Back when I busked at Old Town, with my happy ukulele songs and my big smile, a tour guide remarked to me that I ought to play more sad songs, because, “The Polish are a sad people.” At the time, I didn’t quite know what he meant.
When we moved from our hostel near Old Town and crossed the river, I noticed a distinct change of attitude in our surroundings. After a search on Wikipedia, I learned that Podgórze, where we were, was the neighborhood where the Jews who had been living in Kazimierz were moved, before being deported to Auschwitz, 42 miles away. Considering how much Poland has been through in its history, and specifically during the 20th century, suddenly the tour guide’s remarks started to make a little more sense.
Neither Jim nor I were particularly excited about getting up on the day we planned to go to Auschwitz. Despite the fact that we’d been wandering through former Communist countries, where evidence of the two World Wars and the awful aftermath was still in plain view practically everywhere we went, we’d managed to avoid dealing with much heavy stuff the entire trip; it’d be truer to say that we actively avoided dealing with it (see my comments on the Terror House). However, we each knew that a trip to Auschwitz was necessary, if only because this could be the only chance we’d ever have to see it.
We boarded the train bound for Oświęcim, the non-Germanized name of the town. What started in Kraków as a full train dwindled down to just me and Jim about halfway through the journey, which imparted a feeling of sadness and solitude that set the stage for the rest of the day.
When we deboarded the train, I was struck by how normal Oswięcim seemed. I don’t know what I was expecting. There were a couple taverns, a filling station, a busy road. It all seemed so benign. We began walking to the camp. Along the way, there were signs affirming that we were heading in the right direction, which had the effect of simultaneously reassuring and troubling me. Eventually we came to the entrance of the camp.
If the signs created conflict within me, it was nothing compared to what walking into the Auschwitz compound did. Rows of quiet brick buildings, tree-lined gravel paths– such an idyllic setting, belying such unspeakable cruelty. We entered the compound under the wrought iron sign promising that “Work will make you free”.
I’ve struggled over how to write about the experience of walking through the camp. Because it was the off-season, we were left to explore on our own, which allowed us to experience the different stations at our own pace, but it also meant that there was no group and no guide to act as a buffer between us and the horrors we were being shown. The bunkhouses have each been converted to individual exhibits, and inside each were long corridors with rooms branching off on either side. More than once I stood at a doorway, reluctant to enter on an almost visceral level, like a horse stepping foot on a rickety bridge.
Behind glass walls, the prison clothes of adults and children hang, lifeless. On one end of a room, an enormous pile of spectacles. In another room, discarded prosthetic limbs. In yet another, a mound of makeup compacts. In every main corridor, the faces of the people who lived and died here, all looking stoically at the camera. I find myself having trouble meeting their gaze.
In addition to the debris, each room featured glass-topped tables, in which various examples of German paperwork could be seen. There were Polish translations, and English summaries (“Paperwork documenting the arrest of an Italian Jew for listening to a foreign radio station”, etc). Correspondence between Nazi higher-ups wherein they discussed the “Jewish Question” and its ghastly “Final Solution”. Both Jim and I were glad we couldn’t read them in their entirety.
We hadn’t allotted nearly enough time to see most of the camp. We got through seven blocks, ending at Block 11, the “prison within the prison” where fatal punishments were administered. I hesitate to go into detail about the ways in which prisoners were tortured and executed here; words fail to convey the depravity of it all.
On the second floor of Block 11, there was a small respite from the horror, in the stories of the camp’s underground resistance movement, and specifically Witold Pilecki. Pilecki, already a war hero, was a founding member of the Secret Polish Army and the only person to ever volunteer to go to Auschwitz. At the time, reports about what was going on at Auschwitz were murky and unverifiable; the Nazi camps were thought to be merely labor camps. Pilecki was given a pseudonym, and inserted himself into a round-up in Warsaw. He was taken to Auschwitz, where he organized the underground resistance movement which performed a number of invaluable tasks such as distributing extra food and medicine to prisoners, gathering intelligence, and, perhaps most importantly, smuggling that intelligence out of the camps. Pilecki then successfully escaped the camp and was never recaptured, something only a handful of others were able to accomplish. His information on the goings-on in the camp, known as Witold’s Report, was so terrible that it was at first thought by the Allies to be rife with exaggerations, a point that is still met with some resentment. Still, the idea that, even in such desolation and despair, there were people working to give some shred of hope to the condemned prisoners here restored the faith in humanity that, until this point, I had been losing at an alarming rate.
At that moment, we checked the time: we only had a half hour to get out of the camp and back to the train station, or we’d be stuck in Oświęcim. As we walked briskly to the gate, Jim remarked dryly on how great it was that we were able to leave of our own accord. We fell silent then, thinking of the millions who had no such luxury.
About halfway to the station, it was becoming clear that we would have to run the rest of the way or we wouldn’t make it. So we ran the remaining half-mile or so at high speed, during which I was made uncomfortably aware of how out-of-shape I’d become on this trip. We hopped onboard with literally one minute to spare; as I was huffing and puffing, pacing up and down the aisle so my heart wouldn’t explode, the train lurched forward, and we began the winding journey back to Kraków.