Last Thursday night I went to Pub night, an informal gathering of TEFL teachers and students. I sat down with a pint and a few friends, enjoying the cool breeze on Bar 7’s back porch.
My boss asked me what I was doing over the weekend.
“I’m going to Poland,” I answered. “Krakow. We’ll get to see Auschwitz, too.”
She made a sympathetic face and nodded. “That’s an eery place. Didn’t feel real to me when I went. Took me a while to realize it felt like a film set.”
“There’s no noise there,” another teacher chimed in. “No birds, no bugs, nothing. No animals.”
“Well. I have to go,” I replied. And that was that.
We left for Krakow on an overnight train–too crowded, hot with the windows shut, cold with them open– and arrived in Krakow early Saturday morning. After checking into our hostel we made arrangements to join a tour of the main camp in Auschwitz as well as Birkenau, one of the satellite camps. Birkenau had been designed by Himmler as the site of the Final Solution, and eventually saw the deaths of about 1.3 million people.
From the beginning, our tour of Auschwitz was not what I had expected.
That morning, both of my friends–boys– had changed into long pants and button down shirts, despite the heat, in an attempt to dress respectfully. I was wearing a dress and close toed shoes. The people on our bus, however, had the usual euro-tourist-in-summer fair: tank tops with gaping arm holes, ratty shorts, too-tight spandex pants, worn out teeshirts…Even our guide seemed to have missed the proverbial bus on this one. He’d gelled his short hair into a mohawk and wore the biggest pair of sunglasses I’d ever seen.
Arriving at the camp was worse.
The first thing we saw was a burger restaurant across the street. We pulled into a parking lot filled with gaudy buses and cars. Outside the visiting center, hundreds more milled about aimlessly, some eating hot dogs, others laughing. There were no less than 4 gift shops, selling everything from commemorative postcards and dvds to flowers and candles. It was a scene you wouldn’t be surprised to find outside of the Tower of London, but which did not belong at the entrance to the site of one of the biggest genocides in living memory.
“I half expect someone to be drinking a pina colada,” one of my friends commented.
Our guide gathered us together, leading us through the museum entrance and out to the first compound, where we collected headsets and radio transmitters. The atmosphere here was more subdued. We gathered as a group near the infamous Arbeit Mach Frei gate.
“Can you hear me?” the guide asked, fiddling with his radio. “Turn on channel 3.”
Dutifully, we set up our transmitters. His voice was now piping directly through my headphones. The guide began by explaining that this, the main Auschwitz compound, was the first compound to be set up. Originally it had been built to hold political prisoners–intellectuals, those accused of insulting the Reich, etc.
“You will expect wooden bunkers,” he explained, his Polish accent thick but understandable. “You will be confused. The bunkers are at Birkenau. Here, we have brick buildings, the first gas chambers. It was a center for political prisoners. Not yet for genocide.”
He took us through the gate. As we passed under, I heard one of the more obnoxious teenage girls in our group explaining that the B in Arbeit was upside down.
“Jews were forced to make the sign,” she said, her voice pitched low. “The upside-down ‘b’ was like a kind of rebellion.”
I looked up. Sure enough, the ‘b’ in Arbeit had been flipped.
The guide took us into Auschwitz I. We passed through a double layer of barbed wire overhead–more was stretched over the other exits, surrounding the camp. As he’d predicted, I was surprised to see rows of orderly brick houses instead of wooden barracks. They looked neat, efficient–someplace that was perhaps unpleasant, but not horrific.
It wasn’t helped by the gorgeous weather. The sky was powder blue, dotted with white clouds. Saplings lined the avenues between the brick buildings. They were thin, and strapped to wooden stakes to support them until they grew strong enough to stand on their own.
“Were there always trees here?” One of our party asked the guide.
“Yes. They were old–we had to cut them down because they were dangerous. But these trees were planted in the same place.”
A bird flew overhead. I was surprised- it didn’t seem to belong to this quiet place.
The guide took us through several of the bunkers. In one, we saw the standing prison in the basement, where up to four prisoners could be made to stand, overnight, without food after a day of working outside.
