Monday, December 27, 2010

visiting auschwitz...

For our last day in Krakow, we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz, which I did not know, is actually the German word for the Polish town of Oswiecim. It's like, a whole town, with people still living there. And we were taken there by the Rick Steeve's recommended guide, a cheery Polish man named Andrew who brought a cooler full of vodka with us.
Andrew takes small private yours to Auschwitz all the time. It's his job. And by the time I became curious if he got sick of the sadness, I didn't really want to talk anymore.
In fact, I don't really know how to write about this.
Auschwitz is the most horrible, upsetting, angering, frustrating, heart-breaking place or thing I've ever seen in my life. We barely spoke to one another as we walked around, but eventually my father said, "You can see every movie, read every book. It's still different and harder...being here."
He's right. I can't come near describing the experience. But Poland is a long way away from most of you. So I will try.
There are two camps. Auschwitz I is smaller, and where we went last. It was built (or used, rather, as the structures already existed) first, and then Auschwitz II and Birkenau were built as the war progressed. The camp was responsible for 1,100,000 murders and 90% of the people sent there died. I think this is right. It was hard to pay attention to Andrew and his facts because I was just so overwhelmed.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau is the Auschwitz I recognized from movies and photos and history class. But it's so much bigger than I imagined. It's huge, having house 200,000 people at a time. And it's also pretty open, with many of the prisoners barracks no longer standing.
It was snowing when we were there. We walked around Birkenau for 2 hours, bundled up in high-tech cold-weather gear and as I shivered, I started to try and imagine what it would have been like to be a prisoner there.
Turns out, I can't imagine it.
I cannot imagine someone walking into my family home in Mill Valley and taking it from us. Taking our things and our clothes and our forks and our plates. I cannot imagine writing 'Spotswood' on my suitcase, carrying in it all of the photos and personal treasures and material part of my life I could grab because I'm told I'll get it all back. I cannot imagine being stripped of my job, my friends, my comforts, my freedom. And I cannot imagine spending days standing in a wooden train car with 80 other people, without food or water or toilets or comprehension of what was happening.
Because I was still stuck on someone coming into our house.
By the time I imagined myself off the train at Auschwitz, and I as standing right there, in the exact place, where I imagined my brother and father being ripped away from us and even as an adult, clutching onto my mother, it was inconceivable. None of it made sense to me.
And then I tried to imagine standing there in the cold, where I was that moment, miserable and shivering in my modern, warm clothes, but with a shaved head and itchy clothes and stolen shoes. And I just could not imagine it. I went there in my mind, I went as far as I could. And it simply does not comprehend. It makes no sense. Those things ever happening, to anyone, anywhere in the world, are insane.
Obviously, we all know the history of the Holocaust. I'm just saying, you walk around this place in silence, and stand inside barracks and toilets and underneath guard towers, with the barbed wire still there, and it's more real than anything.
Every few minutes, I'd feel a hand on my back, or a pat on my head. It was my brother, who just kept physically checking in with everyone. It was so cold and snowy and the day after Christmas, that we were maybe 4 of 20 or 30 people wandering around. It was hauntingly empty. And Alex would walk ahead for awhile, and then turn around, to make sure I was still there. Then he'd walk around a barrack, keeping an eye on my folks.
It just made my heart ache. Mainly because I could tell he wasn't doing it to make me feel better. It was making him feel better.
And then we went to Auschwitz 1.
Instead of acres and acres of flat wooden barracks of Birkenau, Auschwitz 1 is big, 3-story brick buildings that used to be a Polish military base. After the Germans invaded Poland, they took it over, along with everything else, and Auschwitz 1 was the beginning of the concentration camp.
Auschwitz 1 is much more of a museum than Birkenau, where one can just walk around. Several of the buildings are full museums, flawlessly curated. The care and reverence taken with this sacred, historic space is remarkable.
One of the first buildings we walked into held the gas chamber and ovens. There was a sign outside which basically said, "Thousands of people died here. Out of respect for their memory, please make no sounds inside this building."
One by one, we walked in. None of us looked at each other, and my folks walked in and pretty much walked out. I tried to imagine it, being naked and terrified and in that windowless, concrete room. But I couldn't. I just stopped trying and walked right into the next room, where I was faced with two ovens. You have to kind of step over the tracks where tables would slide bodies into the ovens. It was horrible obviously. It was absolutely horrible.
I walked out.
But Auschwitz 1 is just horror after horror after horror. Buildings 3, 4, 5, and 6 contain fascinating 2-story exhibits inside the former barracks. Thousands of prisoner mugshots cover every hallway before you even get to the exhibits, and each mugshot contains a name, a date of birth, a date of arrival at Auschwitz and a date of death. And I tried to look at all of them. I felt it would be wrong to walk past them, thousands and thousands of faces. Some looked lost, some were gone, some were terrified, some were defiant. Some were women my age, or Alex's age. Or men who looked like my friends. Some had occupations. One good-looking man was a 36 year old lawyer. He was murdered in 1942.
The exhibits in Buildings 3-6 are very much like the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Building 6, I think. contained an entire room of human hair. The Nazis used it for cloth, and when Auschwitz was liberated, they found 700 pounds of human hair.
There it was. Right there. Real hair. Some of them in braids. Filling a room.
The snow let up as the sun started to set. So we went to Building (or Block) 11, which was the last building we had yet to see.
Building 11 is what put me over the edge. It was emotionally exhausting being there all day, and by the time I got to Building 11, I was done. I couldn't process anymore.
Building 11 is the worst thing I've ever heard of. It's next to the Wall of Death, and even now, I can't bring myself to write about it. All four of us left shaken. My brother and I, finally finished seeing all of the exhibits, walked out of there as fast as we could. I was almost holding my breath, afraid to look up, just trying to make it to the door.
If you want to know about Building 11, ask me when I get home. I don't feel comfortable even beginning to describe what I saw in there. But again, it seems like one of those things that you know intellectually, but when faced with it, in the freezing basement of a building in Poland, the horror is overwhelming.
Anyway, I really have no idea how to appropriately share our experience yesterday. And I'm sorry that this post is so depressing. But it was part of our trip and a profoundly intense experience. We are now safe and sound in Budapest, Hungary. And I'll have loads of fun stories about that later.
What follows are photos I took of Auschwitz-Birkenau, all of which are outdoors. Taking photos inside are forbidden, but you can see them on the official website:


