For salvation, kaddish,
For redemption, kaddish,
For forgiveness, kaddish,
Our destination today would be Oswiecim, a town 70km away from Krakow, which sadly, will always be known as Nazi Germany's largest concentration and extermination camp - Auschwitz.
Rip-off tourist companies try to fleece visitors with charges of 99zl for an excursion to the camp. Anyone with an ounce of common sense and ability to do a little research would discover than the town of Oswiecim is a simple and very cheap train journey from Krakow Station. I came here first in 1999 and on arrival today, immediately thought that the train station was exactly the same as it was 11 years ago, no modernization here it seems.
I feel that at a place like Auschwitz anyone should be allowed to take the visit at their own pace and be granted as much time as necessary to gather their thoughts. After all, it’s possible that any given visitor might be there to grieve a relative who had died there. So we both were shocked and appalled to discover that entry to the Auschwitz will be exclusively on a guided group basis from 10am to 3pm. The Auschwitz memorial website says: “There will be no change to the way organized groups visit the Museum. The Auschwitz II-Birkenau site is opened for visitors without the guide all day long during the opening hours of the Memorial” The 38zl charge was thus extortionate and insulting.
So at precisely 1330 we were given earphones, amplifiers and an allocated tour guide and we suddenly became part of something I hate - sheep in an organized tour. This whole discovery didn’t do much for our moods; we were both annoyed and disappointed.
We waited by the notorious ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gates for the start of the tour where just as I thought to turn my phone off, the bloody thing rang. In panic I completely forgot how to cancel the call and with my cheeks turning crimson the tune of Top Gear rang out loudly for all to hear, I felt very embarrassed.
Now I’m not going to go into explicit details of what happened in the camp. We all know what the Nazi’s did and the barbaric and sadistic practices they undertook. It was probably mankind’s darkest hour, if truth be told. What affected me the most was learning in finer detail the extent the Nazi’s went to sadistically dehumanize the inmates. Sleep and dietary deprivation and ritualistic punishments were commonplace. When I came here before when I left, I felt numb and profoundly affected by the experience. Maybe it was the fact that I was a lot younger and I had seen a scene of mass murder for the first time. This time, I was still affected but to a lesser extent. I guess I was mentally prepared for the horror and despair this place has witnessed but also annoyed by the whole guided tour ordeal. Nevertheless, Auschwitz and Birkenau remains a haunting experience and simply defies belief.
Agnes words: I was really moved by a long corridor where rows of faces stare from the walls. Thousands of pictures of Auschwitz’s prisoners, in simple, wooden frames. They are all dead now, the men, women and children who stood before the cameras. I wonder if they all knew they were to die. They all stare blank-faced. What was the thought that passed through their mind at that very moment…
We followed our guide and visited various barracks, prison cells and torture chambers. But at all times I felt the pressure of being part of this group and felt rushed into moving onto the next exhibit, before I had read whatever display had caught my attention. It was very frustrating and ruined my experience of the day. Even when we visited a gas chamber we were rushed out in less than 10 minutes.
We were herded back to the start of the camp, surrendered our headphones and awaiting the free bus to the second part of the trip, Auschwitz II- Birkenau.
Birkenau is the larger of the two main camps and served solely as an Extermination Camp for the implementation of the Nazi plan ‘The Final Solution’. We arrived and walked along the railways tracks which brought prisoners to the infamous Parade Ground where ‘The Selection’ took place. The scale of the camp was overwhelming. Barracks stretched off into the horizon covering the 142 hectare site. Our guide ushered us into a accommodation barrack but predictably we were rushed out quite quickly and walked alongside the railway line to the far end of the camp. A gas chamber which the retreating Nazis had tried and failed to destroy was pointed out to us as was the many national tributes by the nations who had lost citizens in the camp.
As we were walking along the railway tracks to this point I noticed Agnes picked a small, pretty flower growing wildly out of the ground, I wondered why for a moment but with my head full of thoughts it slipped out of my mind. As we slowly walked along those national monuments she quietly placed the flower on the monument to the citizens of The Netherlands who had perished in the camp. I was glad I hadn't asked of the meaning of the flower earlier.
We had seen enough at this point and decided to return back Oswiecim and our train home. We took the free bus back to Auschwitz I and stopped for a late lunch at the cafeteria. We both had mushroom soup. I thought it was average at best, quite tasteless, and it was probably only because I was very hungry that I finished it. Agnes later described it as “probably the worst soup I have ever had in my life”.
So that was the day, I hope I’ve done what I saw justice in this post but one final thought I want to write about was the often heard theory that birds don’t fly over Auschwitz. I made a point of looking for some several times and I have to say I didn’t see any. Food for thought certainly...