Sunday, August 19, 2012

Be a Tourist, It's Worth the Dreary Visit

Representing the end of the line at Auschwitz.
I really wrestled on whether or not I should even post our trip to Auschwitz.  However, I wanted to document our time while we're on this whirlwind vacation and this was one of my most memorable stops.  I'm sorry it's not more upbeat, but it is what it is... Auschwitz.
When Martin and I woke up the morning we planned to visit Auschwitz, it was eerily cold and rainy.  Any normal person would have wanted to stay inside under a warm blanket, by the fire while drinking a cup of hot chocolate.  Not us.  Remember, we have a schedule to keep and not even bad weather was going to keep us from not staying on schedule.  Besides, I thought it offered a perfect backdrop for what would be a difficult tour both mentally… and physically.

When entering the town Oswiecim, the buildings seem old and worn and it was obvious by the lack of upkeep that a tragic part of history was played out just beyond it’s front door--it had definitely seen better days. 

All and all though, it seemed like any other little urban village found in the European countryside.  As we drove down the streets, headed for Auschwitz, we instantly got a feeling of wondering what it might have been like for the people of this little city during the war.  Did they know what was happening less than a mile from them?  Were some sympathetic?  It’s hard to know.  Auschwitz camp and the Birkenau camp (aka Death Factory, called Auschwitz II) are just off the roundabout in the central part of town.  As you drive to the front gate to the main Auschwitz, you are greeted by a friendly parking attendant who gives you a ticket to park your car at the front of the main building at the camp.

When Martin and I were getting out of the car, we wrestled with whether or not we should take the stroller or the backpack to carry Lily.  We opted for the stroller because of the damp weather.  I had a rain guard that fit perfectly over Lily’s stroller, so we thought we were set in keeping Little Lil' away from the elements.  We left the backpack behind in the car because we saw no need for it.  Mistake numer-o un-o!
Entering the camp
As we began our tour we were met by a very serious tour guide who seemed suitable given the kind of tour we were on.  Her English was substantial but I found I was having a hard time understanding her through her thick polish accent.  I knew I could manage, and towards the middle of the tour, I found that I could nail her accent and was following her just fine from that point.

The rain was steady, and although we were prepared, our guide said to us at the first “Block” of barracks, “Your stroller is not suitable for this part of the tour.  Please park it outside the door.”  I looked at Martin quizzically because I really wasn’t sure what she had said.  She said again, “Park your stroller here.” Which was out in the rain outside the Block.  We did as we were told and entered into the building.  During the course of the 3-hour tour we entered up to 8 barracks.  Each barrack displayed pictures of the Jewish prisoners and all the terrible atrocities that happened to them during their stay at Auschwitz.  Most prisoners didn’t last more than 5 months.  The captured Russian soldiers who were the first prisoners to arrive were stripped of their clothes and forced to be naked for the first week of their imprisonment.  Almost all of them were killed or died in the camp. 
Where Martin rested Lily when she wasn't in his arms.

This photo about did me in when I saw it.
I have been to the Holocaust museum in Washington DC and feel like I have seen almost every documentary telling of this terrible genocide, but nothing prepared me for the rooms we were about to enter.  They were staggering.  One room was full of women’s hair and was the most startling for me.  They would shave the women’s hair upon entering the camp and then use it to make a type of burlap material.  They found it to be cheaper to produce than regular materials to weave into burlap.  

By the time we got to cell Block 11, poor Martin was struggling to still hold Lily.  I am sure everyone around us were wondering why we didn’t put her down, and it was just too much energy to use in the midst of what we were in to try and explain to others that she didn't walk.  As we left one barrack and entered into another we were being soaked to the bone by rain.  We could not even comprehend what these people had to endure without coats, in wooden shoes AND without their family.  As a mother, if I didn't know where Lily was, I don't think I would have made it.  It would have killed me then and there.
The bathrooms. 
At the end of the tour of Auschwitz I, we got in our car and drove over to the second camp called, Birkenau.  It’s better name amongst the prisoners was, “Death Camp”.  It almost seemed worse than the first, because the barracks were now made of wood, and we could see how these poor people had to endure so much from the outside elements in these poorly insulated barracks.  

The one bright thing of the whole day is that the rain had stopped and the ground was much more giving to Lily’s stroller.  We were able to push Lily from one barrack to another. 

At Birkenau, it was hard to actually see the bathrooms that were set in place seating up to over 50 people at a time.—with 18 seconds to get and get out.  It was also difficult to see that there was a childrens barrack where a Jewish artist, who was also imprisoned, painted a wall mural for the children to take them away a little from all the terrible things that were happening to them at the time.  The mural looks very sweet of the drawings of children walking with their favorite toys toward a building with smoke coming up from the chimney.  What you don’t know until it is further explained to you, is that he painted it to help the children to not be afraid when they are taken off, with their favorite toys, toward the big building with the fence because in actuality it is a the gas chamber. 

Now that I have depressed you enough, I would say that even though it is dismal and heart wrenching, it is also a very important part of history.  Martin and I were very glad that we made the decision to go in spite of the dismal day and even more dismal knowledge we learned while taking the tour.  It was worth it.

We finished up the tour around 3:00 and got in our rental car and headed for Krakow.  It was a beautiful drive from Osweicim into Krakow and the beautiful countryside helped to lighten the mood from the heavy day. 

We were excited to see Krakow!