Monday, September 2: Krakov, Auschwitz-Birkenau

Updated: Nov 12, 2019

I wasn't alone in being apprehensive about going to Auschwitz. We didn't know what to expect and how it would make us feel. It has taken me three days to process before attempting to blog the experience.

The day was overcast. Later, it would rain heavily. On the bus, Tomasz, our guide, gave some background to the series of events that led to Auschwitz.

At the start of WWII, there were 3.3 million Jews in Poland, where they had lived for more than 900 years. They represented all walks of life: the ultra-orthodox and the secular; university professors and students, politicians, thinkers, actors, musicians. In 1939, close to 200 Jewish newspapers were published, in Yiddish, German,Polish, Hebrew, and Russian.

The war began on September 1, 1939. From the beginning, the Nazis waged war against the civilian population. The administrative headquarters of the German army was established in Krakov, where Hans Frank, the Governor-General of the occupied Polish territories, obsessed about cleansing Krakov of its Jews.

Since 1933, the Nazis had developed and perfected a system of concentration camps in Germany - the first was Dachau - and this franchise-like system was subsequently transplanted to Poland.

From November 1939, every Jew in Poland was ordered to wear the Star of David on his clothing. In the winter of 1939/40, the first of 700 ghettos was established. Ghettos were created in the vicinity of a railway, indicating their temporary nature and anticipating the eventual transport of the Jews elsewhere.

From June 1941 until spring 1942, squads of Einsatzgruppen, special SS and police units, went from village to village, marched the Jews into nearby forests and shot them. In this way, they claimed 1.2 million victims. However, the cost of bullets and transportation of the bullets was high; the mass graves into which the bodies were thrown left evidence leading to rumours among the populace; and finally, the young soldiers who were carrying out the executions were beginning to exhibit symptoms of what is today referred to as PTSD. Across Germany, universities, concentration camp administrators, euthanasia centers and the medical world competed to provide a solution. By September 1941, they had run tests with Zyklon B on human beings incarcerated in Auschwitz. By December 1941, all the necessary technology was in place. In March 1942, the Nazis converted the Auschwitz concentration camp into a death camp; in April,1942, Sobibor; July 1942, Treblinka; in Autumn 1942, Majdanek.

The death camps were designed to carry out the mass extermination of Jews of Poland, to be followed by all the Jews of Europe.

Walking under the sign Arbeit Macht Frei, our group enter the camp. We walk down a path flanked by a number of sturdy-looking brick buildings. It appears so innocuous. As we walk, I become aware of something I least expected: I am not feeling. Anything.

We go deeper into the camp and into the buildings. We walk through the rooms with their mass of hair, some in braids, showcased behind glass. Behind another glass window, we see how human hair was mixed with cotton to make cloth. We continue through the rooms displaying prosthetic limbs, pots and pans - some for milk and others for meat - the pile of suitcases, and the long row filled with shoes: children's shoes, baby shoes, boots, sandals. The horror of it.

We walk into a gas chamber, see the apertures through which the Zyklon B was poured. We pass by the ovens.

Yet, we experience the most emotion in the room with the videos depicting scenes of Jews living normal lives before the Holocaust (the Shoah), oblivious to the events that will overtake them a few short years hence. Perhaps it's because those mundane scenes of family life - sitting round a dinner table, dancing with friends, etc. - are so familiar to us from our own lives that we begin to catch a glimmer of the horror that was the Holocaust. Horror? Does that word even begin to describe the evil that was perpetrated here?

It is only an accident of time and space that we come as observers of history rather than its tragic participants.

Zmidek family members murdered in the Holocaust

Gabrielle: It never occurred to me to go, I didn't want to go. It's harrowing. I'm glad I went because it's something I had to see.

Jeff: The videos of the people before the Holocaust was the most meaningful.  It's important to not focus only on the machinery of death but on the lives of the living. The Holocaust teaches people what hate can lead to.

Anton: The visit touched something deep inside me. I felt a connection with my forebears.

Jonathan: It felt exactly the same as any military camp I've ever been to. It's not until you see the gas chambers and the ovens that you understand the true horror. The place is banal and benign until you see the gas chambers.


Monday: The first day

Monday: Auschwitz-Birkenau (continued)

Tuesday: Chmielnik

Tuesday: DSS HQ

Wednesday: Lodz Ghetto

Thursday: Warsaw Ghetto

Friday: Warsaw, Okopowa cemetery

Friday: Polin Museum

Historical Snippets


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Historical snippets

(Culled from statements by Tomasz: from Gabrielle). The Jews arrived in Poland over 900 years ago, fleeing persecution, primarily from Prague. As they were skilled in commerce and trade, they served a