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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 morning.

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 pits.

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 farms. 

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, intellectuals, homosexuals,
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)
 
Websitewww.auschwitz-muzeum.oswiecim.pl

 

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