Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Auschwitz: Road Trip Starts off Cheerful

I didn't sleep very well in Germany. 

Our Airbnb was this cute little a-frame cottage thing. Fine. 

Well the beds were on the second floor of the a-frame, which meant it was a cramped little attic where your body is both in the bed and touching the ceiling. The place also didn't have air conditioning, so we had to open the windows. Well during the night I must have had some sort of allergic reaction from the country air or something because I woke up in the middle of the night. It was pitch black, I couldn't breath, and I was in direct contact with the wall. Pretty much the sensation of waking up in a coffin. So I freaked out and had to go sleep on the couch downstairs.

More like down-ladder, which was fun to do in a panic in the dark. It was not an ideal scenario for catching up on jet-lag lost sleep.

I'd only been out of America for a day and already my freedoms were being impinged upon. Don't tread on me!

We had a date in Poland so there was no time to waltz around in Deutschland. We hit the road.

Our car's GPS system was pretty solid. I feel like in most American cars the on-board computer systems are garbage. It was certain enough about where the car was that it even told you what the speed limit was, which was pretty helpful. It took me a little while to figure out that when the speed limit sign turned into a little white circle with a grey line through it that meant: there was no speed limit!

I cranked it to 11. 111mph. We were making such good time I convinced Lydia we had time to stop at a German bakery on our way out of the country. I couldn't leave without at least a strudel!

Stachelbeerkuchen Streusel: now that's a mouthful! Get it? Because I ate it, but it's also a long word to say. I bet if you read it again you'll laugh. Stachelbeerkuchen means "gooseberry cake". The gooseberries taste like gooseberries!

When we crossed into Poland we began what would be a long series of toll roads. Europe loves them some toll roads.

It's understood that on trips I generally am the driver and Lydia reads the guidebooks and yells "watch out!" and stuff like that.  Well I was pretty destroyed from the whole "oh my god I'm buried alive!!" incident I mentioned earlier. As we were driving across a continent at a rather strenuous pace there wasn't a lot of down time with which to catch up. I took a lot of naps in the backseat on this trip.

I think we must have decided that we wanted to start off as depressing as possible so that the trip had nowhere to go but up.

Our first destination in the great nation of Poland was Oświęcim. It is unfortunately much better known by its name under German occupation: Auschwitz.

Auschwitz. Every schoolchild in the US learns about the horrors of the place, so I was actually surprised to learn that 40,000 people live in the city today. To me that name is so noxious that I couldn't imagine moving there or applying for a job there. But, one has to remember that the city had a long history before the five or so years that it was home to a death camp. For example the town was destroyed in 1241 during the Mongol invasion of Poland. Those Mongols really got around. Anyway... 

We both felt really weird about the commercialization of Auschwitz.  I paid to park across the street from the famous death camp, then paid 50 cents to use the restroom across the street, then walked past a pizza place near the death camp, then saw several shops selling books and postcards about Auschwitz.

How many dates do you think take place at death camp restaurants?

There was a lot of road construction and so we were late according to the time printed on our ticket. The first worker person we showed it to pretty much told us we were too late. Lydia just marched up to a different ticket-taker and asked, and that person let us through. I was proud of her for being persistent. I think I was still too tired for such decisive action.

I may be being dramatic but the "put your metals in the basket and walk through the scanner" routine all seems a lot more sinister when you're in Auschwitz.

Upon entering I was quickly served with sign after sign of facts. Here's one: Auschwitz wasn't just one place, it was a network of camps.

Here's a poor photo of the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign you may have heard of at the entrance. This is Auschwitz I. Here the buildings themselves don't seem that sinister because the place was originally a Polish military base. The prisoners were different from what I expected as well, here was where Polish political prisoners were kept.

