About 35 km from the city of Katowice and 50 km from Kraków in the south west of Poland is a town called Oświęcim (think Osh-vyen-tchim). I went there last year (2016) and looking out from the windows of the mini-bus I was in it looks very much like any other part of small-town Poland. Oświęcim, indeed that whole area of Poland has a very chequered history; the town itself most likely started its life as a fortified wooden settlement in the Middle Ages and in its time has been part the Duchy of Cieszyn, the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Kingdom of Poland and the Habsburg Empire amongst others. In 1918 it became part of the Second Polish Republic. Over time it has been called by many names and in many languages; Ospenchin, Hospencin, Oswentim, Wswencim and Auswintzen to name but a few variations. When The Third Reich annexed that part of Poland at the beginning of the Second World War they called it Auschwitz.
It’s another bright summer day in Kraków, I’ve booked a day-trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum and I’m sitting in the hotel reception waiting for the minibus. I was In Kraków the year before (2015) and had wanted to make the visit to Auschwitz then but my travelling companion at the time said that she had been there when she was in her teens; she hadn’t enjoyed the experience and didn’t want to go again. Instead she had organised a visit to „Skansken Chabówka” or „Skansen Taboru Kolejowego w Chabówce” to give it its full name. A Skansen is an open air museum, Taboru Kolejowego is Railway Rolling stock and Chabówce is of course the town of Chabówka where the museum is located.
So we went to see the sleeping giants. That was also a bright summer day and I must say, I was in my element wondering around and clambering upon (where allowed) the exhibits on display.
However, I’m sitting, waiting for my transport and thinking over my reasons for wanting to go to arguably one of the most notorious sites associated with the Second World War and admitting to myself that I am feeling just the slightest tinges of trepidation.
Work Sets You Free.
In the early 1970s there was a TV program called “The World At War” and part of it dealt with the Nazi’s concentration camps, death camps. I remember seeing grainy black and white footage on TV of a bulldozer pushing naked bodies into an open pit, a mass grave. I’ve never forgotten that. As a youngster I was equally fascinated and appalled by it.
Many of the Nazi Death Camps were built in Poland and the Polish, unhappy with people in the media calling these sites “Polish Death Camps” have, quite rightly I think, introduced penalties for anyone who does refer to them as having been Polish, the implication being that they were operated by the Poles. The accepted phrase is “German Nazi extermination camp in occupied Poland”.
Even now I can’t quite identify exactly why I wanted to visit Auschwitz.
To pay my respects? I’m not Jewish, I’m not even religious.
To see if it was really real? I’m not one of those people that think such things didn’t happen.
Some sort of ghoulish interest? I’ve thought long over this and no.
As I’m writing this I feel a mix of emotions trying to explain why I wanted to go. I haven’t got a “bucket list” as such so it wasn’t just something to tick-off. I just felt that I had to go, so here I was, going.
The journey was somewhat over an hour, there was a couple from Canada, another couple from Sweden and me, all with our various reasons for going, all keeping our silent counsel. Eventually the minibus pulled into a large carpark, we got out, the driver cheerfully reminding us to remember where he was parked and then he led us up to the main entrance building of the museum where we met our tour guide and our group of seven was increased to about twenty as other smaller parties were amalgamated.
I was prepared for quiet contemplation; I was prepared for a feeling of sorrow; I was prepared for many of the feelings that I thought may impinge upon me but what I was not prepared for was the sheer volume of people there and the conveyor-belt nature of the “tour”. Our guide introduced herself, and we were led off to collect wireless headphones, our guide had a wireless microphone and gave a commentary through the headsets.
The entrance to the museum is a new building some way in front of the gate to the original camp, so sporting our headphones we were led off to enter the camp proper, through the original gate, under the sign, “ARBEIT MACHT FREI”, following our guide who was in turn following the preceding party.
I’m not quite sure what I expected at this point; there were lots of brick buildings. We were led into one, marched around “the route” and then led out into the sunshine and in to another building. There were photographs, maps, diagrams, artefacts, personal possessions, pots and pans; one display case held hair, human hair, shaved from the heads of the inmates. We were shown sleeping quarters, washrooms and toilets, detention cells and punishment cells. If truth be told, I had read about and seen photographs of most of these things but then upon entering one of the buildings we were met with hundreds of photographs of the people who had been here.
Stepping into this particular building out of the sunlight it took me a while to realise what I was looking at. Inmates had initially been recorded by having their photographs taken, profile, front and three quarter view. The building had a central corridor and here there were, framed and displayed, rows and rows of front view photographs, shaved heads and striped uniforms, faces from the past. It was at this point that the human element fell into place. It wasn’t that I hadn’t taken on-board what had happened here, I had read articles about this place, seen film of this place. Maybe I had somehow been repressing the human involvement but standing here now in this queue of people all slowly filling along the corridor with hundreds of people staring out of the past at me, it hit me.
I wanted to stop because each gaze seemed to demand that I look back, I met the eyes of these people, it seemed the least I could do. Now I could feel the beginnings of tears in my eyes. I moved along with the rest of the party, face after face, person after person.
We were led back out into the sunshine; our guide was talking about the gas chambers and crematoria. We were going to visit a gas chamber, not an entirely original one because towards the end, the Nazis had tried to destroy them all but this one we were informed had been reconstructed using original materials on-site.
This was Crematorium 1; the building was adapted from an ammunition bunker which had been there before the war when the site had been barracks for the Polish Army. When the Nazis first took over the site was adapted as a labour camp for political prisoners and then later it was turned into a death camp, a factory for killing people who were deemed not suitable to live in The Third Reich.
