Tall Matt's Travels

Matt - Sat Sep 01, 2007 @ 12:01AM
Comments: 5

 It was probably appropriate I woke up to low, misty gray clouds. My early morning walk to the bus station was drab and chilly. It seemed like no one I passed was smiling. Everyone was looking down at their feet or intently at a Polish newspaper. I was thinking it was just me, but even the bus driver appeared hard pressed to find a grin. He took my ten zloty anyway, and I found a seat in the back. Three others were already on board, and true to form, none seemed happy. Again, maybe it was just me - maybe it is true that you see what you want to see. That your attitude dictates what you perceive to a degree. Admittedly, I wasn't in the mood for smiling. It's hard to think about happy things when you're headed to Auschwitz.

An hour and a half later, I stepped off the small white bus in front of the visitor's center in front of Auschwitz I. I found the information desk and learned from the stone-faced attendants the next English-language tour would start in about 20 minutes.

I walked around for a bit, reading some of the literature and taking in a few of the permanent exhibition pieces.  One piece was particularly disturbing - a life-size sculpture done in concrete depicting the melding of an agonized human form with a curved concrete fencepost; the whole thing wrapped in barbed wire. It was something that no one else seemed to pay much attention to, but captured me at first sight. I couldn't take my eyes off of it. And, as I'd soon find out, it set the tone for the whole experience.

At 11:30, a group of about 50 people gathered just outside the main door. In the distance, about 100 yards away, stood the front gate of Auschwitz I. It actually sent chills up my spine. Three female tour guides divided us into three roughly equal groups. My little pod ended up with the oldest of the three guides, which was actually ok with me. One thing I've learned in these travels - age before beauty ain't bad in guided tour situations. She looked to be in her mid 50's, and wasn't overly friendly - something which would have put me off in a normal situation. But this was pretty far from a "normal" tour.

Our guide moved us down the gravel pathway a bit. We stopped a standing map of the camp where she addressed us in heavily accented English. At times it was pretty difficult to make out her speech. She started by giving us information on the layout of Auschwitz I, and told us the differences between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, some of which I knew; much of which I didn't. "Auschwitz" is actually the German name for the town nearest the camp - known as Oswiecim (sp). Our current location, the camp known as Auschwitz I, was actually the administrative headquarters for four different camps which fell under the name Auschwitz. The largest and most famous camp is actually Auschwitz II - the camp made famous by Spielberg's Schindler's List. Our guide went on to tell us we'd be going there by bus in about an hour and a half.

Looking at the map she stood next to, even this camp seemed really big - over 20 similar-shaped buildings arranged in rows, with a few others on the periphery of the camp - the entirety surrounded by rows of fencing. I looked over her shoulder and saw lines and lines of barbed wire strung tightly between the concrete fence posts.

Five minutes in and our guide hadn't smiled. Not once.

 Moving to our first destination, we passed by the "official" entrance to the camp. A set of tall, black, iron gates are flanked by a weathered brick guardhouse and a drop-down traffic barrier. Ironically, a wrought-iron sign gently curves over the top of the gates reading "Arbeit Macht Frei", translated to "work makes you free." Nazi bastards.

We walked on. Tall, curved concrete fence posts were everywhere, strung together with black lines of barbed wire.

Our first destination turned out to be one of the most powerful during the tour. We stopped in front of the still in-tact Auschwitz I crematoria, which stands at the far end of the complex. Just walking towards it, knowing what it was - it was sobering. I started trying to imagine what the victims would have been thinking as they walked towards it. I couldn't take my eyes off the chimney.

 Our guide talked to us about the layout of the building itself - about how it had been a communications building, but was turned into a crematoria. She showed us on a map how the rooms had been enlarged, where people were forced to move, where they were murdered, where they were burned. All inside this building right in front of me.

She asked us to remain silent inside the building. She explained that the crematorium, as well as the entire camp, is now thought of as a cemetery. Though there are no headstones, it is a cemetery (and a large one) nonetheless. This of course prohibited us from taking pictures inside any of the structures - something which was much more easily complied with than I had thought.

