Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The [party] bus is coming: Eastern Europe Festive Party Trek - Part 5

Tuesday, 30 December 2015
AUSCHWITZ

We left Zakopane in a bit of a hush. Before beginning the festivities in Krakow, we stopped by Auschwitz. I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle this. With the little bits I know about my heritage, my mind was doing cartwheels. I’ll try to enunciate my feelings but I am sure it is going to be a poor substitute (and some I think I will keep to myself because I don’t think I can put it down, flat, in words).

The landscape was as sombre as the mood. Monochrome as far as the eye could see; black trees dipped in white and frosted houses. Occasionally, a yellow or pink painted home brought relief from the stark landscape. 

By lunchtime, we reached Auschwitz. Our guide was a stern Austrian lady. She laid the facts bare, no mincing of words, no shying away. 
ARBEIT MACHT FREI
Work sets you free. 
These are the words that greeted us as we stepped through the gates into Auschwitz I.

Let me paint the picture. It was -7C. The sun was shining bright but the air was bitterly cold. The ground had a thin covering of snow. We stood, huddled, faces tucked down towards our chests inside our scarves and collars. Fingers curled up inside our gloves, stuffed into our pockets. Gently moving from foot to foot to try to warm our bodies up, our feet becoming leaden from the cold.

It was sobering, being as cold as we were. Knowing that 1.2million people stood where we stood, colder. Freezing. Unbearable.
Over 110 thousand shoes, a tiny portion of what was found, 3800 suitcases, most of which bore the names and date of birth of the owner - including children - in case their possessions got “lost”, 7,000kg of human hair
The museum, constructed from preserved prison blocks housed enlarged pictures and the personal effects; the shoes, hair and suitcases, the spectacles and the prosthetics, the kitchen utensils and the shaving brushes. We saw bedroom quarters for those who were strong enough to work, the torture rooms, finally ending with a pass through the last remaining gas chamber, before walking slowly back past the main entrance and that sign.
ARBEIT MACHT FREI
Work sets you free. 
From Auschwitz I, we returned to our bus and a short drive later, we were at Auschwitz II, or Birkenhau. The ground was covered in snow, the sun setting behind the rows and rows of chimneys - almost all that was left standing other than the train tracks. Here we stood on the platform where so many people were to learn their fate.
Men to the left. Women to the right.
I don’t feel like I can do the experience justice, putting words down on the proverbial paper. You have to see it to understand it. I also don’t want to go into detail as I feel I am far too ignorant, still, to try to be an authority on what happened.

Sadly, one of the main things that stood out for me was the disrespect displayed by others. I saw people, none from our group, with selfie sticks or posed in front of what was once electrocuted barbed wire. The prisoners would douse themselves with water and throw themselves against that barbed wire to end it all. 

We left Auschwitz quietly and it was not long before we were in Krakow.



***
I wanted to keep this post by itself because then Krakow becomes full of revelry as we ramped up for New Years Eve.

xx

Auschwitz II - Birkenhau

Sun setting over the rows of chimneys

The train tracks and the platform