Up before dawn half asleep. A wait for a taxi at the hotel entrance.
There it is! We’re off! But in the taxi it’s “Oh no I’ve forgotten my bag!” from Jocelyn who dashes back into the hotel. The taxi driver insists on driving off anyway! Then I realise that he simply can’t stay parked there and is only driving round the block, which takes time for it’s a tortuous ‘block,’ so I hope Jocelyn can cotton on to why we’ve deserted her, or just stay put for long enough!
She has. We pick her up on completing the circuit. Still got to make the station though.
When we get there we’re handed over to a man and a middle aged woman with Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science towering over us like some colossal stark icon of the cold war. Another link in the chain of this adventure.
The man makes sure we get on the right train and the woman is travelling with us. Somebody will pick us up down the line in Krakow. It all feels like a spy thriller film involving a series of obscure clandestine contacts. Whatever I’ve missed out on in my life it’s not adventure!
The woman wryly admits to being not only American but also “in real estate.” I wonder about Jocelyn who if anything is even more anti property than I am, which is saying something! Things remain not only civilised but cordial enough. After awhile we start to explore the train.
So how come I’m speeding back down the track I came up to Warsaw yesterday on, at an hour that’s uncivilised enough to try a few Nikon shots of a dawn mysterious with mist coming up over the forests and fields of Poland?
When my sister learned of my Chernobyl adventure she – among a good few others – thought I was mad and morosely added “I suppose you’ll be going to Auschwitz next.”
“Oh no not a chance of that.” was my flippant dismissal, being sure I wouldn’t; but if it’s possible to make a joke involving such a subject that had to be it for it turned out that Jocelyn wanted to go to none other than Auschwitz of all places! That was where we were headed. I just have this knack of confirming my sister’s worst suspicions.
I had mixed feelings about Auschwitz. It was outside my normal sphere of operations which involved adventures in the world’s wild or scenic places or long walks or science fiction conventions. There were exceptions like military history and Chernobyl thrown in; but I have an inexplicable fascination with military history and Chernobyl was linked to science fiction anyway. Auschwitz though involved depths of gruesomeness and morbidity I wasn’t sure I could cope with, understand properly or write about well enough.
It was undeniable though that Jocelyn had been good company and a great help on both trips to Poland and Ukraine, handling the hotels among other things. There should be some give and take with any successful friendship or partnership so this was clearly a time for Jocelyn to call in her favours, or some of them. Besides, it was all part of ‘life’s rich tapestry’ and I’d already made a point of making my life some tapestry! There was no escape.
So I’d started to plan by looking at the map. Auschwitz was a lot further from Warsaw than Chernobyl was from Kiev, being down near the southern border in an area crawling with railway lines. It was going to be a long day going there and getting back to Warsaw.
I’d consulted a Jewish friend of ours – Ric – who’d actually had relatives at Auschwitz. The railway lines were why it was there he told me. It was basically an industrial region so it was easy to transport people there from all points of the compass. He approved of us going. It was the centre of an evil scheme involving his people that shouldn’t be forgotten so the more people who went there the better. That struck a chord with me for there was a book I’d read dealing with the subject of evil. A good way to fight it was to record it and report it; which was more or less what we were talking about.
Another thing he said stuck in my mind. He compared the Brady/Hindley child murders to Auschwitz as a ‘Cheddar Gorge’ to a ‘Grand Canyon of evil.’ Although this was questionable in that what Brady and Hindley did was dreadful Ric was talking about the scale of the crimes in terms of numbers: vast numbers of people had been involved in what had happened at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. I chose his phrase for the title here.
So now here we were on our way back across Poland to the Grand Canyon of evil. There was still that spy thriller feeling because the train we were on had that old world charm of seperate compartments with well upholstered seats connected by a narrow corridor running down one side of the carriage.
Breakfast had style too. The design of the service area was more or less the same as British trains but the food was prepared more carefully, was more varied and the guy who prepared it even wore a chefs uniform. This used to be more like how it was in Britain in the 50’s maybe, but not bothered with on railways there now. I was becoming impressed with Polish railways.
Krakow. Immediately we’re picked up on the platform, driven through glimpses of a more historical looking city than Warsaw to a rendevous point where a minibus taking us and others to Auschwitz is waiting.
Outside Krakow I get this disjointed feeling as we’re driven along tree lined country roads while an onboard television lectures us with a monologue and images of Auschwitz. Outside our vehicle the weather is perversely pleasant with light cloud and even sunshine as opposed to the gloom I went through in the Alps, which would have been far more appropriate for this journey. The weather compliments the area which again is pleasant: gently rolling fields of – I think – maize, small woods and a hint of bigger hills on the horizon.