Clair said...

Wow. I used to work with Holocaust survivors, and after hearing all their stories, I don't know if I could ever visit Auschwitz. Did your tour guide bring the vodka for his tour group? I'm really sorry you couldn't have a shot or two.

Be_Devine said...


Seana said...

Thanks for putting yourself through the process of writing about this experience. It is very moving.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing. For as worthless as online comments can be sometimes, I can't convey how much I really mean that. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

"I can't come near describing the experience. But Poland is a long way away from most of you. So I will try."

Thank you for this, Beth.

Damn. You did well. xo tp

Anonymous said...

Dearest Beth--Thank you for being there and honoring all those who died in such horrible and heartbreaking ways at Auschwitz. Thank you, too, for then sitting down and writing with such clarity about your experience so that we can all be reminded of what happened and how it must never happen again. My love to you and your family--Noreen

mike sugerman said...

oh my god...what a description. Thank you. I'm glad it's there for the world to see what can happen if you aren't careful. And I'm glad you wrote about it because as you say most of us won't get there. Now we don't have to. It was so moving.
Mike Sugerman

Greg said...

you did a great job describing a very solemn moment. good job.

the closest I've been was the Holocaust memorial in Israel, and even that was a lot to take in. No amount of movies or books prepare anyone for being there where some really horrible things went down.

What's scarier is that it's happened again. The phrase "Never Again" remains VERY important.

again, good job. This is why you are a good writer.