All day at Auschwitz

12 Aug

Another shit nights sleep. Two newcomers, girls, had hung out with the French tonight and got back at 4. The Frenchmen were up all night, came in about sixish. And I woke up at a quarter to seven. This time I wasn’t going to miss the bus. I got to the terminal, found the bus, bought my ticket – no seats. It was more a minivan than a bus, and I had to squeeze up on the floor next to the driver. I’d mistakenly thought they’d let me on as an exception – no. The van continued making stops along the 90 minute ride to Oscwiem. I was jammed in tightly, among many sweating bodies. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, but it felt like days, weeks, years since I’d had a proper meal. My joints cramped, my head ached. I didn’t know what would happen when I got off. Such is the road to Auschwitz!

I was a bit frantic to get inside the museum before a tour guide became compulsory. It turned out to be too easy – just walk right in past the turnstiles. I didn’t find any audioguides or info to take around with me, which was a shame, but everything turned out to be well signposted. Went in under the infamous ‘work is freedom’ sign and I was inside. The environment is actually pleasantly green, with lots of grass and trees brightening up the otherwise stark long, red brick buildings. The reality of the situation didn’t hit until you read the signs – here is where an escapees family would be made to wait; here is where people hung from trees. The first bunker I walked into held 3 seperate rooms, very dank and bleak, with one holding chimneys and an incinerator. Along the ceilings were holes, not unlike sunlights. It was only when I found the sign after and read that this was the first improvised gas chamber that my stomach tightened. The sunlights were for throwing in the cyanide pellets.

The tour groups started pumping through after 10, enveloping everyone and everything. Made the exhibits terrible to view appropriately as they all had headphones connected to the guide, and in a group were maybe 30-40 people. Very tight in the slim corridors of the camps. Frustrated with them I found some barracks the tours deemed unworthy, or unneccesary. I, however, went into everywhere to give it all my time. And I’m glad I did. These buildings were each given to a nation to use as a memorial. There was Dutch, Belgian, French, Polish. An Austrian one held a notice at the front stating how it was decided they had to change the tone of their memorial and information. Apparently it had been too far towards saying that Austria had been the first ‘victim’ of the Nazis rather than an accomplice. I’ve always wondered how the Germans go explaining such atrocities in school and on memorial days. The Italian monument was shit, just a long tapestry. I’m always unsure whose side they were on anyway. But the rest were fascinating, mainly focused on the biographies of victims which was overwhelmingly sad. For me the worst, or greatest, or even the one that held the most impact, was the gypsy memorial. It explained how they were persecuted for being a minority, and how the scientists went about researching the specifications of being a subhuman. The victims images were blown up along with final statements found in cards. Massively depressing. The print used to collect every victims name was so miniscule, yet the writing stretched on for many walls.

As I squeezed past the hordes in the main buildings I saw the life cycle of a jew in Auschwitz. One building had ‘evidence of Holocaust’ on it – inside was rooms of discarded glasses, pots, artificial limbs – and two tonnes of hair. After shaving the females their hair was collected and sold as a resource – jew hair mats were on display. Horrific. Two tonnes is a lot and seeing it was unbelievable. The barracks where they slept was like a barn stable, with pallets like bunkbeds and hay as comforters. You couldn’t image how many people slept in there There were doctor rooms where illegal and unethical experiments were carried out. People used like mice. Down every corridor were the shaven heads of Jews staring at you from frames – all puzzled and scared, a difficult look to replicate. The organisation of the Nazis was amazing – every victim was recorded and compiled. Except when they lost the war, destroying everything was a high priority. In one basement were the torture devices – a portable ‘hanging’, a rack in which your arms are tied behind your back, a ‘standing space’ where four or so prisoners are packed into a brick cube with barely any standing room. Simply to look down at your feet and imagine these people standing here – impossible. There was an execution wall where a firing squad took aim at, a row of nooses. Disturbingly there was a water reservoir at the rear that was outfitted as a pool, with ladders and a diving board. No way could anyone frolic in this proximity to death.

It was around 2 when I finished up. Right next to the entrance was a milk bar that was reasonably priced considering the number of tourists that pass through. I had pork with potatoes and red cabbage salad, mushroom soup and a red fruit tea. As I stepped outside the free shuttle bus to Auschwitz 2 was leaving and I jumped aboard. Maybe five minutes later and we were at the real camp with the gas chambers. It was a massive property split down the middle by a railway line – the line where the trains pulled up and some 75% were immediately taken to be gassed. This place was much, much bigger. Except the prisoners’ barracks were originally made with wood, so all that is left is brick chimneys. Barbed wire fences and watch towers surround the place. At the back is the jew administration building, where they’d come, strip down, have their hair cut, get deloused, showered and put on their striped pyjamas. Strikingly stark conditions. There was an international monument to recognise the victims – an odd, jigsaw-like artwork. All the gas chambers had been dynamited by the fleeing Nazis, all that was left was the rubble. One sign said that some of the prisoners were responsible for destroying one chamber, which was good to see some sort of fighting back by the jews. Some of the barracks had been recreated, and one contained the latrines, just two rows of holes. I walked the entire grounds and saw it all from the tower at the entrance. You definitely had to visit both sites to get the whole picture.

Back in Krakow (I was lucky enough to get a seat on the way back – liberation, maybe?) and I bought my train ticket to Wroclaw. The kind man I bought it off couldn’t understand my Polish (Wroclaw is pronounced Va-cla) so I had to write it down for him. Then into Krakowska Galleria (mall) and into Carrefour, a large French supermarket. Huge! I went in only wanting toothpaste but came came out with other stuff – a Mars Bar is only 1zl! Back to the hostel and my bed had been cleaned and my towel gone. Bugger. I hadn’t paid for another night and was half thining of getting away with it – they’d never know, right? Unfortunately I had a deposit on my key and the other beds filled up, so I had to go ensure I had a place to stay tonight. They gave me a replacement towel – more like a tea towel. Tonights movie was the Virgin Suicides, very disappointing. Although watching films may seem a bit of a joke when you’re in another country, it was moreso to prolong the time before my room mates went out. It finished up around midnight and I got to bed at 1. Another bad nights sleep.

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