Sunday, April 18, 2010

Remembering Auschwitz

By Claire
We visited Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau today. These visits are draining. The tour we decided to do (entry is free, the tour is 38 ZL, €9.87) was well done. The guide wore a mic and we had headphones, which made it easy to hear and kept things quiet and respectful at the same time. The tour lasts for 3.5 hours and there is a 15 minute movie.

Before WWII, 80% of the world’s Jews lived in Poland. Poland attracted Jews because of its relatively welcoming policies, although they were not allowed to own land. Today, only a few Polish Jews remain.

We started at the entry, making our way to the barracks and seeing many horrifying things including mountains of women’s hair that was kept and stuffed into bags then shipped to a textile factory in Germany. There was a 3’x3’ standing room used to punish prisoners by making them stand overnight, packed in with 4 or 5 other prisoners, completely unable to move. They worked all the next day, then returned to the standing room.

Most of the prisoners who arrived here were sent immediately to the gas chamber. 1500 people would be herded into the showers then gassed with Zyklon B. It took about 20 minutes for them all to die. They were able to exterminate 3,000 people a day, about the number who were killed on 9/11.

One inspirational story is that of a Polish priest named Maksymillan Kolbe. He had been arrested and interned in 1941. When a prisoner from his block escaped, the Nazis punished the remaining prisoners by selecting 10 of them to be put in the Starvation Cell until they died. One man expressed concern about what would happen to his family. Kolbe offered to take his place, the Nazis agreed and all 10 men were put into the Starvation Cell. Two weeks later, only Kolbe survived. He became an inspiration to the inmates. To squelch the hope he inspired, he was executed by a lethal injection. The man he saved survived the Holocaust. There is a cell with a memorial to Kolbe and in 1982 he was canonized by the Catholic Church.

The commandant, SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss, who was tried and sentenced to death after the war by the Polish Supreme National Tribunal, was hanged here on April 16, 1947.

Half way through our tour, we were taken by bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. I was immediately struck by how extensive this place was. They expanded as the numbers of prisoners grew.

Train tracks—arrival to the camp

Inside barracks—the brick structure down the middle of the room is the heater. I’m surprised they even bothered; it was not effective.

This photo of prisoners arriving shows a man to the far left in front who survived because he had the job of going through the prisoners’ belongings and sorting them. He was able to find food and stave off starvation.

We walked down the tracks, coming to a restored cattle car, the kind that arrived packed with Jews to meet their fate. Further down, we came to a gas chamber the Germans had blown up just before the liberation by the Red Army.

There is a large memorial set up with plaques in many European languages and in Hebrew.


Coming away from this place I felt almost numb. Perhaps it’s because this is the 3rd concentration camp I have been to. Perhaps it’s because it’s just too much to take in. At any rate, I’m glad we came. I wanted to see it. It is a horror but I am glad it still stands for everyone to see.

We were lucky to find a wonderful place to camp, The Centre of Dialogue and Prayer, located in Oweięcim, the town in which Auschwitz is located. It is a hotel and basic campground and only a 5 minute walk to Auschwitz. There have been a number of high school age groups coming through. This is their mission:

Centre for Information, Meetings, Dialogue, Education and Prayer was founded in 1992. It is a Catholic institution, founded by the Archbishop Franciszek Cardinal Macharski in co-operation with the bishops of Europe, as well as with the representatives of Jewish organizations.

The aim of the Centre, which in 1998 took the name of the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Auschwitz and was built in the neighborhood of the Auschwitz concentration camp, is to create a place for reflection, education, sharing and prayer for all those who are moved by what happened here.

The Centre commemorates the victims and contributes to creating mutual respect, reconciliation, and peace in the world.

We had a tough time finding this place—I had heard about it and tried to find information online. At most, I was able to get an address, but no directions. Here are the GPS coordinates I was able to find on my GPS for anyone reading this who might like to find it: N50.02375° E 19.19807°

The words of our prayers are different, but our tears are the same. ~ Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism

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