We reached the small Polish town of Oświęcim. A nice enough place. One establishment had made a feature out of the tyres they were selling. Oświęcim was renamed Auschwitz by the Nazis. We reached our destination, arriving at an old barracks complex.
This was the Auschwitz concentration camp, or part of it. Again I had that disjointed feeling. The buildings looked solid, regimented and grim enough but there were crowds of relaxed tourists amidst green trees and grass, casually being assigned guides and even offered food. There was a cafeteria here which didn’t feel right. It’s not that one could reasonably expect to be shouted at and marched around the holocaust but this wasn’t a place I would associate with a meal.
Where was that sign to convince me I was here? ‘Arbeit Macht Frei.’ That German ‘work makes you free’ was there above the entrance in metal letters if one looked for it. It might have some truth elsewhere but in a place like this it was a cynical lie of a philosophy, unless death was freedom.
Our guide was the most reliable link. A blonde Polish lady who would have been attractive but for a pinched look to her face. Her voice was what was memorable: one might call it commanding and Jocelyn ragged me about her making a good ‘dominatrix.’ Well perhaps, but that was far from being the whole story here. No, it was the rythmic hypnotic quality of the tone of this lady’s voice. If there’s an afterlife I might expect to meet an angel of judgement like her there decreeing in that voice whether one was destined to scrape into Heaven or a circle of Hell. That was the best way I could put it. She was a teacher and I think she was a good one.
I suspected this barracks wasn’t all there was to Auschwitz and that there was another bigger camp somewhere. She said there were 3: the one we were at. Auschwitz-Birkenau which was the other one I thought existed, and IG Farben.
Our guide probably stressed the existence of this 3rd Auschwitz because the local Poles were forced to build this IG Farben industrial complex. Google Maps shows it as being massive: 2 miles across!
IG Farben was a German chemical industry conglomerate – once the largest chemical company in the world – that played a key role here. It chose a site on the other side of Oświęcim – I dimly remembered an industrial complex coming in – because of tax incentives after the invasion of Poland, good rail communications and cheap labor.
The ‘cheap labor’ organised by IG Farben involved thousands of concentration camp prisoners, many walking 4 to 5 miles there and the same back. Others were actually held at a camp called ‘Monowitz-Buna’ or ‘Auschwitz III.’ One estimate of the total numbers of Auschwitz inmates working at IG Farben is 35,000. Most died because of the conditions they had to live in, walking there and back day in day out, or the workload; though apparently the excessive workload organised by IG Farben is what killed most of them!
Thousands of deaths was actually small beer in the general scheme of things at Auschwitz. IG Farben’s main claim to evil infamy was not merely manufacturing synthetic rubber for the German war effort – which probably was a reason for the existence of the tyre establishment I’d seen nearby – but the infamous Zyklon B: the pesticide that exterminated so many victims in the gas chambers at Auschwitz; let alone the other camps. The cruel irony here is that prisoners at IG Farben were working on this poison that was killing them.
After the war IG Farben was justly reviled, tried at Nuremberg and kept in being only to earn compensation for its victims. 13 IG Farben directors were sentenced to – in my view – lenient terms of 1 to 8 years. Even then some went on to become leaders of post war companies.
Our guide led us round the barracks. The ghoulish aspect of walking round a place like this was obvious and I was determined not to take tourist type photos. My solution was to doctor each one I did take here with Adobe Photoshop in an attempt to convey something of the sinister infernal horror of the place.
Past the barbed wire fences that had been electrified. Past interior displays involving photographs of inmates. Many of them women. Jocelyn thought some of them were attractive: a miracle given their situation.
Past photos of the selection process the Jews were put through on arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Dr. Mengele was there. ‘The Angel of Death.’ A slight, almost boyish figure in uniform, looking cheerful. This was a character notorious for his experiments on children. Talk about child abuse with a difference! And he was never actually brought to justice for his crimes, inexplicably telling his son after the war in South America that “he had never personally harmed anyone in his whole life” before finally dying on a Brazilian beach.
Past sections of large rooms walled off by glass, almost like a larger version of those secure glass fronted enclosures in a reptile house inhabited by pythons and alligators. Only here it was exhibits. Anything from artificial limbs to suitcases and other hand luggage. One could see the names of the people involved on this luggage. Many looked Jewish and by far the majority of them were. They were told these items would be sent on to them. A lie involving a whole race.
It got to me when a crowd of us were shuffling past the shoes. I felt claustrophobic and didn’t realise there were shoes and other footwear on my left behind the glass initially. It looked like a dark brown landscape in there before it became clear it was made up of mounds of shoes: a bizarrely creative landscape of Hell. I began to feel overwhelmed and trapped.
