A Visit to Auschwitz and Kazimierz

What’s popularly known as Auschwitz is actually a complex of three main concentration camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau); and Auschwitz III (Monowitz), and many other sub-camps. They are all located in or near an ordinary Polish town, Oswiecim, which is about a one-hour drive west of Cracow. "Auschwitz" is actually a Germanization of the town’s name, and is not used by Poles themselves, unless they are specifically referring to the camp. I was a bit hesitant to go, but a Polish friend told me there had been a lot of renovation and reconstruction activity at the site recently, and it would be interesting to see how the history had been presented.

Until the fall of Communism, Auschwitz was principally commemorated the victims of "fascism" in general, and the focus of most of the exhibits was the fate of the thousands of Polish prisoners killed there. Since the fall of Communism, the museum has been redesigned to take into account the fact that the overwhelming majority of people exterminated in the entire complex were Jews, mainly those deported from occupied Eastern Europe.

However, most of the information actually found in the camp’s archives related to non-Jewish inmates (political prisoners, undesirables, homosexuals, clergy), because they were photographed and documented as they were admitted. Unless they had useful skills, Jewish inmates were not documented at all. Immediately upon their arrival, they underwent the infamous "selection," during which SS doctors separated the work-capable inmates from the non-work-capable ones. The non-work-capable ones — about seventy-five percent — were immediately killed, leaving no record of their existence at the camp. For this reason, it was some time before the true scope of the extermination of Jews at Auschwitz was known; now it is estimated that approximately 85-90% of the 1.5 million or so people killed there were Jews.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the debate about who "suffered most" under the Nazis as between Slavs (especially Poles and Russians) and Jews is still on in some quarters. It’s still not uncommon, for example, to hear people from certain Eastern European countries complain that the destruction of the Jews get "all the attention" or that the "Slavic Holocaust" has been ignored by history. I’m not going to wade into this debate, but I will say that it does seem incontestable that there are many more books about and dramatizations of the destruction of  European Jewry than about the persecution of occupied Poland. I didn’t learn much new about the fate of the Jews from visiting Poland, but I did learn many things I hadn’t known before about the awesome scale of the plundering, wanton destruction, enslavement and mass-murder carried out by the National Socialists against Gentile Poles. This book seems to be a legitimate treatment of the subject.

Leaving that topic delicately to one side, the main, but not exclusive, focus of Auschwitz now is the fate of the European Jews murdered there. The main camp, Auschwitz I, is now called the Auschwitz State Museum, and is a UN World Heritage site. Entrance is free, unless you opt for a guided tour. Auschwitz I was only partially destroyed by the retreating SS. The camp has been minimally reconstructed; much of what you see is original, including the infamous red-brick barracks, the Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work is Liberating") sign, and the double-rows of electrified barbed wire mounted on strangely elegant curved supports.

The museum displays themselves are presented inside the former barracks; you follow a suggested path to visit them in sequence. The first barracks contain the basic part of the exhibition, which seems to have remained largely unchanged for decades. These structures show what conditions were like for inmates who had to live in the buildings, and contain simple documentary exhibits. You walk through one building, called "Material Evidence of Crimes", and see nothing but large window displays, some of them 15 m long or longer. Behind the windows are monstrous piles of the items confiscated from arriving prisoners: suitcases, packs and baskets; childrens’ clothing; and shoes, glasses, razors, and combs. One long gallery contains nothing but women’s hair. (The Red army found, literally, tons of womens’ hair stacked in bags in warehouses when they liberated Auschwitz).

One of the most powerful exhibits shows identification pictures taken of "political" and "undesirable" prisoners who were children; some as young as 14. Newly-shaven and dressed in camp uniforms, they stare into the camera with expressions of incomprehension or terror. Underneath each picture is a sign showing the child’s name, age, place of birth, date of admission. The date of death is also given, invariably within three or four months of admission. Several visitors left this display in tears.

There are also enlarged pictures of emaciated inmates taken at the time of liberation, and sketches and drawings of camp life by former camp inmates. Eerie details stick out: the communal sink-room, which served up to 700 prisoners, is decorated with wall murals depicting a kitten grooming itself and two young men riding a horse across a stream. When workers were marched out the front of the camp to do field labor, the camp orchestra was required to play marches to keep them in rhythm.

The material and pictorial exhibits are accompanied by documents seized from the camp archives, displayed in glass cabinets. They are mostly in German, with brief accompanying descriptions in Polish. They documents address ordinary camp administration: suggested wording for death notices to surviving relatives, contract negotiations with German businesses for "raw materials" such as human hair, protocols for medical experiments, incident reports, building plans, suggested rule changes; calorie charts for various categories of inmates; and other matters. All bear various official stamps and signatures. Hundreds of documents are presented; the point is not really to tell a story, but simply to document the camp’s existence, and to show how many thousands of people must have had some idea what was going on at Auschwitz.

