I want to start by saying that I will be describing an experience from a tour I took backed up with internet research to fact check. I’m also aware that people who actually experienced this are relatives of the survivors and those lost and may potentially read this. I want to think of this as a presentation of a horrible true story.
I think everyone learns history differently in each country. When we learned world history and learned about WWII, it was from the perspective of the US and what we did. I can tell you one thing, I didn’t know it was Russia who liberated the people of Auschwitz. So let’s start from the beginning. Why Auschwitz? It wasn’t the first concentration camp but it was the largest. It’s location was central to the various Jewish ghettos around the world making it the perfect center for holding people.
We have to back up a little more for a moment. What the hell was the point? Hitler came into power and wanted to create a Final Solution to the Jewish Question and in 1942 a conference was held near Berlin and it was decided that everyone would be rounded up and put to work or killed. This was never written down using the words genocide or murder or killing, just the final solution. So WWII starts in 1939 and Poland is stuck between Germany and Lithuania and they are invaded from both sides. Warsaw is destroyed. Kraków is not. Towns surrounding Auschwitz were destroyed to hide what they were doing. Germany wins and occupies Poland. After the conference in 1942, the holocaust goes from an idea to mass implementation. There were already plenty of prisoners (journalist, government officials, anyone opposed to the war) being held in the camps which meant plenty of labor to help build the rest of the facilities needed to see the plan through. About 1.3 million people went into Auschwitz. About 200,000 made it out and those are just the ones that were documented.
Imagine you are living in the ghetto and you are told that if you get on this train, you will be heading to a new Europe and a better way of life. Space is limited so you can only pack 25kg person and also pay for your train ticket. Dressed in your finest and with your valuables with you, you set off on your new journey. You arrive to Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and get off the train. From here you can’t see the chimney towers of the gas chambers and think you are being taken to your new home (they would be just beyond the tree line if still standing).
Women and children in one line. Men in another. Then the sorting begins. With a flick of the wrist a SS soldier who everyone is told is a doctor, decides if you are fit for work or not. If you are, off you go and you are alive another day. If you aren’t, the path leads to another line where you are given a bar of soap and told you have a shower coming. After perhaps a week journey, this sounds fantastic! Asked to leave all your things and strip, you and thousands of others are ushered into a room where a pesticide is dropped in from the ceiling. 20 minutes later, everyone is dead. What made you unfit to work? Old, pregnant, being a child, or anything that seemed like you would be a burden. It continued like this for years.
Everything stripped is sent to Germany to be repurposed and sold including hair. Gold fillings were extracted from the teeth and melted down. At one point, the gas chambers were overwhelmed and so mass graves were dug and people were shot. There are no words to describe or comprehend how people could ever do this to other people.
This is just the beginning of the hell. Once you are in the camp you are considered an expendable resource. Tattooed with a number and given just enough food to barley survive and sometimes forced to walk 3-5 kilometers a day to your factory work site, you really become just a number to the soldiers.
Sick with dysentery, malnutrition and many other diseases, no healthcare is provided and you are forced to sleep with 5-8 people on one bunk stacked 3 high. No toilets and no real drinking water, the living conditions were horrendous. Space was limited so the horse stalls were converted into bunks and this was just one concentration camp? How is his even possible? How can a human treat another human this way?
Those who became weak were killed. If it happened while they were off camp, they were carried back so they were counted because if 1 person was unaccounted for in your barrack, 10 would be taken out to die. People were mentally and physically broken. Some even threw themselves on the electric fences to make the suffering stop.
Enter the Red Army Soviet Soldiers in 1945. Germany caught on that their crimes may be caught and started marching people out of the camps in 1944 which is now considered the death march. If you couldn’t keep with the pace you were shot. They also burned most of their records and destroyed the crematoriums and made sure to get rid of the evidence. The United States has aerial footage of Auschwitz but no one realized what was really going on. The Red Army liberated and tried to rehabilitate those left behind at Auschwitz. The soldiers found 7,500 prisoners alive and over 600 corpses. Among items found by the Soviet soldiers were 370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments, and 7.7 tons 8.5 of human hair. Can you even imagine seeing that?
Welcome to Auschwitz and the Holocaust. Where genocide was allowed and we did nothing about it. Where one man tried to exterminate an entire race from around the world. Where people fought to stay alive one more day because maybe today was the day they would be free and see their family again. Where people across the world risked their lives to help other people get to a safe place. Where humanity showed it’s evil and then realized we had the power to destroy it.
We learn about WWII but we don’t really learn about Auschwitz. We see movies but how can we comprehend? This wasn’t that long ago and while traveling is meant to be fun, it should be educational. There is no way to come to Kraków and not go to Auschwitz. It’s an hour drive from the city. It’s a reminder of the past. It’s a truth that can’t be hidden.