I read in the guide book that Polish trains are notoriously late and our train from Warsaw was no exception. It left 15 minutes late and by the time we arrived in Krakow, 250 kilometres away, it was around 45 minutes late. Krakow is almost directly south from Warsaw. It is the ancient capital of Poland and is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. Situated on the Vistula River, the city dates back to the 7th century. Kraków has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life and is one of Poland’s most important economic hubs.
Today was a very different day for me. I visited the Auschwitz Concentration Camp site and Memorial along the with the nearby Birkenau Death Camp. It was a very moving place and quite heart wrenching. Jill can’t really see why anyone would want to go and gawk at this evil type of place but it seems to me to be so terrible that people want to appreciate just how bad it was and to make sure that the holocaust is never forgotten. We travelled by bus to the little town of Auschwitz which is about 70 km from Krakow. On the way, our guide set the tone by showing us a documentary of the liberation of Auswitch using film that was taken by a Russian Officer when they liberated Poland from the Nazis in May 1945. After the movie, no one spoke and the bus was very quiet!
In my own mind, I had expected Auschwitz to be a spread out collection of wooden huts in an open environment but that is actually Birkenhau. Auschwitz is located in an old Polish Army military barracks with around thirty two-storey brick buildings, surrounded by a barbed wire fence that was electrified. It was a terrible place. It operated before the mass murder of Jews really began and people originally imprisoned there fitted into any of the many categories of people that the Nazis did not like – criminals, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, prostitutes, homosexuals, gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war. There were some Jews as well. It was essentially a camp in which people were kept as forced labourers for local farms and nearby heavy industries.
People were punished for minor infractions. Discipline was severe. For example, prisoners had to stand in line for roll call until the numbers matched the records. On one occasion this took 18 hours and people died from exposure whilst standing outside. In the morning roll calls, the bodies of those who had died overnight had to be carried outside and propped up between the living so that the count was correct. There was only one gas chamber there and it was not used for very long. Over 2000 people were shot against a brick wall between some of the buildings. This was the place in which Dr Josef Mengele performed terrible medical experiments on men and women. He had a special interest in twins and experimented on them very cruelly to try and understand more about heredity.
If it could have been any worse,the death camp at Bikenhau was barbaric. Over its area of around 480 acres, around 90,000 prisoners were kept in bleak huts with little food and poor sanitation. Train loads of Jews were transported here from all over Europe. Under a subterfuge that they were simply being relocated, they bought with them, all of their possessions and they were often dressed in their best travel outfits. These were all confiscated when they arrived and ultimately redistributed to people in Germany. Collections of thousands of items are on display at the Auswitch museum – thousands of spectacles, shaving brushes, shoes, suit cases – just every day belongings that were the possessions of human beings. These ones were left behind at the time that the Russians reached the camp and are now in massed displays.
When the Jews arrived at the Birkenhau by train (one of seven sub-camps in the area), they were immediately sorted through a cursory examination by a doctor. The infirm, weak, old and children were immediately sent along to the end of the platform and straight to the gas chambers. The fit and healthy were separated and sent to either the men’s, or women’s camp, where they were kept as slave labourers until they died of starvation,disease or fatigue. A very small number survived. Between 1940 and 1945 the Nazis deported over 1.3 million people to Auswitch (1.1 million of them were Jews). They arrived faster than the five gas chambers and crematoria could process them. The five gas chambers and crematoria were blown up by the Nazis just before the Russians arrived and no longer exist.
This is truly an awful place. More people died at Auschwitz than the entire WW2 losses of Britain and America combined!
Back in town after lunch, Jill and I walked the short distance into the old town square. Just like Ypres in Belgium it has a large cloth hall in the middle of the square, although it is nowhere near as ornate. This is a clear symbol of the trading power of the city in past times. We took shelter in a cafe as an afternoon thunder storm flashed and rumbled around us.