July 22, Krakow and Auschwitz
Today we took a bus to the Polish town of Oswiecim. This is the town where the German Third Reich operated the largest concentration and extermination camp named Auschwitz from June 1940 to January 1945. It is actually made up of 3 sites, Auschwitz I the base camp, Auschwitz II Birkenau the extermination camp, and Auschwitz III Monowitz a labour camp. We started our tour at Auschwitz I where we entered under the sign ARBEIT MACHT FREI which means "work makes (you) free". From there we visited several of the blocks that once housed Jews in the camp, each block holding 1000 people. I believe the buildings were formerly Polish military barracks. The Jews were told they could bring up to 25kg of possessions with them when they were being relocated to the camps. The Jews would bring their most prized possessions (not knowing they would die) and the Germans would take anything of value. The collected valuable items would be stored in what was called Canada warehouses, which got their name because many Polish and eastern Europeans regarded Canada as a wealthy place. The German high ranking officials and SS officers would take the nicest items from these warehouses. There are now many displays and artifacts in these blocks. There are displays of a pile of eye glasses, prosthetic limbs, cookware, mountains of shoes and luggage, and even hair which was taken from corpses then used to make fabrics for blankets. There are photos of prisoners, their names, ID number, profession, date they arrived at the camp, and date they died. Very few lived more than a couple of months after arriving. Each day, prisoners would be lined up (while orchestra music played) and counted before being sent out to the labour camps. At the end of the day, they would return to be counted. Any prisoner that died or was executed during the day had to be carried back to be counted to make sure the number was the same as the morning. Auschwitz was the only camp where prisoners were given tattoos on their forearms for identification. Block 11 (the death block) was a jail for those suspected of escape attempts, mutiny, and communication with the outside. Most prisoners in block 11 would eventually be lined up against a wall and shot. We then saw one of the gas chambers and a crematorium. Only about 70,000 people were exterminated at Auschwitz I. Auschwitz II or Birkenau was the extermination camp where most of the deaths occurred. It was built using the Jews from Auschwitz I as labourers. This site was the largest concentration camp at 175 hectares and there were many wooden barracks as well as brick barracks almost as far as the eye could see. 100,000 prisoners would be held here at a time. Trains would come in on two tracks. A doctor (nicknamed The Angle of Death) would evaluate the prisoners as they got off the train. Strong and healthy meant you lived a little longer in work camps, the sick and the weak and even children went straight to the gas chambers. 1500 at a time would be stripped and told they were going into the showers to be disinfected. Poison gas called Cyclone B would be pumped into the showers. After 15-20 minutes when they were all dead, gold fillings would be removed and the bodies cremated. Twins would be kept alive for medical studies because the Germans wanted to figure out the trait to allow them to double the German population. The Germans destroyed the 2 gas chambers and crematoriums here to cover up evidence of the exterminations before they retreated. There are still bone fragments visible in the dirt outside the crematorium. On January 27 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army but not before about 1.3 million (mostly Jews) had been exterminated. It is hard to believe something this atrocious, this barbaric, could have occurred just 70 years ago. After our visit to the concentration/extermination camps we boarded a bus back to Krakow. We stopped by the train station to purchase our tickets for the next leg of our journey to Prague. They were about twice the price that I was expecting. It turns out we got booked in first class and a seat reservation charge. Oh well. We then headed back to all the action around the town square because there wasn't enough time to go back to Schindler's Factory Museum. We checked out a few different restaurants and decided on one that had a pasta dish Brenna wanted. I wanted to order Bigos, a polish stew type dish with sauerkraut, meat, smoked plums, and mushrooms. They didn't have any leftL. I had what Brenna had. It was tasty but the portions were not big. Next we walked around the square and found a spot for desert. We ordered some crazy big ice cream, whip cream, and fruit dessert and it was very good. Well that was our day. Now it is time to move on.