After far too long, Rachel came to visit this Summer for a few weeks. We spent most of the time doing some good sittin' in a sweltering London, but took a side-trip to Kraków and Auschwitz in Poland.
Kraków, unlike much of Poland, was not heavily bombed in WWII, so the historic city is largely intact. The city served as capital to various kings and governments (including the Nazis under occupation), and is full of handsome buildings and squares as a result. The old city is largely pedestrianised, and its cobbled streets, once emptied of Poles and Jews to make way for new German residents, are filled with young, artistic locals, tourists from around the globe, and a few (but not too many) stag/hen does.
The historic Jewish Quarter (now home to only five Jewish families, I was told) is especially hip, with restaurants and galleries that could easily be in Shoreditch, especially if you steer clear of the most popular stag/hen streets. We had fantastic food, the drinks were cheap, and everyone under middle age spoke English, so it was a very easy, and lovely, city to visit.
Like many visitors to Kraków, we spent a day at Auschwitz, the largest and most notorious of Nazi Germany's many extermination and labour camps. "Auschwitz" is used to refer to what are actually three separate, and very different, concentration camps around the Polish city of Oświęcim (Germanised to Auschwitz).
Auschwitz I was converted from Polish military barracks, and was the most coveted of the three locations. Its buildings were brick and solid, so relatively better protected from the elements, and, other than for a period of experimentation, had no gas chamber, so internment there meant that you would be put to work, giving you a chance to survive.
The camp officials quickly realised that they could not kill and dispose of bodies quickly enough using the gas chamber at Auschwitz I, which was converted from a bunker, so they used the prisoners as slave labour to build Auschwitz II-Birkenau a few miles away. This was a much, much larger camp with four massive custom-designed gas chambers. This is the camp that is famous as "Auschwitz", where most of the mass executions took place, where Josef Mengele performed his experiments, and where the vast majority of the lucky ones chosen for work detail lived and died.
Auschwitz III-Monowitz met a commercial need; it was built to house the slave labour for IG Farben, a chemical and pharmaceutical conglomerate, which had a large rubber plant at the site. Initially workers were marched daily from Auschwitz I and II, but that proved to be too inefficient as it was a lengthy walk and the prisoners were too tired to work as hard as required. The site is still in use today, and IG Farben lives on, split up after the war into AGFA, BASF, Bayer and Sanofi.
The scale and terror of Auschwitz, and especially Auschwitz II, is shocking. It's unknowable how many people died there, as they only registered those who were selected for work detail. The vast majority of people were killed on arrival, and at peak capacity they could gas 6,000 people each day. Even the lowest estimates put the death toll at over one million people, but whatever the number, it's unfathomable. It's unbelievable that people could do this to other people, that one group could vilify another to the point of no longer considering them human. In these times of Trump, Brexit and rising nationalism around the globe, it's vital to remember where this "us vs. them" ideology can lead. We're only one generation removed from the horrors of WWII, but already forgetting its lessons.
The old city
A square in the old city, where drinks were had
St. Mary's Basilica, at the heart of Kraków
This is when Saturday started to go wrong...
Kraków makes the most of its Summers, with outdoor drinking and dining throughout the historic core.
In the Jewish Quarter
The infamous "Arbeit macht frei", "Work sets you free", at the entrance to Auschwitz I
The barracks and other structures of the camps are horrendous enough, but it's possible to put a bit of emotional distance between yourself and an anonymous building. The personal effects of people, however, cannot be detached. When you see a suitcase, glasses or pair of children's shoes, you know they belonged to a person, someone who was almost certainly murdered shortly after being robbed of those possessions.
For me, the most gut-wrenching display was of piles of women's hair. The Nazis sold the hair of women killed in the gas chambers to the German textile industry for 50 pfennigs a kilogram. There were 1,950 kgs of hair on hand when Auschwitz was liberated. How many women have to be killed to make 1,950 kgs?
When you hear stories of people living for years in the camps, they are the rare exceptions - most people lasted a few months at best.
In rare instances, some people did escape from Auschwitz. As a deterrent, for each escapee, the SS would choose ten people at random to be put in a cell to starve to death. Friar Kolbe was sainted after volunteering to go in another man's place. After two weeks, the guards killed him as he still hadn't died. The man he saved lived to see the liberation of the camp.
Poles and hooks where prisoners were tied up by their arms, behind their backs.
In all weather, even in the deep freeze of Polish Winter, the prisoners were made to stand outdoors for roll call. Only the Nazi commander had any shelter from the elements.
Morning/evening roll calls were often preceded by a mass hanging for often minor infractions, as a warning to the others.
Rudolf Höss and other commandants of Auschwitz lived with their families in luxury just outside the camp's walls, so close you could see the prisoner blocks and old crematorium from the upstairs window. Höss's wife described the place as "paradise": they had cooks, nannies, gardeners, chauffeurs, seamstresses, haircutters and cleaners, most of whom were prisoners. The family decorated their home with furniture and artwork stolen from prisoners as they were selected for the gas chambers.
Inside the original gas chamber of Auschwitz I, where gassing techniques were tested before larger-scale killing was started at Auschwitz II.
A railway car used to bring in prisoners to Auschwitz II
As they retreated in defeat, the Nazis tried to destroy as much evidence as possible of their crimes. Most of the barracks at Auschwitz II, especially those built later, were made of wood and burned down as the Nazis fled; only their brick chimneys remain.
This picture is taken from just outside one of the gas chambers at Auschwitz II. In the distance was the entrance to the camp. Far to the right stretched brick barracks, and even farther to the left wooden ones. Originally those chosen for immediate death had to walk from the gate to the chambers, but this lessened the speed at which executions could take place, so the tracks were eventually extended right to the gas chambers.
Stronger inmates fought for the top bunks, whereas the weakest slept on the floor level. Prisoners frequently were too ill to control their bodily functions, and their effusions would drip onto the levels below. Prisoners were packed so tightly they had to sleep on their sides and could not turn over, except for those lucky enough to be assigned toilet duty, as no one wanted to sleep next to them.
The stairs leading into the undressing room of one of the gas chambers. The Nazis blew up the structures on retreat, but their foundations and much rubble still remain.
After removing their clothing, the prisoners were packed into a room that was about half the size of the undressing room. The people were intentionally packed in tightly together, as Zyklon B, the gas eventually used for most executions, would not vaporise from its pellet form into hydrogen cyanide unless the temperature was 27°C (81°F) or above.
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