Polen – Auschwitz und Birkenau

As you may know, Poland was devastated by WWII. While there were lots of tensions and conflicts leading up to the war, most historians denote the tipping point as the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – a non-aggression agreement between the Nazis and the Soviets which divided “lands of interest” among present-day Poland. Shortly thereafter, the Nazis began their invasion of Poland, tipping the continent into war.
On Sunday I took a day trip to see the site of the worst of WWII atrocities, the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. Here, the Nazis conducted the systemic murder of over 1,500,000 European civilians, mostly Hungarian and Polish Jews. The camps at Auschwitz were the single deadliest site for victims of the Holocaust, though many other camps existed.
I won’t attempt to recall all the horrors committed at this place; the Holocaust has been written about extensively by authors far more eloquent than myself. If you are looking to educate yourself on the subject I would encourage you to do so, but recognize that you will walk away with a heavy heart. Today I just want to recount my experience there, giving you an impression of the site and retrace my steps as I remember them. I will share some of the details which I learned while visiting the sites. The fainthearted may opt to skip this post.
Walking around Krakow in the touristy areas, you see advertisements for what I assume are the top two attractions to see from the city: Wieliczka and Auschwitz. My first reaction to this was frustration – how could so many companies be profiting off of the suffering of countless victims? But then I realized I was more ok with it – it is important that people go to see the camp and learn about history. As long as the tours were being conducted in a respectful and dignified manner, I decided the organized tours were alright.

I had booked a tour in advance, so I got up early, grabbed some breakfast, checked out of my hostel, and made my way to a nearby hotel entrance to wait for my ride. It was a grey morning with a slight drizzle, fitting for the mood I was in while I was waiting there. The square was very quiet on a Sunday morning, with just the occasional delivery truck passing by. Around 5 minutes after my scheduled pickup time, just as I was beginning to worry something had gone wrong with my reservation or that I was in the wrong place, a van arrived to take me to a meeting point where we were to meet with the main tour group and our bus. Shortly thereafter we departed on a bus ride lasting just over 1 hour. During the ride we watched a video which gave some historical context and a brief overview for what we were about to see.

We arrived at Auschwitz I and began our tour, walking through the main gate.

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The main entryway at Auschwitz I

The sign reads “Arbeit macht frei,” literally translated “work makes freedom,” or “work will set you free”. The Nazi officer who ordered it claimed not to have intended the slogan as a cruel joke, but rather maintained that endless labor and drudgery would bring about a spiritual freedom. Most of the prisoners (especially in the camp’s later years) knew the only means of escape was death. Forced to march through the gate regularly towards hard labor, the sign became a source of psychological torment.

We made our way through some of the prisoner barracks. At first, Auschwitz was used to hold political prisoners. Inmates were well documented and therefore detailed records have been maintained on some of the first prisoners at the camp. The conditions of the camp were horrible, but nothing compared to what we would see later. Inmates slept on cramped wooden slats in some barracks, and on straw mats in others. They were forced to work long hours every day, waking early for role call and standing in silence until all were counted. Dead bodies also had to be present and standing for the role call, propped up by other prisoners.

Some of the barracks were left intact, but others have been converted to museum exhibitions showing the extent of the crimes committed there and the scale of the destruction. seemingly endless piles of shoes, glasses, and luggage were on display. In some cases, the Nazis would deceive victims into thinking they were being relocated. Before being shipped to the camp, prisoners were forced to pay the Nazis for property in Poland, complete with false documents. Then, they packed up their most precious belongings and boarded cramped rail-cars. After the establishment of Birkenau, most prisoners arriving at the camp lived only for hours, after which their belongings were looted and shipped to Germany. The massive piles of belongings only represent what was found at the camp upon its liberation, and are just a small fraction of all of the stolen goods.

One particularly disturbing exhibition showed how the Nazis left nothing to waste. Having killed new arrivals, their heads would often be shaved so that the hair could be used for weaving cloth. A mountain of unprocessed hair sat behind a glass wall, found when the camp had been liberated.

The tour also went through the notorious Block 11, where inmates that had been causing issues were kept. The prison featured “standing rooms,” no larger than a small closet, where 4 prisoners per room were physically unable to lie or sit down for  up to 10 nights while maintaining normal working duty. Most prisoners faced with this torment did not survive. The basement of Block 11 was the location of the Nazis’ first experimentation with the cyanide poison Zyklon-B, used in the mass-killings at Birkenau.

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A replica of “the killing wall” outside Block 11

Outside Block 11, there was an isolated courtyard, hidden from the rest of the camp. There, before Zyklon-B had been put to use, Block 11 prisoners were shot en-masse. While the initial killings were hidden from most of the inmates, the Block 11 barrack itself featured windows looking out on the courtyard. Once assigned to Block 11, one rarely left alive.

