A Visit to Auschwitz
By: Danny Hizon, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
An inscription on a stone tablet warns: “The one
who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”This
stone tablet is found at the Auschwitz Death Camp.
Auschwitz? The name is now part of human history;
it is associated with the Holocaust - the systematic extermination
of the Jewish people during World War II which was attributed to
Hitler. Yet for all its notoriety much of the world seems
to have forgotten Auschwitz and, more importantly, its lesson.
How do we explain the killing fields in Cambodia, the ethnic cleansing
in Bosnia, the genocide in Rwanda, etc.?
I remember making a wish to visit Auschwitz whenever
I read about it in the past, but as more popular tourist destinations
competed for my scanty budget my wish remained just that for a long
time. The visit did happen recently but only by a stroke of
luck or accident.
I was in Katowice with an Arab companion to visit
my godson Wojtek for the first time since he was baptized 23 springs
ago. Katowice is a small quiet city in the coal mining region
of Silesia in the southern part of Poland. There is not much
to see or do here. Historic Krakow is nearby but I' d been
there before. Prague in the Czech Republic is not too far
but I did not have the required visa. Then I remembered Auschwitz.
When Wojtek mentioned that it' s only a short drive away, I decided
at once and announced to my companion that we' re going the next
Auschwitz? Maher, my travel companion, wanted
to know what that is. When told that it is where Hitler had
the Jews gassed and burned his interest was piqued.
He let out a question that he said has long bothered him:
“Why Hitler killed the Jews?” Everyone present scrambled
for an answer. Wojtek“Why didn' t I think of that
before? Maybe he was just crazy?” Ewa, Wojtek' s mother: The
Jews were controlling the German economy. Joanna, Wojtek'
s sister, sat in contemplation. I shared what I recalled from
my readings: Hitler wanted to build a new world peopled only
by the perfect race of Aryans.
As we went to bid Wojtek' s mother goodbye her face
turned very sad and the sadness told in her voice. She said
I am sorry, today is a sad day for you.” That puzzled me.
We' re going on an outing and for me an outing is always an occasion
to be carefree and happy.
Small unremarkable towns and villages interspersed
with wide expanses of rolling green meadows and about an hour of
leisurely drive separate Katowice and Auschwitz.
We were passing through a neighborhood of middle
class homes when I noticed that the road was filling with cars.
Wojtek slowed down and after a little while he parked in front of
a restaurant. I assumed that we were going to get some
refreshments before proceeding and was therefore surprised when
he informed us that we had arrived. I didn' t know what a
death camp looks like but I was certain this place does not fit
its description. Shady trees, green lawns, a clear day and
cool crisp air do not conjure an image of death.
Appearances can and do deceive.
The trees partially hide what appears to be a community
of 2-storey red brick buildings neatly arranged in rows. As
we came closer the words Arbeit Macht Frei” on the
steel arch of the gate became readable.“Work Will Set
You Freeour guide translated it for us. This is Auschwitz
Camp, a death factory” (by what other name can one call a
systematic and mechanized method of turning human beings into death
statistics?) that witnessed unspeakable horrors within its grounds.
“It was established by the Nazis in 1940 in
the suburbs of the city of Oswiecim which, like other parts of Poland,
was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War. The
name of the city of Oswiecim was changed to Auschwitz, which became
the name of the camp as well. Over the following years the
camp was expanded and consisted of three main parts: Auschwitz
I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz. It also
had over 40 sub-camps.” What remains of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz
II-Birkenau became the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which the
Polish parliament established as such on July 2, 1947.
A 15-minute documentary about the Holocaust shown
every hour at the administration building is a good prerequisite
to the tour. After watching it, visitors can either proceed
inside the camp by themselves or pay for a guided tour (about $6
per individual or about $42 per group).
The English-speaking guide leads us to an area just
outside the gate where she begins her lecture. Here, during
the war years when the camp was operational, freight trains or cattle
trains cramped with humans arrived from all corners of German occupied
Europe. The new arrivals were unloaded and processed.
They were told to line up and a doctor standing with camp officers
near the beginning of the line appraised them and then motioned
them to go either to the left or to the right. The left was
a death sentence, the right meant a reprieve or going to labor camps
before eventual death. Those who were ill, disabled, and unfit
for work went to the left and the rest to the right. One listens
to the guide with little emotion.
Then on to the camp we go passing through the gate
as did those prisoners a long time ago. Inside the buildings
are poignant reminders of what happened here: one glass encased
room is filled with dusty shoes of all sizes, colors and types,
other rooms with clothing, eyeglasses, wheelchairs and walking aids,
suitcases with names and addresses of their owners written on them,
etc.. It is when one sees these things and imagines what happened
to their owners that the emotion starts to swell.