“They were always outside,” the guide explained. “In the sun, the rain, the snow. Always outside.”
In another bunker, we saw the rooms where new prisoners were photographed and stripped of body hair, clothing, and all possessions. Black and white photos of men and women lined the walls. Surprisingly, few of them looked afraid. Instead I saw resignation, defiance, bewilderment. One woman was smiling, caught in the habit of a lifetime. She was still plump, not yet starving. None of the people in the photographs had survived past 1944.
Upstairs, we were greeted with violet tinged light and creaking wooden floors. Inside, we looked through thick glass windows into piles of human hair that glowed softly in the purple light.
“The violet keeps the hair from decaying. But it is not strong enough.” The guide shrugged, and shook his head. “We may be the last generation that sees this.”
In another room, there were piles of shoes; stacks of suitcases; hanging blue and white linen tallit, or prayer shawls.
“All of these belonged to a person,” the guide said, a fierce, almost savage note in his voice. “Look at them. The people that owned these were not numbers. They had names.”
Outside, the weather continued to be perfect. As we left our last bunker, I looked up, and saw clouds gently undulating in the summer heat. It was strange to think that these prisoners, perhaps on their way to work, perhaps standing against the death wall, waiting for that final shot, might have looked up and seen the same beautiful sky.
I assumed the carnival atmosphere would die down once we entered the camp, and for the most part it did, with a few notable exceptions. There was the woman sunbathing on the lawn outside the bunker that contained the human hair. There was also yet another gift shop, open just across the road from the “death wall,” where prisoners (stripped naked of everything but a number) had been shot by the thousands.
The odd moments of disrespect continued into Birkenau. A woman with her shirt rolled up to expose her midriff, earning a stern warning from our guide. Another woman, posing with a smile, in front of the cattle car that had taken hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths.
At Birkenau, we also saw the inside of inmates’ sanitation bunkers, their living bunkers; all of them deplorably small.
“We are thirty, and this bunker is clean; imagine the floor covered in excrement; hundreds of people who had not washed for days.”
Outside, the sun continued to shine over the site of the biggest genocide in European history.
We left Auschwitz with a word from our guide, warning us not to ignore the genocides of other countries, reminding us that the Holocaust had happened because people had sat by and not said anything until it was too late.
It was a solemn day.
That evening, we went for beers in Krakow’s city center. The next day, we toured more of Krakow. It’s a wonderful city; smaller than you might expect, but filled with old buildings and the romantic tram lines that are found in so much of Eastern Europe. In Krakow’s Stare Mesto, a fireman had set up a sprinkler, through which children and adults alike were running. There was a flea market in the square, where you could buy Nazi pins and Communist memorabilia. On the edges, white and Palomino horses pulled colorful carriages through the city. The atmosphere was a welcome change from the previous day.
We took the time to visit the old Jewish quarter, and got to see one of the surviving synagogues of Krakow.
The cemetery in the back was particularly moving, especially the wall separating it from the rest of the city. On closer inspection, it became clear that the wall had been made with old headstones. Hebrew carvings and designs covered each shattered fragment. The dead protecting the dead–it was fitting.
We ended the day with a walk around the castle and a drink on the river at sunset. The weather had cooled some, and we enjoyed relaxing on the boat, not talking about anything in particular. We eventually left, getting ready to make our way back to the train station to catch the night train back to Prague.
“Hold on,” I said, pausing. There was a tourist gift shop outside the castle, and I had 20 zlotys left to kill. “Let’s just pop in here a second.”
The shop was filled with the kind of crap you see in every gift shop: wooden, “hand carved” magnets, cheap pottery, Polish flags and statues of the Krakow dragon. I stopped by the key chain section, looking for something I could send home for my friend’s birthday. At the top of the rack, nestled amid castles and Polish flags, I saw this:
If you can’t tell, that’s a Shylock-style Jew inside a money bag.
It was dispiriting to find this in a city so rife with Holocaust history. I’m not sure that anything needs to be said about it–it’s the kind of thing that speaks for itself.
Maybe more people need to visit Auschwitz.