Sunday, December 11, 2011

No Words: Poland

When a few travelers I met on the road convinced me that I had to go to Krakow and ‘do’ Auschwitz, I was initially skeptical. It's funny, but when travelers get together in a hostel or on some form of transportation, the conversation will always come around to the places you’ve been and where you plan to go. “Have you ‘done’ Greece yet?” “You have to‘do’ Mt. Kilimanjaro at some point!” “We are going to ‘do’ Peru in the fall!”It's a bit of a pissing contest at times, so I'm always skeptical of how "great" the experience really is.
St. Mary's

Further, traveling as quickly as I am, I’m always mindful of when I’ve drifted into the “country done” mindset, where countries are checked off a list, rather than experienced. As such, I look for unique experiences, rather than places, that will endear that country to me. Nevertheless, every traveler I met who had ‘done’ Auschwitz had a thousand adjectives to describe it: amazing, sad, depressing, wretched, startling, astounding and on and on, so I knew it would be something special and I needed to go.

So, I ‘did’ it...

Krakow is a really lovely city chocked full of ancient castles and churches. The Old Market Square in the center of Old Town feels like the heart of the city and St. Mary’s, where the bugle player plays the Heynal every hour from its tower, is its rhythm. The aggressive assed pigeons that fly around the square are scary and should be avoided at best, but the Polish people who are witty and full of self-deprecating humor should be embraced fully. Walking the Royal Way, from St. Florian's Gate and over to the Wawel castle and cathedral, can give you a broad view of the historical charm of the city. While sitting in the Planty, which is the park that surrounds Old Town, and people watching really gives you a glimpse into modern Poland. Even though Krakow could be its own tourist destination; you’ll find that many of the people who come there are headed to Auschwitz, which is approximately two hours outside of Krakow.

Auschwitz is a group of concentration camps, also known as death camps, located in the Polish suburb of Oswiecim. Oswiecim’s proximity to the railway and relative obscurity from the major cities made it an ideal location for the Nazis to carry out their extermination of Jews, Poles, Gays, Gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, Soviet POW’s,  and anyone else the Nazi’s deemed worthy of their hate. Over the course of roughly three years, the Nazis killed an estimated 1.1 million people. Many of these people arrived by train to the camps and since the voyage was long and no food or water provided, many of the children and elderly died in transport. Upon arrival, those who survived were split into two groups: those who could work and those who couldn’t. The group that couldn’t work was promised a shower, lead to a room, and gassed to death in massive numbers. The other group was put to work, where many died from starvation, disease, executions, and medical experimentation.

After visiting the concentration camps and taking the self-guided tour through the exhibits and actual buildings where many of the atrocities occurred, I’m not convinced that, as a tourist, Auschwitz is something that you “do." I almost feel as if there are no words that can truly convey all the thoughts and emotions that overwhelm you as you move from one building; however, I know that the experience can’t fully be summed up as something ‘done.’ Auschwitz is a memorial searching for a verb that encompasses its gravity.

Piles of glasses
For example, I “grieved” Auschwitz as I viewed all the pictures lining the halls of people who had died there. Their name, occupation, date of birth, arrival and death printed on a black and white photo hinted at the horrors experienced during their one month, two month, or three day stay. I grieved as I searched hard for someone who had lived for at least one year after arrival at Auschwitz. I grieved Auschwitz when I walked through the cells that held the priests who were left to starve to death after sacrificing their lives for other prisoners by taking the blame for something or going in their place.

I “imagined” Auschwitz when I walked into rooms where thousands of people’s hair, bowls, prayer shawls, eye glasses, and leg braces were piled high in exhibits showing the items collected and left behind by the Nazis. I imagined the initial relief and then absolute terror that must have been felt after traveling days without water or food and finally being lead to a shower only to be gassed and slowly die from affixation. I imagined the hope, suffocated by doubt and grief, experienced when seperated from family members, never knowing how, where, or whether they died or will be seen again.

I even “cheered” Auschwitz when learning about the counter movements occurring inside the camp. I cheered for the ingenuity of passing notes by way of a carved out space in a baking pin roller. I cheered for the souls that pushed through adversity and still managed to stick it to the man, in spite of being broken in body. I cheered Auschwitz for the spirit of perserverance and rebellion that stood taller than the barbed wire fences that surrounded the camp. And I “dragged” Auschwitz around with me for days and days, not quite able to erase the faces from my mind.
A thousand adjectives cannot adequately describe all the emotions you feel walking around the camp and a thousand verbs will never stack up to those who “lived” Auschwitz. However, this is a tragedy never to be forgotten and an experience not to be missed if you visit Poland. Auschwitz is all parts of a sentence that should never be repeated.

Bathroom facilities... cleaned up for the exhibit.

A room of leg braces, crutches and other things collected from the handicapped captives after they were killed.

Sleeping quarters at the camp. Three to four people slept on each level.

Playing traditional music at the old wall of the city.

Public Art?

Wawel cathedral

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