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One Summer in Europe: Poland


The train tracks leading through the guard house into Auschwitz-Birkenau

I visited the Birkenau section of Auschwitz first. The infamous train tracks leading through its main guard house were not as disturbing as I had expected, since even pictures of it can send shivers down mine spine. But life was going on outside the gate with the sounds of life and cars driving. Inside the camp though, the prisoner barracks could be eerie. These were not reconstructions or even restored much, but the actual spots where people enslaved in the concentration camp lived, suffered, and died. I walked through a couple alone, and quiet, still atmosphere was very creepy. I also saw the sites where twins were kept for experimentation and other blocks where other human tests occurred. I had met a survivor of the twin experiments at a museum she established in the town where I went to school.

The size of the camp struck me too. The complex was massive, with endless rows of bunks and barbed wire. The units were sealed off from one another and often separate by ethnic groups, which all were forced to do the same labor. There were even plans in place to expand Auschwitz, but they were canceled as the tide of the war turned against the Nazis. All these barracks were just for those forced to work, as those executed immediately upon arrival (most Jews) never used them.

At the rear of the camp were the remains of the gas chambers where over one million people were murdered. The Nazis partially destroyed them as the allied front advanced to try and conceal what occurred. Still, their scale and evil efficiency were evident. I was speechless standing in front of the flight of stairs that were the last steps of hundreds of thousands of people.

Further back was the buildings where the prisoners who “passed” selection were registered, a horrific process for those still alive at that point. Woods nearby that were peaceful now, had seen pyres of bodies burned and had also been the final stop of many people as they unsuspectingly waited for their deaths when the gas chambers were full killing other victims.

The “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate entering Auschwitz

Auschwitz I was quite different from Birkenau and from what I expected. The bunks were large, two story brick buildings. I am sure conditions inside were at best wretched under Nazi rule, but I was not expecting such solid structures. Museums were now inside many of the buildings and documented some of the atrocities of camp life. From almost no food, to roll call, to brutal forced labor, the life of an inmate was a living nightmare. The most moving exhibit was walls of photographs of prisoners that were held here. For the non-Jew, Nazis kept detailed records, including their pictures. Underneath each of the portraits was their date of birth, arrival date, and death date, which was usually only a couple months after arrival — at most.

There was also a large collection of items stolen from the prisoners after they arrived. The amount of luggage and clothing was staggering. Most shocking though was the human hair shaved from exterminated prisoners. The pile was massive and stretched for at least twenty-five meters. I could not guess how many people it would have taken to make such a heap. This was also only a small fraction of all the hair that had been collected.

Auschwitz had a separate internal cellblock where troublesome or Gestapo prisoners were held. People were sentenced to stave to death here, while other were kept in cells where it was impossible to lie down. Many thousands of shootings took place nearby, after a “trial” that resulted in the death sentence. I found it odd that the Nazis went through the formalities of these show trials for some prisoners.

Auschwitz I had its own gas chambers, although much smaller than those at Birkenau. They were very near the camp, so there must have been no hiding from what was happening when the incinerators were running.

The fence and guard towers lining Auschwitz-Birkenau


The large main square in Krakow was pleasant, with many food vendors, picturesque buildings, and large churches. I think a summer festival was occurring, although parts still had the typical tourist feel I had become accustomed to.

I visited Krakow’s Castle, which had a high wall, statues, and an ornate church with dead monarchs I knew nothing about.

I walked to Oskar Schindler’s factory, of Schindler’s List fame. Inside was a museum that dealt mostly with WWII in Poland and Krakow rather than delving much into Schindler’s rescue. It discussed everything from the initial Blitzkrieg, to life under occupation, Nazi horrors, and finally “liberation” by the Red Army.

Chapel of St. Kinga, within the Wieliczka Salt Mine

Chapel of St. Kinga

The Wieliczka Salt Mine was an extensive network of caverns carved out during the extraction of salt. It seemed extraordinary that so much work was Done to obtain something that seems so common now, but at the time salt meant great wealth. After descending a long flight of steps, my group was led through the tunnels. Some were massive, with elaborate wooden structures to support the ceiling. Many statues were also carved from the rock salt, some professional new works but also ones created by miners. Old original equipment that miners once used to transport rock salt was setup along the tour route. Huge pulleys, counter-balanced by loads going up and down, were powered first by people and then horses. There was also a model of the mine that gave some sense of its vast scale, as well as a few example of beautiful natural salt formations.

Most impressive though was the Chapel of St. Kinga carved into a large salt chamber. In contained beautiful sculptures, fancy chandeliers (made of salt of course), and massive alters. Reliefs of The Last Supper and other religious works were etched into the walls.


Old Town Square

Old Town Square

Unfortunately the day I was in Warsaw was the one day of the week the Warsaw Uprising Museum was closed. I visited the peace park next door though, which had names of those that died during the uprising against the Nazis — 150,000 civilians and 30,000 fighters. It also contained pictures taken during the fight. I found a monument in the park interesting which was dedicated to those that died under two occupations — the Nazis and then Communists.

I did not know a lot about the uprising, but even without the museum I was able to piece together that in August of 1944 an organized underground army launched a fight against the Germans, despite having few weapons and facing a modern army. The battle still raged for over sixty days before finally being crushed. After the defeat the city was systemically razed by the Nazis in retaliation and much of the population was sent to forced labor camps. The Red Army was supposedly near Warsaw too and knew of the fight, but chose to stay back.

A marker showing the former border of the Warsaw Ghetto

I discovered history on the Jewish Ghetto where the inhuman conditions and deportations caused the uprising. About ⅓ of the city was forced to live within its tiny confines, and the entire ghetto was eventually completely liquidated by the Nazis. The vast majority of the Jews inside were murdered in the Holocaust. Only one synagogue still existed from before the war.

The Old City was the cultural hub of Warsaw and after being completely destroyed during the war, it was painstakingly rebuilt to its original appearance. It had quaint and nice looking buildings, filled with the cafes and tourist shops with which I have become so familiar. I actually sampled one though, eating some delicious authentic perogies, in honor of my Polish ancestry.

I watched a film in the history center that documented Warsaw from its peak before the war, to its utter destruction and mass murder. In the “before” films, I could not help but think that most of the people on the screen would be victims in the Holocaust at Nazis hands.