Friday, May 19, 2006


The atrocities of history cut deep into the fabric of society. Although time will heal these wounds, a scar remains. Sometimes the scar will fade until it so pale that you can barely see it. However if you rub your finger over the area, you can feel it and the pain that it emanates.

These were some of my thoughts as the gang and I visited Auschwitz last week. It was a very emotional trip, but one that I think is worth making.

Auschwitz is actually located outside of Krakow. There are several ways to get there. We contemplated renting a car and driving ourselves, but quickly abonded that idea when we saw how crazy the drivers are in Krakow. Instead, we hired a taxi and taxi driver for the day. It is not as expensive as it sounds, and a lot less stressful.

The drive to Auschwitz was beautiful. The Polish country side looks a like the German country side, but there are subtle differences in the architecture.

Auschwitz is actually comprised of three main camps. You arrive at Auschwitz I, which is actually comprised on many large buildings. This was the first camp. It was chosen because the buildings were already standing and because of its train connections. The buildings belonged to the Polish army, and the Nazi's took it over in 1940. The first prisoners were Polish political dissidents. Auschwitz I is also the location of the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign.

The second part of the camp is Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The Nazis began to build this part of the camp in 1941. An entire village was evacuated and destroyed, and the materials from the homes were used for the camp. Auschwitz II-Birkenau is the site where the trains would pull up and people who arrived and were deemed unfit for work were sent straight to the gas chamber.

When you visit Auschwitz, you must first take a guided tour, beginning at Auschwitz I. We had an amazing tour guide. She presented the everything in a very matter-of-fact tone. She did not have to elaborate. The facts are stunning in themselves. She took us through the barracks that have been renovated and now contain exhibits on things such as arrival, extermination, life in the camp, and liberation.

I held myself together pretty well through the tour. But I began to loose my composure as we walked through the exhibit of the things the Nazis took, including mountains of brushes, combs, shoes and suitcases. I stopped and looked up at the pile of suitcases. The tour guide said, "Remember, each one represents a person and a life." I started crying and had to take a minute before I could stop.

After the tour of Auschwitz I, there is a shuttle service to take you to Auschwitz II for the rest of the tour. It was very intense. Through it all, she kept telling us to ask ourselves what kind of person commits crimes like this. It was stunning when she said that about 7000 Nazi soldiers were stationed at Auschwitz as some point. Only 880 have ever been arrested.

I left the camp with many questions. First, who is responsible for this? Is it the French who demanded such a harsh treaty at the end of WWI, which sent the German economy into a tail-spin, which fostered the rise of Hitler? Is it the Americans, who did nothing to help fleeing Jews from Europe? Is it the average German who lived in fear and did not stand up to its oppressive regime?

There is no one figure to blame. History is like an endless row of dominoes. Once the first one falls, the next will follow until someone steps in to stop it. I often feel like that now when I watch the news. I was told not to forget about holocaust, so that it would not happen again. But it is has happened again and is happening again now. Dafur, Rwanda, Serbia. Who will stop the dominoes? Silence gets us no where and neither does screaming. We must talk and listen to each other.

My second question, what is justice? How can justice ever be served in this situation? I really have no idea about the answer to that.

I hope that this post did not bring you down, but rather made you think. Think about these things and be nicer to your neighbor. It is not much, but it is a beginning.

Have a beautiful weekend, my friend.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post, though in light of the subject matter that seems terribly inappropriate. But I've always wanted to go and see Auschwitz for myself. The Holocaust Museum in Washington features similar displays of shoes and toothbrushes and I can't think how someone could see that and not be affected. I'm sure the impact is even greater standing where the crimes actually took place. One thing that they do at the museum that I thought was effective was to present a ticket to you as you start with someone's name who was in the camps. As you progress, you get updates on the person. Mine was teen who was murdered a week before the liberation. Heartbreaking doesn't even begin to describe it.

And in answer or your second question, I think traditional notions of justice fly out the window in the face of such an atrocity. I think you have to wish for peace- of mind, of spirit- even more than justice. The tragic part is it is happening now. Dafur is particularly on my mind these days.

I'm glad you had this chance and to be able to see it with friends is even more special.

Expat Traveler said...

wow! Powerful for sure. I love the photos but they seem scary. The one reminds me of a film we saw with those types of houses about some part of nazi's rein.

By the way - go back to my comments section and you will find the link to figure out that picture/photo trick.

Claire you are lucky to see this area. I wish so badly that we lived in Europe so we could travel and see more of history close up. MAybe some day...

Mike B said...

Moving, indeed. There are Denkmals (memorials) all over the country and museums all over the world, but for most people this is "pre-history." (sigh!)

Dixie said...

What a moving experience that must have been for you. I remember the Holocaust museum in DC being that way for me. It brought so many questions and so many emotions to the surface for me.