second sheet she wrote a prescription for the pharmacist, and then she wrote out the bill for us to give to the travel insurance people. We paid her in cash. The visit cost around $60AU, which we thought was pretty reasonable for a house call on a Sunday evening. She said yes, we could fill the prescription tonight, provided we made it to the pharmacy before 8pm, ask at the desk for the closest shop.
It was around 7:30, so after she’d gone, we grabbed our coats and headed for the lift. Pete asked if I had the script. “Of course,” I said, patting myself down. Shit. I didn’t have the script.
We went back to the room. I’d had in my hand, I was sure. We found the sheet of instructions and the bill. No script. We looked everywhere, but it had vanished, evaporated into thin air. You’ll have to imagine how we felt. We were both sure (weren’t we?) that the script had been here when the doctor left. But maybe not. We didn’t have too many options. We went down to the desk and asked the clerk to ring the doctor, who insisted she’d left the script on the table. The clerk suggested one of the staff come up with us to take another look. That was fine by us – a fresh set of eyes. As it happened, Pete sat on the bed and bent to look under it – when a piece of paper caught his eye, shyly trying to hide behind the leg of the frame where you put your luggage.
Everybody sighed with relief, the staff member gave us a map with directions to the nearest pharmacy (look for a green cross) and we were off. It was in the old town, so think crooked streets and cobblestones, but we made it before closing, and joined our fellow travellers for dinner.
I’d love to say I got some sleep, but while an antibiotic will do the job, it isn’t a silver bullet, so I endured another uncomfortable night. We were up late and missed the walking tour of the castle and the old city in the morning. Pete went on the tour of the salt mine, though. The salt deposit reaches down to 327 meters and has been mined since the thirteenth century. Here’s the website. But the Wikipedia entry might actually tell you more. Pete said it was great, and I was sorry to have missed it.
But that’s life. My throat was starting to feel better and tomorrow we were off to Warsaw. Via Auschwitz.