The next barracks contain displays relating to the fate of Jewish and other deportees from nations occupied by or collaborating with Nazi Germany. The first of these exhibits, a general exhibit entitled "Martyrdom of the Jews," was designed with Israeli cooperation, and documented in Polish and Hebrew, with English added later. It’s dark, spare, and gloomy, presumably on purpose. Then follow barracks with displays relating to the fate of deportees from Holland, Italy, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France and Belgium. Finally, there is an exhibit — funded mainly by Germany — about Roma and Sinti deportees. The main focus of the country-specific displays is the fate of Jews transported from those countries to Nazi death camps, although they also address resistance and collaboration under Nazi occupation, political prisoners, homosexuals, religious leaders, Sinti and Roma populations, and others targeted by the Nazis.

Each of these displays was designed by a team from the subject country, and they are wildly divergent. The Italian one, for instance, is conceptual, featuring nothing but a winding spiral work of abstract painting covering a wooden walkway, and a few powerful quotations from Primo Levi (translated into French and Polish, but not English). Other exhibits are brand-new, built within the past few years, and outfitted with multimedia kiosks and other hallmarks of modern curatorship. The Dutch one is perhaps the best of the lot — detailed, fact-rich, clear, and beautfully laid out, with explanations in three languages (Polish, Dutch, English) on triangular projecting trays that one can rotate at will.

Once again, it’s interesting to see how the exhibit commentaries deal with the issue of collaboration of the occupied peoples with the Nazis’ orders to round up and deport Jews. This is still an extremely sensitive subject in Europe. The Dutch exhibit is perhaps the most forthright; although it highlights the extensive resistance to Nazi occupation and the many Dutch who hid Jews, it also tells the story of people like Wim Henneicke, whose "Henneicke Column" group of bounty hunters — all Dutch — located and arrested 8000-9000 Jews in 1943-44, motivated mainly by money. A recent book calls this the "blackest page in Dutch history."

The Hungarian exhibit also admits that most Hungarians were indifferent to the fate of Hungarian Jews, but noted that there were at least some attempts to save them. German historian Joerg Friedrich notes in his book Die Kalte Amestie ("The Cold Amnesty") that Heinrich Himmler and the SS, faced with some diplomatic resistance from Hungary and warnings from the Allied powers that the fate of the Hungarian Jews was being closely watched, suggested offered them as hostages to the West in return for "200 tons of coffee and tea, 2 million bars of soap and 10,000 trucks." The Foreign Ministry nixed the idea. Instead, the Germans installed a more compliant regime in Budapest, and 437,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and exterminated.

After the exhibits, you can visit the one crematorium and gas chamber that actually operated at Auschwitz for a short time. Most of the extermination, however, took place at the Birkenau camp, (also called Auschwitz II), a much larger installation about 3 km away from Auschwitz. It was mostly destroyed by the retreating Nazis and has been largely left in that condition, which makes it arguably even more chilling. You can wander more-or-less freely around gas chambers in which thousands of people were killed. You could easily spend an entire day or more at Auschwitz, if you wanted to take in all the information presented there.

Some practical advice: If you go from Cracow, I’d suggest going by train or booking a spot on a tour bus at the local travel office or hotel. I took the ordinary minibus that goes from Cracow to Auschwitz. You soon realize that there’s plenty of ordinary Polish commuter traffic on this route, and the bus is therefore crammed to the rafters, with at least 8-10 people consigned to standing up for the entire trip. Although the Poles never treated the tourists rudely (I found them extremely hospitable and helpful all across the country), they looked a bit put-out at having to stand up during their 1-hour daily commute because a bunch of foreigners had crowded into all the seats at the very first stop. Further, if you have to stand up in the ordinary minibus, you can’t see the countryside, which is lovely.

One odd fact: Auschwitz has gift stores which sell mostly books and videos, but you can also buy postcards of Auschwitz. Not sure exactly what to think of that.

After I returned to Cracow, I wandered through Kazimierz, a close-in suburb which was formerly the heart of Cracow’s Jewish community. There are still several extant synagogues; one of wCracow_new_jewish_cemeteryhich is still in service, another of which has been turned into a museum. Szeroka street now features numerous Jewish restaurants, where you can drink kosher beer and listen to pretty good klezmer music. It’s nicely-restored but a bit touristy. Apparently, the neighborhood was featured in "Schindler’s List," which sparked a dramatic rise in tourism, especially Jewish tourism. The rest of the neighborhood is a mix of older and newer buildings, but thrums with outdoor cafes and Polish people doing hip things like mixing music, performing street theater, playing jazz, and speaking to each other in English. At the edge of the neighborhood is the "New Jewish Cemetery," which is where Jews were buried starting around 1800. A picture is at left. Although many of the graves are not ancient, they are almost all overgrown, because the people who would otherwise be visiting and taking care of them are gone.

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