The roomful of children' s clothing is particularly
moving; the eyes begin to moist. The room with human hairs
makes the body shudder as it signals that the inevitable end is
near. The heart feels heavy and the feet drag but are prodded
by the anticipation of seeing the much-publicized gas chamber and
“human oven” (by what other name can one call this thing
that turned humans into ashes?).
The first relatively small gas chamber was
built in Auschwitz I. Here the experimental gassing using
Zyklon B gas first took place on September 3, 1941. Much larger,
permanent gas chambers connected to very large crematoria were built
in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the mass exterminations were mainly
carried out … from January 1942 in five gas chambers
and from end of June 1943 in four additional large gassing rooms.”
The guide adds that at peak capacity the camp was burning up to
20,000 bodies a day. Still the capacity was not enough and
bodies that could not be accommodated were thrown into burning funeral
I just loved our guide. She' s not only beautiful
but she has the air of a history professor and she delivers her
lines with restrained emotion. These we all learned from her:
The exterminations were done mechanically - men,
women and children of all ages were undressed, driven into the gas
chamber, their corpses removed after gassing and transferred to
the crematorium. Any thing of value was retrieved and utilized
for the German industries: gold was removed from teeth and fingers,
hidden jewelry was searched from orifices of bodies, women' s hair
was cut and sent to textile factories, and ash was used to fertilize
Medical experiments were also done at Auschwitz,
notably the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele' s study on twins in order
to facilitate the formulation of a program for doubling the birthrate
of the Aryan race. He was reported to have made experimental
surgeries performed without anesthesia, injections with lethal germs,
sex change operation, removal of organs and limbs, and incestuous
impregnations. He was dubbed the Angel of Death.
Appearances were put up to hide from the world what
was happening here.
Flower gardens camouflaged the subterranean gas
chambers. Euphemistic phrases found in documents camouflaged
the real meaning of the words: transportation (read deportation)
of the Jews, special treatment (read gassing) of the Jews, etc.
Deception was employed to hide from the victims
what they were about to go through.
(They) were funneled through the undressing
rooms, were told to hang their clothes on hooks and remember the
number, and promised food after the shower and work after the food
… unsuspecting, clutching soap and towels (they)
rushed into the gas chambers.” Zyklon B poured through openings
of the gas chamber … trickled down over the men women and
children … they then started to cry out terribly for they
now knew what was happening to them … after a few minutes
there was silence. After some time had passed, may have been
10 to 15 minutes, the gas chamber was opened. The dead lay
… all over the place.”
Nothing was allowed to disturb this precarious synchronization.
When a Jewish inmate revealed to newly arrived people what was in
store for them, he was cremated alive.”
Towards the end of the war the retreating Germans
destroyed the camp including the gas chambers and crematoria in
order to hide their crimes. Fortunately the Soviets overtook
them before they could complete the destruction, as a result of
which the world can see the evidence of their wrongdoings.
When the war was over the results of the extreme
wickedness that occurred in this camp became known. Historians
estimate that at least 1.1 million Jews, 140,000 Poles mostly political
prisoners, 20,000 gypsies, 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war and over
10,000 prisoners of other nationalities perished in this camp.
The fact that the overwhelming victims were Jews does not trivialize
the suffering of the other non-Jewish victims: political prisoners,
Jehovah' s Witnesses, freemasons or critical Christians, handicapped
- considered either enemies or unfit to be part of German society.
After learning that hundreds of thousands of Polish
citizens suffered here, I came to understand Ewa' s sadness. It
is the collective sadness of the Polish people that remains very
deep 60 years on. I cannot comprehend how such cruelties could
befall a gentle people who I consider the most kind-hearted and
sweet in Europe. I am a recipient of unforgettable acts of
kindness from complete strangers in this country.
Why did Hitler kill the Jews?
Much has been written and said about this question
but one may never get a definite answer: Hitler viewed the
Jews as the main enemies of the German people. Syphilis made
him mad and out of touch with reality. He believed the Jews
were bent on destroying him. He feared he had Jewish blood.
While proceeding by bus from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II (aka Birkenau),
3 km away, I told our guide, a lady of around thirty years, how
exhausting the 4-hour tour must be for her. She replied that
it is exhausting physically and emotionally not only for her but
for the visitors as well. Indeed so. But I felt grateful
for this accidental tour that was turning out to be a monumental
experience. I was beginning to appreciate how important it
is for people to see this camp and learn its lesson so that we don'
t allow what happened here to be repeated ever.
After inspecting the barracks at Auschwitz II (a
good number of which still stand) and the ruins of a gas chamber
and crematorium, our guide gathered us all in front of the memorial
to the victims of the Holocaust. She told us “Don'
t say I' m glad
it' s all over' because somewhere in the world genocide
is still going on.”
Getting There: From Krakow,
take a train, a bus or a taxi to Auschwitz which is about 60 km
or 45 minutes away. For those arriving by train, Auschwitz
is an easy walk from the station.
Museum Hours: Daily
at 8 am (closing times depend on the season)