Ric had already been here when the Russians were in control, when it retained much of its earlier grimness. He told me he’d felt overwhelmed when he realised the belongings on display – representing the many who were murdered – were only a tiny fraction of what passed through here: a tiny representation of the true scale of state induced murder. It’s difficult to come to an accurate figure but according to the information here roughly 1,100,000 people died here, 90% of which were Jews. Other groups of fatalities in descending order of size were Poles, gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, then other prisoners.
Christ there was a kid in here! What the Hell was the mother thinking of? She was carrying a little girl who was protesting and had a small son in tow too, who was quiet and glum. Most likely the infant girl felt frustrated at being carried at snails pace through here, without realising what this place was about and wasn’t prepared to be quiet about it; but I wouldn’t rule out her sensing more. Children were murdered en masse here too. She was giving her mother a lot of stick, entirely justifiably in my opinion.
Another child was to figure in what the guide told us after we’d visited a barrack block that was a prison within a prison for those violating the numerous rules and those hauled in from the local neighbourhood. This included cells so constricted that inmates could only stand up in them.
Outside was an ominous grey wall with stakes. Where prisoners were shot. Our guide gave us 2 examples at opposite ends of the scale. There was a priest of high principles who’d spoken out against this evil regardless of how futile it seemed or how dangerous it was to do this. If one had the mindset of the SS the only way to stop someone like that was to shoot them. On the other hand there was a 9 year old boy who threw an apple at prisoners in an attempt to feed them on the march to or from IG Farben. He was also shot for this act!
At least it was portrayed as a charitable act but I’m not sure it was even that. An apple is a very handy thing for a boy to bung in a spirit of mischievousness, knowing that it’s pretty unlikely to cause injury but hard enough for the target to know all about it if it hits them. The sort of thing that would have earned him a clip round the ear when I was a boy or a disagreeable lecture now; not a bullet. Either way the mentality of those who shot him seems beyond comprehension.
Finally there was a gas chamber. Bunker like. Built that way to retain and build body heat from those who were packed in there. That would help to vaporise the Zyklon B into a poison gas.
The SS lived nearby in homes they’d chucked the local Poles out of. Some of these were near idyllic despite what was down the road. One of the most astronomically vacuous comments of all time was uttered by the wife of an SS officer: her sentiment being why bother with Heaven when it’s here at Auschwitz?
None but the terminally stupid or insane could fail to suspect that what was here was not Heaven but an attempt to create it’s opposite. This became more apparent at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was set up at the end of 1941 to ease overcrowding at Auschwitz I; destroying most of a Polish village named after a birch tree in the process. ‘Birkenau’ is German for birch tree. It was converted for extermination big time in early 1943.
We were taken to the main gate: that long building with a central watchtower under which was an arch over a railway line, going straight through the building in fact. Many must have seen it on documentaries as I had. Also in a war film and even as the entrance to a city in Dantes Inferno on one occasion. In the film and the Inferno a searchlight on top of the tower was swept to and fro. Ignoring the weather which remained pleasant I’ve tried to simulate this with Adobe Photoshop.
I had thought that the Jews were unloaded from the cattle trucks outside the main gate but in actual fact the trains simply rolled along the single track through the arch into the middle of the camp where the railway split into several tracks. The unloading and selection process took place there.
The railway inside the camp was a kilometre long I was told, but Google Earth shows it as being more like 3/4s. The camp was more than a kilometre across the other way and there was an extension to that under construction later. This was where the scale of what’s called the Holocaust became more apparent. Auschwitz Birkenau was bordered by trees which weren’t absent in the 40’s but the present ones – still distant – would have been small or non existent then; if the woods invading Pripyat near Chernobyl were anything to go by. Somehow I doubt there was as much grass too, which grew here plentifully now. Add to that the views of regimented blocks of single story huts everywhere and it would have been easy to feel that this dismal vista had taken over infinity. In other words: a man made circle of Hell.
It might as well have stretched to infinity as far as the prisoners were concerned. Those that weren’t sent to the gas chambers were crammed into what were more like deep shelves rather than bunks in those blocks. At least the ones that were brick built rather than wooden. When one turned over asleep or otherwise everyone else had to. It was also a race to get to the top communal bunk after enduring evening roll call, or at least the middle rather than the bottom; because sanitary facilities were non existent in the blocks and communal toilets were only available at set times under supervision. The further down one was the more crap one had to cope with. Literally.
That and there being no clean water for 2 years meant that just existing there made one a candidate for disease.
There was also winter. Despite there being chimney flues in each block there was no fuel for heating and most of the blocks were wooden, which provided little protection from the intense cold. It was summer now and I felt guilty feeling comfortable in a place like this.