We were taken to the courtyard in front of the crematorium building; this was where the new arrivals were told to get undressed prior to the showers they were told they were going to have as a measure to keep the “workers” healthy. People were asked to write their names on their suitcases and other belongings to make it easier to retrieve them after the showers. We then entered the “shower room” where the people were gassed by means of dropping lethal cyanide-based pesticide through holes in the roof. Next we were led through an opening in the wall (which wouldn’t have been there originally) into the crematorium section where the bodies were burnt. Again, I would have liked more time for reflection here but the “tour” was moving on. I tried to picture what would have been going on in this room many years ago but the enormity of it was somehow too great, too real, if that makes sense, to picture.
Back out into the sunshine, many conflicting emotions in my head. Feeling slightly numb I followed the others in my party as we made our way back to the carpark. That was the first part of the tour, Auschwitz had been an enormous site, many sites in fact, this had been Auschwitz 1 and we had only scratched the surface. Next we were going to Auschwitz 2, better known as Birkenau.
As the minibus went its way I noticed a disused railway line in the grass verge next to the road, you can always tell a railway line that hasn’t been used for a while, the tops of the rails become rusty. This line hadn’t been used for some time judging by the look of it. The line followed the road for some way and then disappeared; we turned a corner and entered a car-park. Ahead of us was a long, low brick-built building with a small tower over a gateway in the middle section. Alighting once again we were met by our tour guide who had made her own way there.
Whereas Auschwitz 1 had been solidly built brick buildings; apart from the main building here, the barracks for the inmates at Birkenau were wooden and many of them not having withstood the ravages of time all that remained of them were the brick fireplaces and chimneys, one at each end of the buildings. This is the place with the iconic railway sidings, where trainloads of people were brought to be exterminated. Although what happened here was on a bigger scale than what went on in Auschwitz 1, Birkenau became the main centre for the exterminations as the Nazis “Final Solution” got underway, because the site now is so open it feels less oppressive than the brick walls of the previous site.
We walked the length of the railway sidings where there is a lone railway wagon representative of the thousands that would have been shunted into these sidings carrying hundreds of thousands of people. It is estimated that approximately 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, around 90% of them Jews. At the far end of the sidings there is a memorial site where a ceremony was taking place, there was a large group of people, Jewish by their attire and regalia, singing and reciting scripture. We were shown the remains of one of the crematoria which had been blown-up by the Nazis, a twisted jumble of concrete standing in mute testimony to the horrors which it had witnessed.
Looking across the site here it seems to go on for ever, rows of those brick chimneys, hundreds of concrete fence poles which once would have supported barbed wire fences but not all of the wooden barracks have disappeared, there is an avenue of them and we were taken inside one to see how the people there would have slept on plain wooden shelves three high, to say “beds” is overdressing it.
The tour ended in the wooden barrack hut, the larger party disbanded and the gift shop was visited, yes, the Auschwitz-Birkenau gift shop. I bought a small Now and Then picture book, something with which to remember the visit. Our small group of five then met at the minibus and we were on our way back to Kraków.
The mood had been slightly subdued on the trip out but now it seemed to have livened up, we were all more chatty, maybe an overreaction to the visit? Well, for whatever reason it was most welcome. Our driver even joined in explaining about the introduction of the -ski ending to some Polish names. Apparently the Polish nobility thought that a name ending in -ski sounded better. His name was… oh bum, I’ve forgotten his first name. I think it was Łukasz, maybe Piotr… I’ll go with Łukasz. His name was Łukasz Gołąbski, „Gołąb” being Polish for “Pigeon”, he explained that somewhere back in his family’s history, it had been decided that Gołąbski sounded better than Gołąb.
Łukasz dropped me off outside my hotel; it was getting on for four o’clock in the evening. I was meeting some friends later for a few beers so repairing to my hotel room I freshened up and then leafed through the book I’d bought. Images; I’ve been there, I’ve seen that. I closed the book. My mood was a little subdued, it was going to take a few days to sink in.
A short while later I went out to my appointed rendezvous; passing through the main square, Rynek Główny, it was filled with people, tourists, locals, all going about their business seemingly without a care in the world. It was early evening, the sun was still shining and my mood began to lift, but not through any forgetting of the day’s events, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that visit.
Turning left I made for ul. Józefa Dietla to find the pub we had agreed to meet in. There lodged at the side of a cavernous doorway leading to a flight of stairs was a small chalk-board with „POLI PUB” and an arrow pointing up the stairs. I went up and into the bar which was almost empty, bought a drink and sat at the bar in one of the high bar stools there and waited for my friends to make an appearance, which they did shortly afterwards. We moved up into a more comfortable area of the bar and after a few beers and some friendly chatting I was informed that we were going out to get some Kielbaski.
Kiełbaski z Niebieskiej Nyski.
We left the pub and went up the street a couple of hundred yards, under a railway bridge and up to a small blue van parked at the side of the road, the van had a sign on the side of it: Kiełbaski z Rożna (Grilled Sausages). There were two blokes in white coats and a wood-fired grill set-up on the pavement, one of the guys was grilling sausages over the flames, the other guy was setting out paper plates with a bread roll and a good dollop of mustard. Apart from some soft drinks, this was all that was on offer so we got into the queue, for a queue there was, and very soon I was the proud owner of one of those paper plates, complete with bread roll, dollop of mustard and a freshly grilled sausage.
I don’t know if it was because of the day I’d had or because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast (apart from a sneaky packet of crisps at the bar earlier) or because of the very good company I was in or because it was a very good sausage but suffice it to say that it was the best sausage I’d had in a very long time. Kraków street food, bardzo polecam.
This may seem a frivolous ending, from a Nazi death camp to street food but life does go on, I think that what is important is that we don’t forget places like Auschwitz and that we do get on with living, tempered a little maybe by our experiences but we should get on with life and take such opportunities as they come our way to live, explore and enjoy where we can, to honour all those who couldn’t.