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The secondary exit of the camp, near the first makeshift gas chamber at Auschwitz I

We left Block 11 and headed for the first gas chamber used by the Nazis for continued Zyklon-B killings. Initial gassings took place in the basement of Block 11 for some time, but eventually a new chamber was built so that bodies did not need to be hauled across the camp to the crematorium. Shortly before the camp’s liberation in January 1945, the SS attempted to destroy and hide the gas chambers at Birkenau. Because this initial chamber had fallen out of use by then, the SS did not destroy it. Our tour went inside in silence, remembering thousands of innocent lives which had been taken where we stood.

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The railway entryway at Birkenau, where the vast majority of killings at Auschwitz took place.

After a short break we boarded the bus to make a short drive (3km) to the second, much larger, camp – Birkenau. After the Nazis turned on the Soviets, a rapidly advancing eastern front meant that the Nazis had a lot of prisoners to “deal with”. Therefore, a much larger, second camp “Birkenau” was erected, intended initially to house 50,000 inmates (it was later expanded to house 200,000). Much of Birkenau was destroyed in an attempt to hide evidence (and some of the materials were looted by impoverished locals after liberation), but the most striking thing I noticed upon my arrival was the sheer scale of the complex. Endlesss chimneys dotted the landscape, remnants of makeshift wooden barracks that prisoners were forced into. Most of these living spaces did little to keep out the cold in winter and got unbearably hot in the summer, many inmates died from poor sanitation and starvation.

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The view of camp remnants from the train tracks.

We walked the darkest steps of the camp. As you saw above, rail tracks were built to take prisoners directly into the camp. Disembarking trains, many were confused as they had been told they were being resettled. Greeting them was an SS doctor, who gave each prisoner a cursory glance and pointed either left or right. Depending on whether the prisoner was deemed fit (about 15%) or unfit for work, they were taken to be trained or unknowingly marched directly to a gas chamber. Prisoners who were deemed able to worked faced a sort of “training period,” where they were issued a prisoner number via a tattoo, forced to memorize a few phrases in German, and told the camp rules. If they survived the first few weeks of initiation they were assigned to a barrack and worked to death, usually by starvation, exhaustion, or disease.

Arguably the worst-off in the camp were prisoners who had initially been fit to work, but became so weak that they could no longer contribute. These prisoners were cleared from the camp record and transferred to a temporary barrack. This barrack was vastly overcrowded – at some points there was no room left inside so prisoners would be left outside in a contained courtyard exposed to the elements. Once transferred to this barrack, prisoners were given no food nor water and left to die. For those that survived long enough, once a week a truck came to take prisoners to the gas chamber. The truck could only come once a week because of how busy the chambers normally were.

The other 85% of people disembarking the trains were told that they were  to be given “light labor” and that they first needed to be “decontaminated” in a group shower. They were led to gas chambers disguised as showers. Many victims were suspicious of what was happening, but those who caused any trouble were quietly taken away and killed away from the rest of the group. Thousands died every single day, shipped in on trains, during the height of the slaughter. Birkenau was a factory of death.

The Nazis destroyed those large-scale gas chambers in the days before liberation. Only ruins remain where countless lives were taken.

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The memorial represents a crematorium chimney, surrounded by graves

The memorial features the same inscription in every language spoken by a known victim. In English, it reads:

For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity. Where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children. Mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945.

Everyone reads about the horrors of the Holocaust. Everyone knows it was a terrible genocide. But there is a huge difference between reading the statistics and figures and witnessing the site where it happened. Experiencing it was hard for me, as it would be for anyone with a sense of empathy. But the emotional trauma of seeing the remnants of that terrible place pales in comparison to the countless individuals forced to live it. Recounting the adversity and hardship people suffered through does a lot to frame one’s own problems and forces us to wrestle with our perspective. I, unlike so many others, was able to walk out of that camp unscathed. For that, I am grateful. Never forget, lest we let history repeat itself.

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Polen – Krakau und Salz

Last week, tired from our London trip, most of my friends here opted to stay around Stuttgart for the weekend. While I’m sure they enjoyed the break, personally my destination wishlist is too long for me to stop yet. Hence, I hopped on a bus and made my way to the airport Friday afternoon, bound for Poland.

Some of you may be concerned. “How could you decide on a near-whim to go country-hopping on your own? What if something happened?” Rest assured, ladies and gentlemen. Not only did I go on my own, I went on my own with just a small backpack and without printed copies of my boarding pass, hostel reservation, or tour reservation. Luckily for me, I had accounted for my own foolishness and had everything on my phone.

My first flight was to Vienna (I’ll be back at some point). It was relatively uneventful besides the fact that it was delayed due to heavy fog. Oh, and because of that fog, the pilots abandoned a landing attempt last-minute due to a rapidly changing wind. Nevertheless I made it to Vienna with just-enough time to catch my flight to Krakow, aided by the slight delay on the departing flight.

