Sunday, August 11, 2013

Reflections on Auschwitz

On our trip to Poland, we made sure to pay our respects to those that died or suffered greatly at Auschwitz during the years it was a concentration and extermination camp.  Auschwitz lies about an hour or so southwest of Krakow and was a network of camps run by the Third Reich in the Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during the second World War. It was, in fact, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps.  On January 27, 1945, Soviet Troops liberated Auschwitz and not long after the Polish founded a museum on site where such horrible crimes were committed.

If you arrive there before 10:00 a.m., you can walk the grounds on your own.  We didn't get moving quickly enough that morning, and I was glad for that because seeing the grounds by tour was an incredible way to learn more of the stories and history.  Our tour guide was exceptional.  Somehow both of the boys were on their best behavior during the tour despite the extreme heat, the crowds, and the slow pace of the tour.  

You can find an overabundance of information on Auschwitz, but reading about it is not quite the same as the overwhelming emotion you feel being on site and hearing the words.  The visit was powerful on many levels.

As a museum open to the public, you have tourists visiting there from many countries and different walks of life.  For me, the visit was one of paying homage to those that died there.  It was a place to reflect, to feel the depth of the suffering by seeing the buildings first hand. It wasn't merely a location to check off our list of sights to see.  It became pretty clear though while we were there that others didn't feel the same way. I found it amazing how tourists treated it as though it were a sightseeing destination. I was uncomfortable taking pictures while we were there, and yet others were not only taking pictures of literally everything, but at certain points they were even posing in front of the cremation ovens.

We have many friends that are Jewish, and I tried to put myself in their position if they were reflecting on such an impossible history and observed others posing with big smiles in a location that is essentially the gravesites to those murdered there.  Something just didn't sit right with me in this regard.  So we used our minds to capture the memories instead.

Big R did take some pictures while we were there.  He attempted to create photographs encapsulating the essence and character of the camp.  I think he did an exceptional job.

Auschwitz I was a concentration camp.  It started with prisoners of war, gypsies, political prisons and other "criminals." This is the part of the museum where buildings have been preserved - many in their original state.  Here are some portrayals of this part of the concentration camp:

 The gate to Aushwitz I - "Arbeit Macht Frei."

Auschwitz II or Birkenau was built by the Nazis to function as an extermination camp.  It was built to ease congestion from the main camp and to fulfill Heinrich Himmler's preparations for the Final Solution to the Jewish Question - the euphemism for the extermination of the European Jews. Prisoners were transported from all over German-occupied Europe via the railway.  When they got off the train after what might have been a journey as long as 7-10 days, they were subjected to a "selection" process by SS.  Those sent to the right were deemed strong enough to work and admitted to the camp.  Those sent to the left were sent directly to the gas chambers and exterminated.

Many prisoners believed they were traveling to a new life - a place to start over. They came with personal belongings and many of them even paid for their train tickets.  They were sent to a building where they were to undress in large groups.  The inner gas chamber was disguised as showers, and the SS officers told the prisoners they were sent to take a shower to be cleansed.  The Nazis could exterminate and cremate 20,000 people a day using this method.  These numbers are astonishing and horrible.  I had a hard time getting my head around what happened there.

Here are some photographs Big R captured of Birkenau including the railway and the platform where the selection process occurred:  

I was glad that we spent part of our trip to Poland visiting Auschwitz.  I realize the boys will not remember any of it, but it was a powerful visit for the family nonetheless.  If you do make trip to Krakow, I believe a journey to Auschwitz is an important stop and definitely worth the time. 

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