We arrived in Krakow after a four and a half hour drive from Slovakia. Nancy had made arrangements for us to take a tour out to Auschwitz the next day, so we had a bit of time to acclimate ourselves.
The first thing I noticed was the name of the city. The Germans changed the name of the city from Oświęcim to Auschwitz. The town now uses the Polish name, Oświęcim for the community outside of the camp, but the world still knows and calls this place by its German name: Auschwitz.
As bad as I thought it would be to visit this place, it was worse. A Jewish rabbi friend of mine said that we honor the dead by remembering, and we remember by making these types of journeys. I know that is true, and it is horrific to see and experience this place first hand.
The day of our visit was cloudy and bleak befitting the circumstances of the place. We took a bus from Krakow out to the the camp. I was surprised that the buildings on the compound were all made of brick. For some reason, in my mind, I thought they would have been made of wood. It was originally built to hold Polish political prisoners.
Here are some facts:
* More people died in Auschwitz than all of the combined loses of British and Americans in WWII.
* 1.1 million people died during the four and a half years of Auschwitz's existence.
* Only 144 people were known to have escaped from Auschwitz.
* Witold Pilecki, a Polish soldier, volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in order to gather information, escape and let the world know about the mass murders that were being committed there.
*The camp commandant was arrested in 1946, convicted of murder and hanged at the camp.
People during the war arrived by train on these tracks. A decision was immediately made whether they were fit for work or if they would immediately go to the gas chamber. Old people, children, the infirm were immediately sent to be killed.
They initially entered through this gate with the cast iron sign over it
Arbeit macht frei
Work sets you free.
Originally the Nazis took photographs of entering people to identify them. There was a wall of photographs that we walked by that was haunting and incredibly sad. Soon the Nazis realised that after three months, the photographs were useless because the people were no longer recognizable as a result of starvation and unrelenting manual labor. They then came up with the idea of tattoos.
We saw the building where some children were originally kept. Generally they murdered the children immediately since they couldn't work, so I don't know how these children survived for a while.
We saw rooms of shoes, glasses, hair, items that had been carefully saved by the Nazis.. Personal items of the arrivals were stored in a building that the camp people called "Canada" because in their mind that was the land of plenty. It was almost unbearable to go through the exhibits. So many lives lost for no reason. Such deprivation and unrelenting dehumanising behaviours from the guards.
The question is how do human beings become so disassociated from their better selves that they can do something like this? The Nazis did not view the people in the camp as human. They made the "other" so vile in their own minds that it didn't matter if they were worked to death or starved to death. The purpose of the camp was to kill people. People lasted only about 3 months at the camp. Disease, starvation, and/or the gas chamber killed 1.1 million people in this place.
It is important to remember that we human beings are capable of doing such a thing.
Even though the Allies knew, more or less, what was going on here, they did not bomb the tracks leading into the camp as had been requested by a Jewish Community to the Assistant Secretary of War, John J McCloy. The Russians were the ones to liberate the camp.
I include this as a piece of reflection.
It is important to remember that we must never vilify the "other" to such an extent that we lose the sense of our common connection with them. No matter how evil we believe their acts are we are all of the same human race.
The next week after we were in Auschwitz Pope Francis was there.