Krakow, Poland is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. Today steph and I will take a walk through the many parts of the city eating kilebasa, smoked cheese and stuffed cabbage in the old Jewish section of Kazimierz, but yesterday….
we spent the day in silence as we toured the site of one of humanity’s most unspeakably horrifying tragedies a hour and a half away; The site where the Nazi’s murdered 1,100,000 people; Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It is a person’s duty after visiting this site to tell the world what happened here. So for readers that have not made this visit, I know this may not be easy but I ask you, in honor of the victims and genocide awareness month, to read on or look up your own information on this and other Nazi extermination camps.
Jews were not the only victims of the Nazi’s plan to rid the world of “undesirables”, homosexuals, disabled, gypsies and resistors to the regime were among the victims of their extermination plan.
Auschwitz is broken into three camp areas. We first visited Auschwitz I.
To enter you must walk under the iron sign bearing the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei”, “work sets you free”. An ironic message as the only way to gain freedom in the camps was through the chimneys of the crematoriums. Prisoners selected to weld the sign, in a small act of defiance, placed the ‘B” upside-down.
There was nothing more surreal than standing on the dirt path next to the train tracks that were the arrival site of Jews at their final destination at Birkenau. I had seen the picture of the guard tower dozens of times and learned about it my entire life but to be there hit me deep in my soul.
I felt the fingertips of my daughter reach out and grab for mine. I felt her compassionate hand throughout the rest of the tour on my back. At Auschwitz II, prisoners were separated upon arrival, mothers from their children, husbands from wives. The strong would go to Auschwitz I and live for approximately 2 months until the work, torture or starvation killed them. The others, less strong children, women, disabled would go directly to the gas chambers. To avoid panic, the Nazi’s told their victims to remember where they had hung their clothes so they could retrieve them afterwards.
Shoes left behind by victims who entered gas chambers
At Auschwitz I camp we toured the barracks where prisoners were crammed in groups to sleep on wooden slats, the execution wall where those who committed crimes such as stealing some bread were shot and starvation cells for prisoners and those who tried to escape. We learned about everyday life; 12 hours of severe work conditions with a dish of liquid food and without proper clothes. twenty percent 20% of the victims in the prison were children. We saw how the people went from deported to dehumanized, each step of the way reducing them from a person to an object with a number thus making it possible for SS soldiers to carry out their “final Solution”. Prisoners also carried out acts such as removing teeth and hair from bodies after the gassing and shoveling excrement. In fact, taking one of these jobs was possibly the only way to survive in the camps.
After the Nazis realized that Auschwitz I was not big enough to handle the amount of prisoners or the amount of killings they needed to achieve in an hour (4,500 deaths in 3 hours was not sufficient speed), they built Auschwitz II, a more efficient death camp.
Entrance to gas chamber at Auschwitz II
Birkenau made Auschwitz I look like a 3 star hotel. The Nazi’s plan was to grow Birkenua to an even larger capacity as it ws still under construction and expansion in 1945 during the liberation of the camp.
Steph and I returned to Krakow in silence. As we started to speak about what we experienced and how we felt, We asked each other so many unanswerable questions. What brings a human being to follow such commands and act so monstrously? How is it possible to survive the conditions we witnessed even for a short time? We both agreed we could not have been strong enough. What does it mean to say “never again’? Isn’t it the responsibility of nations to protect civilians from human rights abuses? Isn’t that what the world was supposed to have learned? Isn’t that the purpose of the memorials we see, the films we watch, the books we read? Does “never again” only have meaning for a white person, a European, a Jew? Why do we know that monsters who kill innocent people for power and resources still carry out their operations as we speak? We cannot forget those who suffer in displaced persons camps around the world today, those who have been taken into lives of slavery and abuse or who suffer at the hands of violence, discrimination and monstrous leaders. The only way to make “never again” a reality is to coninue to speak about the abuses we see.
Today I heard that my friend and Carl Wilkens Fellow, Mealnie Nelkin, will be receiving The Humanitarian Award by the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust. This award is given to individuals or groups that have “demonstrated the spirit of humanity through volunteer work, advocacy, leadership and/or philanthropy in their community, thereby fighting indifference, intolerance and injustice.” Melanie has ben an advocate for genocide prevention for years. A nonstoppable force in Washingon DC and an inspiration to many. I dedicate this post to her for her continued commitment to genocide prevention.