Trip Start Nov 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 21, 2006

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Flag of Poland  ,
Friday, August 4, 2006

My day in Auschwitz was a day I had been planning on for a while but was not exactly one I was looking forward to. When my cousin went to the concentration in Prague I declined to go with her because I knew Auschwitz was on the horizon and my firm belief is that one concentration camp is more than enough for this trip. The first thing I couldn't believe about my trip there -- and I had been warned, didn't mean I wasn't still shocked when I saw it -- was that people were taking pictures with themselves in it. As in, 'Smile, we're at Auschwitz.' I don't know if it's apathy or ignorance that drove people to do this, but I know at least for me (Adrian and CJ felt the same) that I felt awkward enough as it was just taking any photos, let alone asking someone else to do it while I smiled away. The other thing I felt slightly odd about was with the massive amounts of Jehovah's Witnesses. I had been seeing the big tour groups everywhere for the last week or two, in Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Krakow, and knew they were Jehovah's Witnesses because they all wore purple pins that read "Deliverance at Hand." I just found it strange that a group of people would choose to wear labels like that while visiting a place in which relatives -- or at least people of their same faith -- were forced to wear purple badges every day of their life. I know I wouldn't show up to Auschwitz wearing a yellow star on my jacket.

The tour of Auschwitz is split into two parts -- there's Auschwitz I, which is mostly bunkers and most of those bunkers have been turned into museums, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the main extermination point which was for the most part destroyed by the Nazis as the Soviets advanced on Poland and into Germany. For the most part, the museums were really good, especially an excellent exhibit on Poland's WW II history, including the underground struggle and life in the Jewish Ghetto in Krakow. There were also some moving houses, such as the one where each room was filled with different belongings -- suitcases, shoes, etc. It put a human touch on the unfathomable numbers that were killed on the spot. The weird thing about the bunkers is, you spend enough time in one (and it doesn't need to be much to be enough) and when you step outside you almost have forgotten what that real world is like. If I felt like that after 15-20 minutes in one building, visiting as a tourist, it would be impossible to imagine how the people who actually lived in such places got by, where their reality was a waking nightmare. It's also at Auschwitz I where you can walk into an actual crematorium, which is a surreal experience (and yes, people were taking pictures in there as well, even with an explicit 'no pictures' sign at the entrance). It was there that I remembered the Topography of Terror in Berlin. Obviously, I know the history of World War II, the Holocaust and Auschwitz, but it was only while walking around the Topography of Terror that I really started to sense the absolute evil of the people responsible for it, questioning how one human being could treat another in such a way.

I carried that thought onto Birkenau, which doesn't have much info, more a place to walk the grounds. The first thing that struck me about the camp was how massive it was. It's a wide expanse of land and the size is even more striking since so few of the original buildings are actually standing.

The one thing that surprised me about myself after the day was done that I didn't have that full punched-in-the-gut feeling I had after the Killing Fields in Cambodia. I remember that day -- and the girls I was with feeling the same way -- that I had to immediately get back to the guesthouse and put on a comedy because I was so depressed that I needed something to laugh at. I'm still trying to figure out why Auschwitz didn't have that same full effect. Part of it might be that the company I was with this time around were much better friends and once we were removed from it a bit we could provide each other with a little levity. It might be as well that I knew so much more about Auschwitz than I did about the Killing Fields, so that when I got there I was more emotionally prepared for the experienced. The other factor, I think, is that Auschwitz seemed to maybe hold back a little, to cater to the sensibilities of a survivor or relative of a survivor who might come to visit whereas the museum at the torture prison and the fields itself were graphic and upfront. Either way, Auschwitz was a trip I felt important to make, but I was glad when I was on the bus back to Krakow and back to normalcy.
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