Sunday, 3 June 2007

2nd June - 1st entry

2nd June

Wroclaw to Krakow via Oswiecim.
Arrival 51683km.

I packed up reasonably early after a good night's sleep and headed for the A4 motorway towards Krakow. Stopping off on the way at the town of Oswiecim or better known as Auschwitz in German. I felt that this was one stop off that needed to be made, even though I was doing it with a certain sense of unease.

This is a strange entry to write, and I'm trying to do it as soon after the event as possible, so I've just arrived at the campsite in Krakow and want to get my thoughts out here. (photos at the end)

I actually took a wrong turning and ended up at the Birkenau Museum firstly. I later learned that the tour starts at Auschwitz first. I pulled up right next to the former Nazi concentration camp and was struck by the haunting, somehow familiar sight of the gatehouse which has the railway line running through the central archway. Walking through the archway I felt a sense of awe at the sheer scale of the site. It's really huge, acres and acres of space with barrack block buildings, some still standing, others long gone and only their chimney stacks remaining. I walked on in silence and caught up with a guided tour that was almost ending and tagged along with their group for a bit, as we were shown inside one of the living quarters. This design of building had been intended as a stable design to hold 52 horses and 400 people were crammed into them, and that was when conditions allowed it. Up to 1000 people ended up in these buildings, sleeping on bunk beds 3 levels tall, having to sleep on their sides as they were jammed in like sardines. The visit to the next door toilet block was worse. The detainees were allowed a visit in the morning before work and again after work, having to stand in queues to get in and then being alloted 20 to 30 seconds to do their business on demand. Such degradation of humans. I deliberately didn't go on to where the gas chambers and crematoria were. The whole place is surrounded by a very tall, formerly electrified, barbed wire fence. The guide told us how when the trains arrived, people were 'sorted' into those who were fit for work, and those deemed not to be - the old, infirm, disabled and the children. They were marched up a track to the building housing one of the gas chambers and when that was full, the remainder were marched along a different, longer track, past the housing barracks, where the 'lucky?' detainees already there would know the fate that was in front of those heading along the track. The story has been well told elsewhere, but it's just numbing and horrible to see it for yourself.

I made the short trip to the Auschwitz Museum and was struck by how normal it looked from the outside. I found out, once inside, that the reason for this is that it had been a former Polish army barracks, so the buildings had been erected on a permanent basis, trees planted and it had a 'small village' feel to it. Beyond the infamous gates bearing the motto 'Arbeit Mach Frei' (work gives liberation), inside the buildings the story is told. I think the sight that affected me the most was a building where they have displays of the belongings of people sent to their deaths. Spectacles by the thousand, shoes, wooden legs and braces, but the worst for me, not sure why, was a huge mound of suitcases; the old hard type and each had the owner's name stencilled or written on, their date of birth and city. I think it was a case of names and details of the owners that just capped it off. Fittingly, the weather was overcast and halfway through the auschitz leg, the rain came down. It felt right that I should be seeing this sight in the gloom. There were groups of teenagers being shown round and that has to be a good thing. This episode in world history shouldn't be allowed to be forgotten or watered down.

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