We entered the crematoria through the same door as the victims would have been forced through years ago. We stepped from a small entry way into a long, dark room. The only light was coming from a few naked incandescent bulbs attached to wiring which almost had to be original. There was a smell inside that I can't describe. Not overpowering, but metallic and musty at the same time. The air seemed warmer - more compressed. Blackened concrete walls stretched before us for about 150 feet. I swore I could see scratch marks at certain points down either side of the room. Irregular chunks have fallen away over time, revealing worn concrete and dark metal rebar.

The ceiling above us was low - and not just for me - but for everyone. The room was claustrophobic. I could feel my heart beating faster. A thin layer of sweat broke out under my shirt. Black wooden support beams lined the ceiling, to which were anchored several metal shower heads. However, as we learned from our guide, they are not and have never been connected to water lines.

Between the support beams above us, thin slivers of daylight could be seen, which formed a small square about twelve inches long on each side. We were told later it was through these holes the Nazis would drop the gas - the covers would be lifted off, and a wretched pesticide called Cyclone B would be dropped through. Death wouldn't be instantaneous - Nearly 20 minutes of painful suffocation awaited the hundreds below.

I don't know how to describe the feeling at that moment. To be standing in that place... In a room where literally thousands of people were murdered... What would it have been like? Naked, scared, screaming... horrible. It was one of the most disturbing and powerful moments of my life. I wanted to cry and to throw up at the same time.

We continued on through a small door to our left. In this chamber was the actual crematorium - to our left, a "preparation" area for the bodies. To our right, a room with two large brick ovens with heavy steel doors and a horizontal "platform" leading into each. One of the oven doors was open. I don't know why, but that bothered me - a lot. I could imagine a fire inside - the glow it would have made...

As if the gas chamber wasn't enough, it was in this room where an almost equally horrifying set of actions took place. The Nazis, knowing long-term exposure to Cyclone B would be deadly, "selected" other prisoners to work in the crematoria.  This "special detail" of prisoners would pull bodies out of the gas chamber into the crematoria room. Then, anything of value left on the bodies was stripped - watches, glasses, gold teeth, hair... The workers would then load the bodies onto the platforms and push them into the ovens. Eventually, of course, these "workers" would fall ill to the poison. They themselves would become the work of another specially "selected" group of workers to continue the tasks.

Getting out of the structure was a relief. We were only in there for about five minutes, but it seemed like hours. I felt a lot better once I got some sun on my face. Everyone else in the group was walking around slowly - taking deep breaths while looking up at the sun, or the trees.

 Our guide collected us, and walked us toward the rear of the crematoria, where a lonely wooden gallows stood. She explained to us that after the war, the former commandant of the camp, a man (probably not the right term) named Rudolf Höß (Hoess), was found and tried for war crimes in Nuremburg. He ended up admitting everything, and was eventually sentenced to death. At the request of the Polish people, in 1947 he was hanged right here, in full view of the crematoria where he sent so many people to die.

We then walked down one of the gravel roads between the barracks buildings. Apparently the camp was originally a Polish army barracks, which was converted into a concentration camp when the Nazis invaded. According to Höß, the location was selected because of its remoteness to other villages and settlements, and ease of camouflage. They obviously didn't want anyone, including the local farmer or villager knowing what was going on behind the fences.

Signs labeled "Halt!" and "Stoj!" with skulls and cross bones were visible at regular points along the barbed wire fences. Looming over the tops of the fences at the corners and midpoints were wooden guard towers.

We ventured inside one of the barracks which (like all the barrack buildings) has now become a museum - room after room filled with old pictures and maps. However, the most incredible entries in this museum are the remnants of what the allies found when they liberated the camp. One window displayed mounds of eyeglasses. Another room was full of shoes. Another filled with luggage bags. Yet another literally filled with pounds and pounds of human hair. It was horrifying. Each item - each pair of glasses or shoes represented a life snuffed out. Not that the rest of the displays didn't have an effect, but once I saw a room full of infant and children's shoes - piles upon piles of tiny shoes... It was one of the most difficult things I'd ever seen.

