Reliving the Past – Auschwitz, Poland

Reliving the Past
Auschwitz, Poland

Work Makes You Free
Work Makes You Free
The words at the entrance to the camp were ironic. “Arbeit Macht Frei” translating to “Work Makes you Free.” Unfortunately these words were not true and many people perished within the Auschwitz camp.

My grandparents had both survived Auschwitz and made it safely to Australia. In the ensuing years what happened to them during that time was never spoken about. Pushed far back into the recesses of their minds never to be relived. When I told my grandmother that I was going to visit her former homeland of Poland she asked me why. To her, the former camp was not a place to visit on your travels. Travelling was about relaxation and fun. Words not associated with concentration camps. However I wanted to see it with my own eyes. To try and gain some understanding of what she had lived through. To learn about the past.

I arrived in Krakow, home to some of my ancestors. Krakow has become a tourist hot spot over the last few years and despite it being the tail end of the tourist season, Krakow was bursting with people. The town square, one of the largest in Europe is the centre of the activity with markets, concerts and people sitting outside drinking beer. The one thing that struck me was the similarity of the Poles. They were tall with blonde hair, blue eyes and strong physical features. On the whole they were very attractive. I wondered how much of this was due to the “cleansing” that had occurred decades earlier. Still, everyone was friendly and smiling and it was hard not to be caught up in the action.

On my first morning I wandered down to the old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. In 1495, the King banished the Krakow Jews to this area and over the centuries a separate, almost self-governing town was formed. Then, in 1943 it was liquidated by the Nazis. Walking the old narrow streets of Kazimierz now, you can still get a sense of the history and unique atmosphere of the area. Old synagogues are now museums and the restaurants serve up traditional Jewish food. I ate dinner here and felt as if I was transported back to my grandmother’s dining room. In fact the décor of the restaurant was strangely similar. Perhaps they all used the same interior designer. All the food she had made for years on special occasions was on the menu. Matzo balls and gefilte fish. So foreign yet so familiar. The food was great but you can never beat your grandmothers cooking.

I awoke the next day ready for the one-hour to Auschwitz from Krakow. On the bus, a documentary about the camp was shown. Seeing the ghostly white, stick thin people on film was a sober experience. I had seen Schindler’s List before, but they were actors – the people we were watching were real. The trip was taken in complete silence. Everyone on board was preparing themselves for a grueling and emotional day.

Auschwitz actually consists of three concentration camps, dubbed Auschwitz I, II and III. During the war it is estimated that close to 1.5 million people were killed in the camps. Auschwitz I remains more or less how it was during the war. The old blocks now house museum exhibits. Within them are chilling reminders of what occurred within the camp. Visitors shuffle between the exhibits, often in silence, for the pictures and items on display tell the story. Shoes remaining from prisoners fill one room. In another room there are thousands of old suitcases, as if their owners were embarking on a vacation. We were told that the Greek Jews were informed they were going to be given a better life and actually paid for their train tickets to the Auschwitz. A room full of discarded children’s toys illustrates how many children experienced life (and death) at the camps.

Our guide told us the story of an elderly man who was on one of her tours and saw his old suitcase bearing his name on display. It was a very emotional experience for both the guide and the people on the tour at the time.

More chilling than the museum exhibits are the old gas chambers and crematorium, used to exterminate the old, the sick or the ones the Nazis had no use for. Stepping inside, I saw many people were crying. The very same gas chamber I was standing in was the one where my grandmother’s thirteen-year-old brother was killed. I felt a strong sense of anger; at one stage I realized I had been unwittingly punching the walls. Many people on our tour were unwilling to even go in the gas chamber and waited outside.

We paused for lunch but few are hungry. It seems disrespectful to eat in the café when so many had starved at this very site. My uncle, almost six foot tall weighed barely thirty kilograms when he was saved from the camp.

From Auschwitz I we went to Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau. This camp is three kilometres away and thirty times the size. The Nazis destroyed most of the camp late in 1944 to hide their crimes from the advancing Soviets so there is not much remaining. However you can still sense the sheer size of the place. At one point our tour guide pointed to white flecks in the ground and said they were the human ashes from sixty years ago.

I asked the guide what people came on her tours, expecting the majority to be relatives of survivors. She actually told me that a lot of young German students visit. They feel very sorry for what happened and many spend their holidays volunteering around the site and getting involved in projects. She was pleased by this and hoped that young people would continue to visit so that the world would never forget what had happened.

Sightseeing and tours are usually taken for fun. People are on holidays and looking to enjoy a good time. There are smiling people and lots of happy tourist snaps. This tour was different.
It was emotionally draining and there were few smiles. I would not classify it as an enjoyable trip. Despite this, it was well worth taking. It was a learning experience and gave us all a better understanding about an important event in history. Would I go back? No. Would I recommend other people to go? Definitely. Whilst there are no shot glasses or T shirts being sold by peddlers at this site it is still a tourist experience albeit one of a very different type.

It has also given me a bigger respect for my grandmother and all other survivors.