The brick blocks were on one side of the railway; mostly they’d housed female prisoners. Most of the camp where the wooden dwellings were was on the other side. There were built that way because the Nazis realised it was cheaper. All the wood was now gone. What remained were the foundations and the flues; which stuck up everywhere like a huge field of outsized tombstones, a sinister mute message about everyone who had died here.
Then there were the gas chambers and the crematoria. Destroyed by the SS before Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians. Their ruins looked like Hell had regurgitated some of its contents here. This was where many of the women and children were sent and where the Sonderkommandos did most of their work. Our guide remarked that the killing was the easy part. Disposal of bodies on the scale of thousands was a much harder task. The crematoria worked around the clock at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The ‘Sonderkommando’ was the ‘special unit’ recruited from Jews. Most of their work involved the appalling task of body disposal at the crematoria. They had a special barracks and were more able to obtain food and clothing. Not that it did them much good, for every 4 months or so the Nazis disposed and replaced them.
One other class of ‘worker’ was favoured in the camp. We could still see that just inside the entrances to the brick built blocks was a small room. These were better lodgings for ‘kapos:’ the head of each block who held absolute power here and received better rations.
There was a memorial near the ruins. The sentiment I remember here is that of utter loss of hope. One reason why it should never happen again.
The question is of course why did it happen? ‘We all have our dark side.’ One can feel hatred with some cause or on the other hand, unreason. I hated a major American transport company not only for having a luggage policy that was a thieves charter but for employing every piece of company crap and obfuscation in thwarting my efforts to retrieve my lost/stolen suitcase. So I did want to – like the Germans – send those responsible on a long journey without their luggage: before explaining at the other end why it might not be returned to them and ensuring that they understood why; but I wouldn’t transport them in cattle trucks and though bereft of belongings they would still be free afterwards.
Here though the most worthy candidates for an Auschwitz type fate – apart from the Nazi party – were perhaps the business leaders of IG Farben. Subject them to grueling hikes and crushing workloads after sleeping in their own shit; not until they died – which would be revenge – but until they were hospitalised. By then they might understand the error of their ways. IG Farben was to me a clue to the kind of evil at work here: its extreme industrial nature.
There have been unholy marriages of government policy and religion such as the Spanish Inquisition and idealism such as communism under Stalins regime: wiping out vast numbers of people in remote Siberian Gulags. Not as easy to inspect as camps in the middle of Europe.
Stalin’s regime had been ‘an equal opportunities exterminator’ Ric had said with some accuracy. Here though was a marriage of industry to government policy normally limited to the mentality of serial killers: the resentment and anger of a nation funneled and dedicated to a terrible degree into the scapegoating and wiping out of an entire people: the Jews. Not only was IG Farben involved to the hilt but once wedded to government policy the genocide was carried out with commercial calculation taken to the extremes of nightmare. There has been state induced mass murder in Rwanda and Cambodia but here it was run on an industrial scale. The result was so many disappearing at Auschwitz that it seemed more a black hole of evil than a Grand Canyon.
Walking back parallel to the railway line I saw a small group of people with the blue star Israeli flags. Jewish pilgrimage I guess. The photo of them I took was the only photo of Auschwitz I took that I didn’t alter with Adobe Photoshop. I found out later from Ric that what I’d witnessed was ‘The March of the Living:’ very much a part of Israeli education. In his words; ‘a physical hammering home of the phrase ‘Never Again!”
There were tourists wandering around like ants compared to the scale of things here. One of these was a Japanese girl who wanted me to take her photo. The kind of photo I wanted to avoid but if she wanted that I was happy to oblige. We got chatting and she laughed when I remarked that “next week I’ll be back at school with all the other kiddies.” For me it was surreal saying that in a place that so many had no hope of escaping from. Maybe I was saying that to reassure myself that I could just walk out of here and be back in my normal existence soon.
Our Polish guide wound things up and asked me how I’d found it?
“Harrowing.” was my reply. “I was in some personal danger at Chernobyl but this to me was more challenging.”
“You should have been here when there was snow on the ground.” Just like it was at Chernobyl. She would have preferred that and felt that summer had taken some of the edge off this place.
“Yes. And you were here to welcome us instead of SS guards.”
That really got through to her and to my surprise this somewhat forbidding lady became physical, chuckling and clasping me on the arm in affection.
It was a good way to end a venture I was relieved to be at the end of. Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it but I felt there was a danger – like my sister did – in the other extreme: getting sucked into the morbid depths of of something like this. Best strike a balance between not letting it affect the happiness one could find in life and remembering enough to be wary if one came across signs of anything like it emerging in future.
© D. Angus 02 14.