And, to further illustrate the scope, our guide said these displays represent only part of what was left in the camp at the time of the Nazi retreat. Until that point, everything of value was sent to inner Germany on a regular basis.

 We ended up in another barracks building which housed a different set of displays - one room held a model of one of the crematoriums in Auschwitz II, along with blue prints and schematics found for their design. Another display held canisters of opened Cyclone B, along with the history of how it came into use.

Still another building housed remnants of what it would have been like to live in one of the barracks as a prisoner. Ridiculously tight sleeping conditions, no hygiene, ordered toilet breaks, food available only for those strong enough to get to the front of the line. In the corridors of this room were pictures of inmates taken in the early stages of the camp. The pictures proved to be too costly later on, and were replaced with tattooed numbers on the left forearm. The bottom of the pictures contained the victim's name, date of entry into the camp, and date of death. Our guide pointed out a few - brothers, sisters, fathers and sons. She pointed out the difference between political prisoners and criminals; she showed us people who had lasted nearly a year in the prison, and some who had lasted a single day. To look into the eyes of these people - real people who really died right here...

Our group then went to the "wall of death" - an area between two barracks buildings where executions by shooting took place. Unlike the rest of the camp, this corridor actually had a gate which could keep prying eyes out. Apparently thousands of people were killed here as the execution of sentences passed down on the prisoners.

The building to the right of the execution wall housed the "criminals" who were "on death row" so to speak. We took a quick visit inside to see for ourselves the cruelty of the Nazi "justice". For example, several rooms in the basement were made for "standing punishment" - four people were stuffed into a dark brick-walled room which was about three feet by three feet. There was no light, save a five-inch air-hole at the top of the room. The prisoners would stay there all night, and then have to go work the next day, knowing they'd be back in the room that night. What mind comes up with this?

 As we walked, we stopped in front of another of the buildings which happened to be the office of Dr. Mengel, known by the prisoners as "the Angel of Death". I won't go into details - you can read more about him here - but if there's one person who deserves a seat next to Hitler in hell, it's Mengel. Imagine what a deranged Nazi doctor with a penchant for experimentation would do if he had an endless supply of subjects he could do anything with. "Studies" on sterilization and experimentation with twins were his specialty - most of the time without the use of anesthetic. The devil's doctor to be sure.

After a short break we boarded a bus which took us the three kilometers to the largest and likely most famous of concentration camps - Auschwitz II (also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau).

 From the bus, I could see the familiar shape of the guard house and watchtower. I remember it from Schindler's List - and as we passed the train tracks leading into the building's curved mouth - "The Gate of Death", I remembered the scene of the cattle cars full of people headed into the camp. It sent shivers up my spine.

The clouds overhead had gotten darker. It was 2:30 in the afternoon, but it felt like 7:00. It was August 31, but it felt like late October. No one in our group was smiling. No one was talking. You can't talk at that point. There's nothing you can say.

While standing on the train tracks inside the gate, our guide talked to us about the camp - about how it was designed with the learnings of Auschwitz one in mind. The crematorias, the barracks, the fencing, the guard towers - all "perfected" from Auschwitz I. She walked us around just some of the 400+ acre camp - through some of the un-insulated wooden prisoner barracks, through their toilet rooms which consisted of long, concrete platforms with holes in them, around wooden guard towers, past rows of black barbed wire...

We ended up near the back of the camp at the site of a monument between the complex's two massive crematorias. Both were destroyed by the Nazis about a week before the Red Army came knocking on the door. It's all in ruins, but you could still see quite a lot - the underground gas chambers, the remnants of the ovens... With the model we saw back in the exhibition, it was easy to form the mental picture of what it looked like.

When the tour ended, I talked to our guide for a little bit. I asked her a couple questions about the rest of the camp. She was actually really easy to talk to when out of "tour guide" mode. We talked for a few minutes, when I finally asked her how she could do this every day. She simply said "It's my responsibility," and for the first time all day, gave a gentle smile.

The rest of the tour group headed back to the entrance of the camp to catch the bus back to Auschwitz I. I didn't go. I wasn't ready to leave just yet. I went out on my own to take a walk and think. I'm not sure you can have a more intense three hour tour.