This is going to sound very strange but it all reminds me a little of visiting the Egyptian pyramids. We've all seen the pictures of the Great Pyramid, and it looks real cool. Great. Well it wasn't until I went there that I became aware of all of the lesser, sometimes poorly built pyramids that exist. Egypt didn't just decide to build a wonder of the world and ace it on the first try. Understanding the process is lost by just skimming the surface of history.

Visiting Auschwitz was a similar experience. I'd heard of the mass murder operation of the gas chambers and the incinerators and I never really thought about how things ended up that way. Auschwitz I was built before the Final Solution was even announced and so wasn't really even for Jewish people necessarily. I was surprised to read that before the Nazis decided to murder all the Jews, one of their plans was to ship them all to Madagascar. Long story short, this was definitely an educational experience.

Sometimes the signs were more just horrifying than thought provoking. "The corpses of prisoners shot while trying to escape were often displayed here as a warning to others."

Here was another cheery one. "If a Polish prisoner escaped, the family members were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. They were made to stand under a sign announcing the reason for their arrest and that they would remain in the camp until the fugitive was found. So that other prisoners would be aware of this policy."

Many of the buildings now contained museums on a range of topics. Honestly we weren't that impressed with them and they are in definite need of an update. I think when you're running the Auschwitz memorial you can probably afford to just phone it in and not hurt your visitor numbers much.

I've recently become awakened to my Polish heritage (I'm a European mutt) both through a recent genetic test and some genealogy I've done (hopefully one of these years I'll have good news to report in connection with it). Anyway the family name was Krawcyzk and finding a long list of them in the roles was unnerving.

To me Auschwitz was the Holocaust. I know there are lots of other concentration camps but this is just the most famous one. I recall reading that one of the reasons for this fame was that there were work camps and death camps but Auschwitz was a blend of both. So there were more survivors with knowledge of the murdering but who weren't murdered themselves? This sign said that Auschwitz was the only camp that tattooed camp numbers onto prisoners. Did not know that.

Rudolf Höss was the the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz. A year after the war he was finally captured while attempting to hide disguised as a gardener. After his conviction he was brought back to Auschwitz to be hanged.

Right next to the gallows was the original gas chamber and crematorium.

The gas chamber room was a converted mortuary.

I believe this is where the poison gas was introduced into the room. You could tell from this setup as well that it was kind of amateurish. 

When the Russian army approached the camp the remaining prisoners were death marched away to other camps to avoid the possibility of rescue.

The Polish language is funny because many of the words start off so promising but end with a spasm of Zs, Js, and Ys.

Auschwitz I sounded Mickey Mouse compared to Auschwitz II. We headed over by car to check it out.

This was the entrance where families were sorted into people healthy enough to be worked to death and people who were gassed immediately.

A few of the barracks had been restored so that visitors could go inside and see the place. Each building had 2 chimneys with a long brick heating system of some sort in between.

Once back outside I saw that there was a forest of those brick chimneys. It was all that was left of most of the buildings.

Another fact that surprised me was how much the Nazis scurried like little roaches when they realized justice was on its way. I figured that they would be so committed to this craziness that they would be proud of what they'd done. But as the Soviets approached they dynamited the gas chambers to hide their crimes. Ruins are all that remains.

You easily could spend an entire day at the Auschwitz sites. There were a lot of museum buildings that we were too physically and emotionally exhausted to even confront. We were way past our death camp information limit and now it was time to leave.

After that dreary stop we needed something a little more lively. I really really like grocery stores, so that did the trick.

This looked like "flavor your own grain alcohol at home with these berries" type situation.

Krakow, where we would be spending our first night in Poland, is famous for their pretzels. I bought this bag of them but it was a little weird... Luckily the real ones sold on the streets of the city were way better.

I bought what I thought was like a pack of meat sticks. Turned out it was one long meat rope. Mmmm meat rope.

Krakow, here we come!

Our Krakow Airbnb had about 7 deadbolts. Do you feel safe that you have 7 locks or worried because you need 7 locks?

No comments:

Post a Comment