Following the Tatras I worked my way back north to Auschwitz to meet up with some friends. In August I visited the city as well and saw and partook in some of the more touristy things like city tours of old Krakow and the Jewish Ghetto district of town. This particular visit would display a completely different side of the Krakow area and southern Poland, Auschwitz.
As I've been to and written about Krakow before I won't bore you with some of the details surrounding the city. However, this second trip did give me a chance to visit the most deadly and vicious concentration/extermination camp there was during WWII, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our group boarded a bus headed for the camp early in the afternoon on our second day in town. Auschwitz is only a one-and-a-half hour drive north of Krakow, and when you're driving there you really start to get a sense that this place was seemingly in the middle of nowhere, yet somehow in the most central place in all of Europe during the War.
That was part of the strategy of the Nazis, though, with their placement of the camp. What started as a simple, single work camp for less that 800 political prisoners quickly became the site of more than 1 million Jewish, Soviet, and other political prisoner's death. Little did I know before arriving to Auschwitz I that there were actually three sections to the Auschwitz camp. These included Auschwitz I (a labor camp with the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei/Work Brings Freedom" entrance gate), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the main extermination camp where, upon entrance, you were either categorized as fit for work or sent immediately to the gas chamber), and Auschwitz III-Monowitz (a fully labor-oriented camp). As much as I've heard about Auschwitz throughout my life, it was a shocking reality to finally see it in person and a very overwhelming feeling walking through the famous gate where millions of people marched daily to carry out the Nazi's labor tasks.
Once inside the camp you are guided through the numerous aisles of barracks formerly occupied by the prisoners. Each barrack has now been converted into different categorical museums related to one or two aspects of the worker's lives, Nazi plans, camp structure, etc. Many of the buildings were quite simple, explaining the construction of the camp or the general history of how Auschwitz came to be. Many, though, were much more upsetting than that, giving visual evidence of the horrors that occurred here including images and recreations of the prisoners living conditions, food rations, shoes, hair, eye glasses, and much, much more. The amount of items that the Nazi's kept and organized was completely mind blowing, and it was an eye-opening experience to physically see the suitcases and every day items that the prisoners brought with them to the camps, not knowing their ultimate futures and fate.
One particular room stood out to me whilst walking through the barracks. As the prisoners died, all of their belongings during their time before and at the camp were typically passed on to another prisoner entering the camp. The shoes of these people, was one such item. In this particular room the museum has stacked all of the stored shoes the Nazi's saved from the prisoner's belongings who entered the camps. Knowing that at some point throughout these people's lives they had used these shoes for practical, dress, or other occasions was an interesting realization. There were loafers, high heels, sneakers, slippers, and everything in between, and it shed light onto the actual existence of these people.
Other aspects of the camp outside of the barracks included memorial areas where several public executions took place, barracks which have been turned into specific nationality memorials and information for prisoners (mainly Jewish from other countries within Europe), walk-throughs of the crematorium on site, and the prison with isolation chambers located in the basements of some of the buildings. All-in-all, the emotional distress this particular museum caused was enough to last someone, and me, a lifetime.
Never in my life have I fully understood the depths that the Nazi's fell to in order to carry out their struggle to create a perfect people across Europe. Their execution and organization of the camps, though incredibly precise, impressive, and ingenious, is something that cannot be comprehended without seeing Auschwitz (or any concentration camp) first hand. Despite all of the horrors the Nazi's did, the witness firsthand the structure, thought, and organization they put into these camps was impressive to say the least. To this day it still boggles my mind that something so horrific could have ever happened, though,, and that one person was able to influence a population of people so effectively. Societies, I pray, will never allow such a dark period in history to be forgotten.