Friday, May 9, 2008

A quiet side trip

A detour from lovely town squares and church towers: my brother and I took the train out to Auschwitz-Birkenau for a day. Well over a million people were killed here during WWII: Jews, Poles, Roma/Sinti, and POWs. It's kind of surprising to see any grass and trees there; you'd think nothing would ever want to grow there again.

A tourism note first: if you go to Auschwitz, you MUST go to both I and II, or Auschwitz and Birkenau, as they are sometimes called. I'd actually suggest going straight out to Birkenau first and winding up at Auschwitz, in the museums, except that it might perhaps be emotionally exhausting. But Birkenau is huge, and it takes serious time to walk around. Budget accordingly.

My first thought upon seeing Auschwitz was one of genuine surprise. It looked so permanent; I couldn't believe that anybody would put that much work into planning a concentration camp. Then we found out that it used to be a Polish military barracks, which explains the brick buildings and windows. Some original signs are left, including of course the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work will make you free) over the gateway. Other small edifices have probably been rebuilt over the years, like the little hut where the SS officer could sit in the rain to take the interminable roll calls. Heaven forbid he should have to get wet.

Because the buildings are so solid, as you can see, most of the buildings are now set up as museums, one devoted to each nationality or ethnicity. We learned a lot from the Roma building, how even the assimilated bourgeois Roma were hunted down and taken off to the camps. One had fought in Rommel's army in Africa; the poor man died in Dachau, I think. The Jewish museum interestingly focused half on the devastation, going more for affect than education, but then half on resistance, which is an aspect I was not as familiar with. At Birkenau (often referred to as Auschwitz II), the prisoners managed to explode one of the crematoria. Letters were smuggled out, photos were secretly taken and buried in cans to provide some kind of future evidence, coded plans were circulated. The Yugoslav museum was like a paean to Tito and his partisans, who certainly played a key role in defeating the Nazis.

Birkenau is 3 km away, so if you didn't come with a tour bus, you can take the free shuttle between the two. Birkenau is more like I expected. The barracks were constructed out of wood, so only a row of them have been reconstructed on the one side; the women's side seem to have held up better or been reconstructed more fully. Acres and acres of chimneys, punctuated by the occasional watchtower, remain. This is where the bulk of the Auschwitz deaths took place. There were four crematoria, and I can assure you that it was a long march of death for the prisoners.

Another photo: the infamous watchtower, which you can now climb, though it's a little odd, I think, to get the SS-eye view of the camp. From there, you can see a lot of the grounds, though it's so vast that you can't see all the way out to Crematorium IV, for example, the one that was blown up by the prisoners (the others were blown up by the retreating SS). On the other side is farmland, and houses, though none too near. On the opposite side of the camp is the international memorial. Right outside the Birkenau gates are some tourist-friendly restaurants, of course.

My friend asked me whether people visiting were really emotional. Some were in quiet kind of way. Some were surprisingly smiley. And some were extremely inappropriately dressed, women stumbling around the rocky dirt paths of Birkenau in high heels and miniskirts. We met tourists from all over Europe and some Americans, though not many Asian tourists (not many in Poland yet).


jodi said...

All very interesting-- you're right, the "sunny skies and green trees at Auschwitz" look in your pictures is really counterintuitive somehow. It's like people always imagine the Holocaust in black and white because the pictures of the camp liberations are. So you don't get those blues.

I did know vaguely about the resistance there (and in some other places), but I don't know a ton about it.

All very interesting. High heels at Auschwitz? Good grief.

Heidi said...

Yes, it was odd. Beautiful day, though rather warm as we trudged around Birkenau, which although it looks grassy in the photos feels a lot bleaker because you are stumbling along the dirt path.