I had been dreading going to Auschwitz although it was one of the main reasons we came to Poland. I felt obligated to try to get a sense of what happened there, but I was afraid I might have nightmares for a while. The buildings that remain and the museums they house at Auschwitz and neighboring Birkenau death camps are kind of sanitized though. I was surprised. I guess no one except sociopaths would want to visit if it was just one horror after another. I feel like I haven’t done sufficient penance though. I’m not sure for what reason I need to do penance, but I feel a kind of collective guilt about the Holocaust and feel like I need, to some small extent, to suffer with the people who died.
No photography is allowed inside the Auschwitz museums. I don’t know the reason for this rule since it was mostly family photographs or other photographs – very little graphic presentations. With a couple exceptions, there’s little or no indication of how the people who lived in the buildings actually lived. Mostly the displays showed prisoner photographs – mug shots taken by the Nazis shortly after the person arrived at camp and had his or her striped uniform on – as well as personal items associated with prisoners – large photos of or an actual display of: a pile of toothbrushes, a pile of luggage, a pile of prosthetic limbs, a pile of eyeglasses, a pile of shoe-shine brushes, a pile of shoes, several cans of shoe polish. Honestly, the presentation made me angry. I thought, “I could see this anywhere. Why did I come all the way to Poland to see a photo of a pile of toothbrushes?”
There were not a huge number of tourists and most were respectful…ish. But there were a number of both attractive, young couples and Mom-and-Pop/folksy people who posed smiling at different places around the camp. I have no idea what’s wrong with people. There was one building which was not used as a museum – the gas chambers and crematorium. I had read years ago that scratch marks are visible on the walls of the gas chamber as people clawed at the walls. It’s true.
What we learned from our TripAdvisor-rated (for the company), young, taxi driver who was not allowed to act as tour guide but waited hours for us in the parking lot of both camps is that Auschwitz, the German name for the Polish town of Oswiecim, had been the site of the Austrian military barracks in the early 20th century. Poland was a free country for most of its history but had been taken over by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 1800’s and remained under their control until the empire’s collapse at the end of the first world war. Of course, Poland was then taken over by the Nazis and then the Soviets, so their current freedom and democracy, while not new to Poland, is a change from the late-19th and most of the 20th centuries. So the 2-story, brick buildings in the Auschwitz photos originally housed Austrian soldiers. Birkenau, by contrast, was built by the Nazis when Auschwitz became overcrowded and housed tens of thousands of people at a time. The Soviets liberated Auschwitz and Birkenau and destroyed much of what was left (that wasn’t brick). They didn’t want to see any Nazi remnants. At least 10,000 Soviet POWs were killed at Auschwitz. Those POWs who tried to escape were made to stand outside naked in the winter and had water thrown on them until they froze to death. Despite the Germans’ meticulous record-keeping, few records remain of the death tolls at the camps. As the war drew to a close, the Germans destroyed most of their records to hide their guilt; and the Russians drove over anything that might have been left. For this reason, historians can only guess at the number of people who died in the concentration camps.
“Work brings freedom.”
I know in the US we don’t translate museum signs into Polish or frequently into any other language, so maybe I should stop being so picky. But at the camps and on the salt mine tour (another post) and different educational signs and materials we read as we travel, I’m just surprised that with the money spent they couldn’t have found someone who speaks English well enough to make the wording more coherent.