I walked toward the north corner, and found myself alone, save for a couple standing next to a standing map a few hundred feet away. Again, I'm lost for words - being by myself in this place - looming, charcoal skies - a thin mist starting to fall... 

I slowly passed a large brick building where working prisoners were occasionally de-loused. I continued on, passing some large in-ground sewage tanks bordered by a couple of large brick structures. I walked past another, smaller crematoria which had also been destroyed. I came to the back corner of the camp, and turned to my right, heading in the direction of the gate.

 I walked a few hundred feet until I found what I was looking for. A small grove of trees surrounded a small, kidney-shaped pond. The water was a mirror, save the interruption of a few broken tree stumps, a patch of brilliant green reeds and twelve beautiful red roses floating near the shore. In front of it stood four black granite blocks with these words written in English and Hebrew:

To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide.

In this pond lie their ashes.

May their souls rest in peace.

I'd read about this pond - a place where the Nazis used to dump the human ashes after cremation. As it says in the guide books, the shores of the pond are still a milky-gray color. Even after reading about it, actually seeing it turned out to be something I wasn't really prepared for.


 After about an hour, I made it back to the gate, where I found my way up into the guard tower. Again, I remember a few chilling scenes from Schindler's List which were set here. Seeing the view of the camp from here - wondering what conversations went on in this room...

Eventually I made it back to Auschwitz I, at which point I walked around a little more before finding a ride back to Krakow. It's a place I desperately wanted to leave and desperately wanted to stay at the same time.  

It's impossible to get your head around. To see these things - all of this in the course of a few hours is a lot to digest. It's incredibly hard to find your bearings.

 On the way back to Krakow, I thought about everything. I thought about nothing. I thought about children's shoes and barbed wire. I thought about crematorias and cattle cars. There was one thought that wouldn't leave my head though. Even more so than the rooms of maps and photos and luggage, I couldn't stop thinking about the blueprints of Auschwitz II. I have a tough time processing the fact that someone - a human being - decided a more efficient means of killing was necessary. That this person found others who thought the same, and worked with still others to design it. That someone decided that killing and burning 200 people a day wasn't good enough.  That someone figured out that herding people into underground gas chambers would be less disturbing to others who would soon be following them. That someone came up with the idea to install showerheads and water pipes in the gas chambers to give victims the illusion that they were safe.

That true Evil has walked the earth.

And, that this was just 60 years ago.

To be honest, I was pretty useless for about a day after my visit. I went to bed early that night, and just milled around downtown Krakow the next day. A few people at the hostel asked how my day went. "I went to Auschwitz." The reply was invariably the same: "...Oh... Yeah." And that's it. You don't really discuss it more than that. You can't.

I'm not sure how many of you will ever get to Poland, but if you do, make an effort to get to Auschwitz. It's not fun, and you won't enjoy it. But it will change you, and affect you in ways you hadn't thought of. It's tough, and hard and depressing. But it's worth it.

Comments: 5


1. Cindy   |   Mon Sep 17, 2007 @ 07:03PM

What a depiction Matt - simply impressive. My folks visited there a few years back and had the same type reaction - you only understand it once you've visited there. Thanks for sharing those words - you paint a very vivid picture.

2. karen b.   |   Mon Sep 17, 2007 @ 07:51PM

intense. disturbing. mind-boggling. speechless.

3. Andrew Allen  |  my website   |   Tue Sep 18, 2007 @ 07:09PM

The only thing I've ever experienced that was similar to this was my trip to Normandy. Seeing 9000+ crosses representing a person who died there and looking out on the ocean where all of those events occurred was impactful in a way hard to describe.

4. Jaime   |   Fri Sep 28, 2007 @ 04:56PM

I have always been interested in WWII and especially the concentration camps. Thankyou Matt for posting your experience as I don't know if I will ever get there. I so appreciate your thoughtful writing of your day there. It sent chills up my spine to see the familiar entrace to the second camp and wonder what it must of felt like to enter there. Anyway, thanks.

5. picbear  |  my website   |   Mon Mar 25, 2019 @ 10:36PM

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