Visiting Auschwitz Poland, Part 2
Mentality at Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland
The Nazis destroyed evidence of the gas mass killings by blowing up the buildings. Anya told us they liked to use gas because they didn’t have to look at the person while he was being killed.
How could the guards do this every day?
“For the most part,” said Anya, “guards were ordinary people who could kill by day, and then go home and be loving fathers and husbands.”
This was confirmed by Jerzy Kowalewski, an eighty-eight-year-old Auschwitz survivor. I attended a seminar he had given in Warsaw.
He said: “I had been imprisoned for being an underground resistance fighter. Somehow I was given work at the commandant’s home. One morning he invited me to have breakfast with his family. There were eggs, bacon, real coffee….everything. He was wonderful to me. That afternoon I saw him take a pistol to a prisoner’s head and shoot him. It made no sense.”
Procedures at Auschwitz Poland
We found ourselves looking into Room Five of the so-called, Death Block. These barracks held the “court rooms” where the prisoner was tortured into confession, tried, and sentenced to death. The table that had been a part of the “sham trials” was still there. The Gestapo found everyone guilty.
Father Maksymilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who was interned at Auschwitz, offered to take the place of a man who was about to die. The Nazis put him in the “Starvation Cell”…to remain until he died. Today, a simple bouquet of chrysanthemums and a candle mark his cell. In 1982 he was canonized by the Catholic Church.
Life at Auschwitz Poland
Anya showed us where they removed the prisoners’ clothes and marched them out naked where they were shot in front of the “Death Wall.” Their bodies were placed in gravel pits in and around the main camp.
At the daily roll call, the entire camp stood in their meager rags as the SS guards called out their names. The roll call was given as a collective punishment for the wrongdoing of just one prisoner. The inmates stood for up to four hours in the rain and snow. Some of the extremely weak and sick prisoners would die in the lines during the roll call.
After roll call, the prisoners received their ration for breakfast. They were given 10 ounces of bread with a small piece of salami or one ounce of margarine and brown, weak coffee, with no sugar.
Remembering Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Even after Anya had presented the evidence I still couldn’t put it all together, until we saw the barracks I call, the Evidence of Living. The people began to become real.
Anya took us into Block (or Building 5). On either side of the middle aisle, behind glass, were piles fifteen feet high of human hair on both sides. Rows of long braids popped out at me first. Ironically, I did not see any grey or dyed hair. In a nearby case, a three by five foot blanket was on display. It had been made entirely of human hair.
For an hour we looked a piles of eyeglasses, artificial limbs (from WWI vets) shoes and suitcases, and other items of a personal nature.
It has been sixty-seven years. With such overwhelming evidence, people will not forget. In fact, photography is encouraged, so that the world will remember. In addition to all the visitors, once a year 8,000 schoolchildren make the mile walk from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II (Birkenau).
It is fitting that Rudolf Hess, the first commandant of Auschwitz, was hung in 1947 a few feet away from where he murdered his victims.
Making a Visit to Auschwitz Poland
– Auschwitz to Auschwitz II-Birkenau is a 20 minute walk, or you may take a taxi.
– Krakow to Auschwitz is about an hour’s bus ride. Catch the bus at the main bus depot at 18 Bosacka. You could take the train, but it is not as convenient.
– Auschwitz to Krakow buses can be found in the main parking lot next to the Auschwitz I entrance.
– Oswiecim (the Polish name for Auschwitz) is a town of about 4,000 people and does have a few hotels. However, we found the Auschwitz experience to be so profound, we had to go back to reality to try and sort out what we had just seen. We stayed in Krakow.
– There is both a café and cafeteria at Auschwitz I. The people at the information center are very helpful.
– Our tour stayed at the Radisson Blu, a large chain hotel. It was rather impersonal, but featured a fantastic breakfast buffet. Very centrally located, just off the Old Town Square.
– I heartily recommend the Wesele right on the Square. It reminds you of an old country inn. Polish cuisine. I had the goulash in a bread bowl – superb.
Written By Wynne Crombie
Wynne Crombie has a master’s degree in adult education and teaches ESL at a Chicago comunity college. In the late sixties, she taught 5th grade with the DOD schools at Aviano AFB, Italy and in Berlin, where she met her husband of 45 years. They have traveled ever since.