Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Auschwitz-Birkenau Tour: June 29, 2013

Yesterday we visited the Museum of Wartime Krakow (1939-1945).  The museum is housed in what was once Oskar Schindler's Factory.  Schindler is the same Schindler from "Schindler's List" movie fame.  It is a worthwhile visit and a good education before visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Today, we took a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was hard to hear/read of all the brutality suffered here. It is estimated that 1.1 to 1.5 million people died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. I can't even begin to put those details into words.

The sign over the entrance to Auschwitz I says "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Sets You Free).  This was a ruse.  These were death camps.  

Another sign at the museum states:
"From 1941 to 1943, the SS shot several thousand people at the wall in the courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11.  Most of those executed were Polish political prisoners, the leaders and members of clandestine organizations, and people who helped escapees or facilitated contacts with the outside world.  Those shot here also include men, women, and children who had been taken hostage in revenge for operations of the Polish resistance against the German occupation.  Prisoners of other nationalities and ethnic origins, including Jews and Soviet POWs, were also shot at the wall.  Nazis dismantled the wall in 1944; after the war, the execution wall was partially reconstructed by the Museum."
This is a detail from the reconstructed execution wall.

The crevices of the execution wall are filled with small stones, crosses, or other remembrances.

The camps were ringed with high-voltage electric fences.  Some prisoners, rather than continue their daily tortures, committed suicide by throwing themselves into these fences.

Several of the "barracks" now contain exhibits.  Some of the items in these exhibits are the personal effects taken from those who were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau.  These personal effects: human hair, eye glasses, suitcases, shaving items, prostheses, shoes were stored in warehouses in preparation for sending the items back to Germany to be distributed among German citizens or recycled.  Prisoners referred to these warehouses as "Canada" as many had relatives who pre-war had moved to Canada--the land of plenty.  When the camp was liberated by the Red Army on January 25, 1945, the warehouses contained only a small fraction of what had been confiscated by the Nazis.  The huge piles of human hair, some still braided, are on exhibit, but cannot be photographed. The hair was packed in bags with the weight (200-250 kg) of each bag scrawled on it. The Nazis sent the hair back to Germany to be used in the manufacture of "hair cloth."  Human hair was also used in upholstery.

Photography of the other personal effects was allowed. The suitcases inscribed with the owners' names were the most affecting lending an identity to the statistics.

 Braces, crutches, prosthetics 
Piles of suitcases with the owners' names--names with the hope of survival

 Women's shoes
Brushes of all kinds: shaving, shoe, clothing, toothbrushes

Next our guide took us to Birkenau.  This was the arrival point for deportees from Polish cities and other countries.  Deportees were transported from as far away as Norway and Greece.

The deportees arrived at Birkenau in overcrowded, barely ventilated railway cars.  If they survived the transport, they were lined up outside of the railway car, where an SS officer quickly decided who was able to work and who could not.  Those who were judged unable to work (women, small children, the disabled, elderly, or frail) were directed to go to the showers. This was another ruse because they were walking into gas chambers. Those who were judged able to work, were worked to death, starved to death, tortured to death.

This railway car has become a shrine with small stones piled on every horizontal surface.

The wooden barracks have decayed leaving only the brick fireplaces that provided insufficient heat to the prisoners.

Brick structures built using bricks recycled from Polish villages from which Nazis expelled the residents.

The sign at the memorial to those who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau: "For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million Men, Women, and Children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe."

Each year, 1.5 million people visit Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I hope we come here because we want to make sure this terrible history will never be repeated.

Krakow, Poland: June 26-July 1, 2013

Rynek Glowny on a partly sunny day

Strangely, it is less expensive and easier to fly to Poland than it is to fly anywhere in Ukraine so, we went to Krakow to celebrate our anniversary (24th) and my birthday (59th).  We found that it wasn't as easy to get into Poland as we expected.  We were two Americans among a plane load of Ukrainians and a handful of EU passports.  We paid extra for the extra-long legroom seats which put us in the middle of the plane.  When the doors opened we were trapped in our seats by the aisle-seat guy who wasn't in a hurry to deplane as he had an EU passport.  Once the Ukrainian passport holders exited the front and rear doors of the plane, they sprinted to the Polish immigration windows.  We were the last passengers off, and therefore, the last people in line behind all the Ukrainian passports.  There was one window dedicated to EU passports and 4 for "all passports."  We watched the EU passport window close after passing the few EU passport holders through.  Then, we saw him open to clear a new plane of passengers with EU passports.  Then, he closed again.  It took us an hour to get to the immigration window because Polish immigration scrutinized every Ukrainian passport holder.  As we viewed the scene, Polish Immigration Agents were rather passive-aggressive toward the Ukrainians.

We visited Krakow during a cool spell.  The calendar said summer, but the temperatures felt like early winter.  Fortunately, we were prepared and brought our entire winter wardrobe: rain jackets and sweaters (1 each)--it wasn't quite enough.  We still explored.  The architecture of the old city is splendid.

From 1964 to 1978, Archbishop Karol Wojtyła who later became Pope John Paul II, lived on this street in the yellow building on the left visible in the above photo. 

Rain or shine, day or night horse carriages line up along one side of Rynek Glowny (Market Square).  The horses are beautiful, healthy, and lovely to watch.

One evening, we chose an elegant, understated carriage with a matched team for a ride around the old city.  It is a peaceful way to move through the city streets with the hypnotic klippity-klop of hooves on cobblestone.  The two horses are brothers, 11 and 9 years old.  In addition to the driver, there is a driver's assistant whose job it is to catch the horse shit before it hits the road.  The most import tool of this trade is a long-handled scoop.  The scoop part of the tool is a wire loop fitted with a heavy-duty garbage bag.   Our driver's assistant was very skilled, and whenever he sensed the slight raise of a tail, he quickly positioned the long-handled scoop under the appropriate orifice.  Once the horse finished, the driver's assistant pulled the scoop back to the carriage to remove the now hot, smelly bag and ready the tool for the next elimination.  There were four such episodes on our 45-minute ride and while the assistant never missed, carriage passengers do sit downwind.

What happens if the assistant isn't a skilled scooper?  We were witnesses to the results of just such an ill-positioned scoop.  The carriage stopped, and the assistant, dustpan and short broom in hand,  squatted down and swept the street clean.

Me, still 58, with my Prince Charming

After a couple of days, the sun began to show itself and the energy of the city changed.  The end of school came with the end of June bringing more families to the square.

 View of the Wawel Castle and the Wisla River

Inside the Wawel Castle, we visited some of the State Rooms, the Treasury, and viewed the "Woman with an Ermine" by Leonardo DaVinci.

 The 15th-century Altar in St. Mary's Basilica (Mariacki Church)

In our Krakow wanderings, we visited churches, synagogues, the Wieliczka Salt Mine (very hokey), and museums. Krakow is a great city for walking, eating, and people watching.

On June 29, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.