Friday, March 5, 2010

A visit to Auschwitz, Oświęcim.

70 kilometers west of Kraków lies the town of Oświęcim. Although a quiet, countryside town with a population of just over 40,000, this place is recognized widely as, and is still indissolubly linked with the name the Nazis gave it when they occupied Poland: Auschwitz.

I had the opportunity to visit this notorious camp in February, right after I had my license examination. I actually hopped over to Europe the very next day. My trip to Poland, and the first one to a country in eastern Europe, was made possible by Krzysztof Sanetra, a Polish friend I got to know well through a program at the University of Edinburgh, and his family. Although it was not his best time, as he was busy writing reports and preparing for exams, we were finally able to meet up once again, and he and his family were kind enough to plan out a sightseeing trip for me. I truly don't know how to thank them for driving me around the southern half of the country, sometimes on five-hour legs, arranging English-speaking guides for me everywhere, letting me stay at theirs, and taking care of me.

Following the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, Oświęcim and its surrounding region were incorporated into the domains of the Third Reich, and the town's name was changed to Auschwitz. Establishing new concentration camps in this newly conquered territory was a German priority from the beginning, as camps in their homeland were already getting overcrowded, and the occupation of Poland dramatically increased the number of potential 'undesirables' who would need to be interned. The site of Oświęcim was perfect for many reasons. It already had a Polish-built camp for migrant workers (which could easily be converted to prisons), it was remotely located between the Soła and Vistula rivers, and it was strategically situated at the 'center of Europe'.

Designed by Rudolf Höss, the camp was opened on June 14, 1940, initially with 728 Polish prisoners. The camp originally comprised 20 buildings, of which six had a second floor. However as the number of inmates grew, an extra story was added to all one-floor buildings and another eight buildings were built by 1942, using the prisoners as workforce. As time passed, the Nazis started to deport to the camp people from all over Europe, including Soviet prisoners-of-war (POWs), Gypsies, Czechs, Yugoslavs, French, Austrians, and Germans as well, though many of them were Jews. The number of prisoners kept on increasing, and a second camp, which is much larger than the original, was opened in 1941 three kilometers away in Brzezinka. It became known as Auschwitz II - Birkenau. A third site was constructed in Monowice near Oświęcim and became Auschwitz III. At peak, the camps accommodated no less than 20,000 people

When you enter the Auschwitz Museum, which is located at the original Auschwitz I site, you will see above what the prisoners passed under each day: a gate with the cynical inscription 'ARBEIT MACHT FREI', which translates to 'work brings freedom'. It was a bitter cold day when I visited, with temperatures only reaching a high of five degrees below zero Celsius and snow still frozen, but back when the monstrous facility was still in operation, prisoners being forced to hard labor (sometimes exceeding 12 hours) in this harsh environment was the norm. Prison cellars now display various objects, including numerous photos, empty cans of Zyklon B (the substance thrown into the 'shower room' and could kill 2,000 in 30 minutes), the actual belongings of the people such as shoes and suitcases with the name of the deportees, and cloth and carpets made from human hair.

We also walked to the 'Death Block', which was a prison within a prison, completely isolated from the rest of the camp. The ground floor and the basement 'torture' cellars are still preserved in their original form. The courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11 is enclosed on two sides by a high wall. The wooden blinds on the windows of Block 10 were installed to prevent the inmates from observing the executions taking place here, though they could still hear the bullets being fired. At this 'wall of death', the Nazis shot thousands of prisoners, mostly Poles. In the yard in front of Block 11, the Nazis carried out punishments in the form of hanging prisoners to a special stake by their arms, which were bent behind their backs. An endless number of visitors leave behind flowers and candles at this place.

The more I walked though the Auschwitz facilities, the more it gave me an eerie feel. It is so-to-speak a 'factory of death'. When prisoners arrived, children, the elderly, the handicapped, the pregnant, were immediately sent to the 'shower rooms' and mass-executed in a mere 30 minutes with Zyklon B (Cyclon B). Their belongings would be collected and reused or sold, their hair would be 'reused' to weave cloth, and there were experiments to collect fat from the corpses and produce soap. And, not surprisingly, all of this was carried out by the prisoners as well. Those who were young and of the working generation were kept alive longer, though forced to hard labor in temperatures of sometimes -20 degrees Celsius, given only one meal per day, allowed to visit the toilet only twice, and lived in bunks with poor hygiene. Cleaning the toilets was said to be the 'best tasks' among the prisoners, as they were always working inside, and could visit the toilet anytime they wanted to. There were tortures all the time, however, the harsh environment was often enough to take the toll. Whenever someone died, it was the norm for the inmates to keep it a secret, so that they can receive one more meal.

I found myself at a loss of words. With the even more massive Auschwitz II facility, the complex gives you the impression that it is truly a 'human-processing' factory, and one that is carefully planned and cleverly laid out. Yes, it was politics. But, how can humans become so inhumane? Was it not possible to direct all that intelligence and effort towards something else? We learn history so that we do not make the same mistakes and we can build on top of the past. However, though in different situations, genocides have been repeated, and more than once. Oświęcim will remain a place everyone should visit at least once in their lives...

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