In Krakow the situation was similar, with one bailed landing attempt due to fog. Fortunately I made it to the Krakow airport only about an hour after I had anticipated. I got out some cash (I loved the exchange rate – about 4 PLN to 1 USD) and made my way for the train, which was easy to use. I had remembered the name of my train stop and was lucky enough to catch the departing train just before it took off, so just after I had landed I found myself speeding towards the city center as a conductor punched my ticket.

I arrived a few short stops later at what seemed like a big shopping mall. Most everything was closed (it was about 11PM at this point), so I made my way to the street, got my bearings, and set off to sort out lodging for the evening. I picked a hostel right in the heart of the old part of town, so I passed by the main market square and several awesome old buildings as I walked through the streets. Krakow has a good number of college students, so the streets were naturally rowdy on a Friday evening.

I ducked into a small alley, buzzed the gate, and eventually was handed some linens and a key for the night. In my room I was greeted by two Austrian guys who were in town primarily to party. They showed me some music and we bonded over my terrible German, but I did not go out to clubs with them (as they were encouraging me too) because I wanted a full Saturday. Maybe I’m getting old?

On Saturday I grabbed some of the Hostel’s free breakfast and made my way back to the train station. I was headed farther south, to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. There, miners started a growing tradition of trying their hand at art, culminating in the carving of several beautiful chapels and intricate figures right out of the salt comprising the walls and floors of the rooms.

The only way to see the mines is through a guided tour, so I joined up with the 10:00 English group and we headed downstairs (58 flights of them to be exact). We passed through several tunnels supported by wood, resistant to rotting due to the salt having dried everything out.

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A long way down.

Eventually we were greeted by a statue of Copernicus, one of the mine’s many famous visitors. Our guide explained a little about how the mine grew in notoriety and how miners began carving in the salt. We saw several other stunning works of art and made brief stops at each to learn more of the mine’s history.

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These mines were given as a gift in a royal wedding
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Miners sometimes had the dangerous job of igniting built-up gas.
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A likeness of a former owner
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Even the Seven Dwarves are down here!

Eventually we worked our way down to the second level, where we found ourselves faced with an amazing opulent chamber, carved entirely from the salt.

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All of the walls were intricately carved. Here, the Nativity is depicted
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Those chandeliers aren’t glass. That’s carved salt crystal.

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The “tiles” are a carved salt floor, worn smooth by foot traffic.
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The main altar

We continued on past the chapel and took a quick break at a cafe (underground, yes).

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After our break we continued down to level 3. There, we saw some artificial brine lakes, a few more statues, and another small chapel. Around 90 minutes after we started we had finished our tour. The tour ended with an optional trip through a museum. While it would have been nice to learn more about the mine, I decided against it as I wanted to see more of Poland than just this one site. So instead I hopped in line to take a lift back to the surface, caught a train back to the main rail station, and set off for my next stop.

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Saying goodbye to the last of the salty figures

I grabbed a quick lunch of Perogies (I know those well enough from Pittsburgh). Afterwards, I made for the main square to catch a free walking tour advertised by the hostel. Our guide was studying IT at a nearby university, so I had an interesting conversation with him briefly talking tech as we walked from place to place. He was a Krakow native, very knowledgeable and proud of his heritage.

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In the highest tower of the main church, a trumpeter plays a special tune on every hour to signify the time. Climbing the stairs would be too time-intensive, so the tower features living quarters.

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The main opera hall
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Cloth hall, where merchants would lock up their goods at night. Now a shopping center

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The front of this church is ornate stone. But when the capital of Poland moved to Warsaw, the king no longer could afford stonework of this quality, so most of this church is constructed from brick.
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The inner courtyard at Wawel castle
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The Vistula winds off into the fog
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The fearsome dragon!

When they were laying foundations for the castle, workers found several large bones. These bones were attributed to a dragon living in a cave just below the castle fortifications. According to legend, any man able to slay the dragon would be allowed to marry the princess and gain a claim to the throne. A humble peasant brought a fake sheep laced with sulfur to the dragon’s lair. When the dragon consumed it the sulfur burned inside the dragon, killing him.

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The dragon breathes fire!

After our tour I went back to the hostel to recharge and decide what to do with the evening. I decided to venture out to the Jewish quarter. Krakow had a Jewish population of about 25% before WWII – the Polish were among the most welcoming of European nations and so many Jewish people settled here. I saw a bunch of old synagogues and churches, dotted with lively restaurants and bars which made for an interesting mix. I don’t have a ton of pictures – the lighting was not great and I didn’t want to linger for a long time alone at night with my camera out.

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I went to dinner at a great place not far from my hostel but still in the Jewish quarter. I had pork, potatoes, and sweetened carrots with some tasty Mead for under 15$. Full and content, I went back to the hostel for good this time, and headed to bed pretty early after a long day. I had an early morning on Sunday, but you’ll have to wait till next time to hear about that. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben