Sorry for the lack of updates the past few days; we’ve been busy in addition to being unwilling to pay 20E a day for internet access. We’re in Vienna now after spending 2.5 days in Budapest. We’ve got Internet access again, so we’ll do some updates but the connection is slow so probably no pictures until we get to Sweden.
On Thursday we took the bus to see the Auschwitz and Berkenau concentration camp memorials in the countryside outside of Krakow. Originally a Polish army base, during the German occupation of Poland during WWII the Nazis turned Auschwitz into a concentration camp and extermination facility to carry out the genocide of all undesirables including Jews, intellectuals, Homosexuals, Roma and any others that they felt didn’t deserve to live in their ideal society. The camp was liberated by the westward-charging Russians in January 1945 as the war in Europe was winding down. A few years later the Polish government decided to preserve the sites as a memorial to those who died. Much was destroyed by the retreating Germans as they tried to hide their crimes, but a lot still remains and some has been restored.
Once the Auschwitz site became too small to carry out their killing the Nazis built the massive Berkenau site that included a huge field of squalid Barracks to hold the prisoners along with two huge crematoria to dispose of the massive number of bodies. The efficiency of the system was quite chilling; the camp really was nothing but a killing factory.
They built a train unloading dock to unload the masses who were packed on trains cattle-car style for up to two weeks to get there. The prisoners had been told that they were being relocated and thus they came with packed suitcases full of items they thought they’d need in their new homeland. Instead once they arrived their items were taken by the Nazis, sorted and send back to Germany for its citizen’s use.
Once offloaded from the trains the people were sorted by a doctor just by looking at them to determine if they were fit for work. 75% were unfit and were directed towards the end of the camp under the auspices of being cleaned up in the showers. In fact they were on a death march. The Nazis even disguised the insides of the gas chambers to look like shower facilities so that there wouldn’t be any panic inside.
The “fortunate” 25% that were fit for work were transferred to the barracks that had no heat, light or running water and were so crowded, filthy and rat infested that lice and disease spread rapidly. A latrine ran down the middle of each unit adding to the unpleasantness. The prisoners were forced to do back breaking labour from sun rise to sun down seven days a week year round with almost no food. The conditions were so harsh that most didn’t live more than a few months either dying from starvation, disease or being shot for not being able to work.
In total between 1.1 and 1.5 million people lost their lives at this camp; really an incomprehensible number. I knew the numbers from my history studying, but seeing the place and learning how ruthless and cruel the Nazis treated the prisoners somehow brought it closer to home. It really did emphasize for me that my generation’s grandparents and great grandparents were truly fighting a just and right war to protect the freedoms of people from real terror (unlike some of today’s conflicts, but that’s for another day).
While this wasn’t your standard flowery tourist outing we both found it to be a very worthwhile experience and would recommend it to others if you are in this part of the world. We need to understand our history if we hope not to repeat it, so visiting these memorials and understanding the events that lead to their coming to be is important.
I think we all would like to believe that an event like the Holocaust could never happen again, but there are still genocides occurring in the world (i.e. Darfur). Even here in Europe, we’ve seen a number of events close to “home” on this trip have made it clear that we still have a ways to go on the tolerance and understanding front. We’ve seen a large fascist rally/protest at the Budapest Gay Pride parade (more on that later), Roma begging on the streets some who have literally been burned out of their homes, and the large Jewish groups visiting Auschwitz needed to bring personal security details with them due to previous attacks at Holocaust memorials.
Sorry for the downer post, we’ll be back to fluff pieces in the next ones…