Oświęcim; a name that you probably almost never heard of. Located in southern part of Poland, it refers to the very few of the most horrible place on earth you could ever imagine. Here, during the heat of World War II, approximately 1.1 million Nazi Germany prisoners met their death. Most of them are Jews, Poles, Roma, and Soviet soldiers. Auschwitz, that's the Germans names for Oświęcim. This is more likely will help you to recall the exact tragic event. (please rollover your mouse on the each photograph to see the full caption)
My recent trip in Poland has brought me to both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II) concentration camp (now Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum). Led by my curiosity (I read a lot of stuff about World War II during my university year), I was eagerly enough to start the 50km morning ride from Krakow to Auschwitz with good friends of mine, Anna & Olek. From the very first minute the car was running, I couldn't help myself stopping to imagine what it would like be in Auschwitz, how horrible it could be, nor how it could shape that day for me entirely. I saw some pictures of it in the books, but paying a visit was felt just million times better.
Right outside Krakow, it was a lazy drive over the beautiful uneven southern Polish landscape. The road was pretty narrow, winding, and there were some serious amount of traffic too, so we didn't see any possibilities to speed up. By the time we arrived, it was almost 11.am. And still we had to have our early lunch before the camp excursion which could last for the whole day.
After our modest lunch, we walked in the direction of the Auschwitz I. I saw some tour buses and the front office jam-packed by hundreds of visitor before us. There is a rule applied, after 10.am to 3.pm, we have to go with a guide. The entrance fee is actually free, but arriving at those busy time, we have to pay for a guide (40zl per person for 10 people in a group). Going with a guide is actually a good thing (I rarely took a guide); there will be someone who would always like to explain anything to you.
I then stepped slowly into my group. The guide explain this and that things before we entered the camp. But I couldn't pay attention to her since I was more attracted to the camp entrance. "Arbeit Macht Frei" which mean "Works will set you free", that's what is written on it. Ironically enough, since anyone who happened to work in this camp during the war was never freed, or at least they were freed by the other way; death.
Auschwitz I, the oldest camp, was originally a Polish army barrack. Soon after the successful Nazi Germany Blitzkrieg over Poland at the end of 1939, it turned into a concentration camp. The first prisoners who arrived on May 1940 marked its first purpose. Over the time, the population of the camp exploded and the Nazi felt it was required to build larger camps. This resulted on the building of Auscwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) and Auschwitz III Monowitz (the one that I didn't visited).
Auschwitz has been long connected to the holocaust as a whole. Despite the Nazi Germany concentration camp located in many place across the European continent, Auschwitz stands as the most memorable. And it is easy to see why: the number of casualties. 1.1 million people, a stunning amount that enough to populated a big city.
From the gate of Auschwitz I, we then went to some important section of the camp. Most of the displayed stuffs speak for themselves. The canister of the Zyklon B gas, mountains of prisoners belonging, women's hair, all were both intriguing and heartbreaking. The walk then continued to the prison blocks where the visitors could see and imagine the life inside the camp.
For so many obvious reasons life inside the camps were at the worst of we can imagine. Start from the deportation process, the train ride were exhausting and the deportees had to deal with starvation and lack of oxygen inside the train wagon. At the camp the situation got much worse. The families were separated; man and women. Everyone had to work without a sufficient food and facility. If one was not capable to work then the gas chambers awaits. It's not mentioning the standing prison, various tortures, and the roll-calls during winter. Life expectancy of the prisoners lasted only for few months.
My visit to Auschwitz also let me to connect about what I read in the past into a visual encounter. I finally able to saw the lair of the notorious Dr Josef Mengele, the Block 10. Here, during the camp operational period, he conducted numerous experiments toward human being like sewing the twins, testing chemical, and playing with genetic engineering. I didn't enter the building however. It was closed that day. but seeing from the outside was just more than enough for me.
Being inside the one of surviving gas chamber of Auschwitz I was another thing. This feeling of claustrophobic haunted me all the time when I was there. The dim reddish light created a somehow strange atmosphere. And I was wondering, how did it feel to be here for the prisoners, waiting for death to come.
After two hours or so wandering around the Auschwitz I, we then moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau, 3 km away. Upon arrival, I was greeted by the its iconic gate; the long building with its triangular shaped tower in the middle. I walked over it and found a wide open space inside the camp area. I recognized that it's bigger than I ever imagined.
The scenery of Auschwitz II was a repetition of prisoners camp in a massive amount. If you will let me to simplify, along with its history, it creates what I personally call "mass-murder panorama".
The prisoners camp in Auschwitz II are much worse than the original camp. The building are semi-permanent, and inside, it is more look like a stable. The only bedding provided were made from wood. The mass toilet are at the same room and it used to be without any sewage at its earlier years.
Being afraid about their crime, Nazis destroy all the gas chambers and crematoriums here near the end of World War II right before their retreat. Rubbles are what were left behind to testify.
End note :
Later that day, before catching afternoon bus back to Krakow (Olek had to go back earlier to Krakow), I had another chance to roam back at Auschwitz I. I went back inside the block where the women's hair are placed behind the glass wall. This time, no ones around except me. Thus it built a certainly different experience to me that I hardly can tell. I was terrified, horribly terrified, to imagine that the worst thing could happen on earth is when the sense of humanity just nowhere to be found.