This fall we had the opportunity to visit Kraków, Poland. Kraków has a beautiful old town, Wawel Hill with its magnificent castle, friendly people, and a rich history dating back to the 7th century. However, most people associate Kraków with more recent history and a dark history at that.
Not too far from Kraków is the town of Oświęcim. Most of us are more familiar with the German name for this place: Auschwitz. And on this trip to Kraków, we made the journey to Auschwitz.
I know some people will not go to this place out of fear that it is too depressing. But I think it is important for us to never forget the horrors of what happened to people simply because others did not care for their race, religion, lifestyle, or friends.
I was unaware until this trip that the term Auschwitz really is two different locations and the iconic photos we see in the media give the impression of one camp. Auschwitz 1 is the initial camp, neat and tidy with brick buildings where prisoners headed off to work each day through the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free) gate. Auschwitz-Birkenau, just down the road, is where the many train loads of people arrived to meet death. In fact, many of the people in Auschwitz 1 worked to build the second camp until they died through overwork, exposure, starvation, or execution.
We have all read of this in our history books and in the news, especially this week as we remember the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation and recall the horrors of what happened and admire the survivors. But until one goes to Auschwitz, this is all a story which occurred in a distant land long ago before many of us were born.
They say travel brings history to life and this is definitely the case in Auschwitz. As I surveyed the sheer size of Auschwitz-Birkenau, with the many brick smokestacks standing neatly in rows as far as you could see, each representing a building which housed hundreds of prisoners in dark, damp, cold, and unsanitary conditions, the magnitude of what occurred in this location hit home. It isn’t just a story from Schindler’s List, but something which happened to real people. People with families who just want to live to see their children grow up. People who lost every possession and then lost their lives for the ideology of a madman.
We toured a couple of the remaining barracks and one could not help but imagine what these people had to endure – and these were the ones deemed lucky enough to live instead of being sent immediately to the gas chambers. Bunks three stories high made of wood and concrete. Our guide informed us they would be given one thin blanket to share and the barracks were not heated. A breeding ground for disease as the sick ones slept side-by-side with the healthier ones.
The latrines were simply a huge building with two long rows of toilets – not like we think, but rather they were slabs of concrete with holes cut out of them. Absolutely no privacy for these people forced to endure every imaginable embarrassment possible. And yet, we were told that the job of cleaning out the latrines (by literally going into the muck) was a prized job because it was a job which meant a bit of privacy since guards didn’t want to be in there.
My eyes were opened on this trip to Auschwitz. After all this, our Polish tour guide implored us to remember the people. And to remember that it was not the Polish people that did this to them since Poland was an invaded country at that time and it was the invaders, not the locals, who committed these crimes against humanity.