On Monday I hopped a train to Auschwitz (it sounds kind of odd yes)from Krakow. I did a lot of thinking on that train trip and I was actually in a 'blah' kind of mood to begin with. Once I got there I did a little investigating and decided to slip into an English tour that was already in progress. The Auschwitz extermination camp was slightly surreal at first, the trees and plush grass almost made it seem a bit pleasant. It wasn't registering that this had been the site of some of the most heinous mass-murdering of a people in history. Our guide took us through the barracks, one by one, each containing an exhibit on the camp's history such as where the Jews and political prisoners were shipped in from (I honestly didn't remember that people were brought in from just about every corner of Europe), how the camps were constructed and run, and what life was like for people held there. The general idea was that the Nazis had decided to eradicate a whole race of people and they were trying to do it as efficiently as possible. Hundreds of thousands arrived. Some were already dead, some died while waiting, those who did not die during the voyage were separated into two groups. Those who could work and those who would wait to be killed by gas, injection, torture, and even brutal experimentation.
Exhibit after exhibit we'd see things like tons of human hair harvested and sold for the German textile industry, thousands of shoes, suitcases, toothbrushes, and other possessions... and yet, it wasn't really registering. It's literally unbelievable that anyone could have set up such an organized system for murdering men, women, and children (a woman showing up with a baby in her arms was an instant death sentence).
Yet, it still happened. An inappropriate 10-minute crush on my tour guide. Out of respect for the ultimate experience, I won't go into details but I eventually snapped out of it and left the tour group to contemplate. I grabbed a quick soup lunch while I waited for the bus to Birkenau, the second, larger extermination camp built in Auschwitz.
It was a terribly hot day and I was a bit worn. When the bus arrived at Birkenau, I swallowed hard. In front of me was a 125-acre camp that contained the remains of barracks as far as the eye could see. Most were just chimney stacks that hadn't crumbled after the wood had around them. I walked through a few of the barracks and witnessed miserable living conditions. I tried to imagine thousands of Jews and prisoners arriving by train through the gates. At one end of the camp were the ruins of two incinerators where the dead were cremated. A memorial lies between them. The shear size of this camp was what made it finally hit me. I had had enough and I was ready to move on.
Notes: The Krakow to Auschwitz train cost 11z from Glowny station and took about 50minutes. From the Auschwitz train station (Oswiecim), you catch a quick 2z bus to the museum. You can also take a longer bus ride for 7z each way, also run by PKP. Once at the museum, the tour is free but you should register with the reception area and wait for the next tour in your language (or you can slip into one in progress). There is a film to view as well for an additional cost. Although the museum is free, 5 0r 10z donations are accepted to help with the preservation of the grounds.
...As I made my way through the grounds, I saw many people in tears. Many had come to light candles or leave flowers. But one thing that irked me were people posing for photos around the camps. At Birkenau, I actually saw tourists smiling as they stood on the train tracks for a photo. I dunno...
...I've been visiting several Jewish districts while traveling through Poland and the Czech Republic. Often, it is mentioned that there aren't that many Jews living in these areas anymore whereas there were thousands before World War II. Seeing these Death Camps, it just boggles my mind to think about the loss of these communities...
On the bus ride back, I did meet a couple of great guys from New York who chatted with me about our travels. We went back to the Market Square and had dinner with a couple from Atlanta. I realized that I had been silent from the moment I left my hostile to go to Auschwitz in the morning (I did say 'mushroom' soup to the restaurant lady at lunch) until I had met them on the bus. It was nice to end a heavy afternoon with a great dinner and new friends. (Hey guys!)