Several years ago, I was at a conference in Krakow. The organizers put together a couple of excursions for the participants. One was to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and one was to Auschwitz. I was with my wife and daughter who was 6 at the time, so we went to the salt mine. It was pretty spectacular, much better than in pictures, and I didn’t regret the decision. Several friends who went to Auschwitz described the experience in pretty much the same terms: they were glad that they had gone, but never wanted to go back. I recently was in Krakow again, and this time I took the drive – about an hour – out to the camp.
Officially, it is called the “Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum,” but it is also referred to as a “memorial” and this is appropriate. It is a serious place, a point stressed by the guides. It’s actually a series of camps that have been preserved – Birkenau is just over a mile away from the main camp, Auschwitz I, and busses run between then. Although part of the same memorial, there is a significant difference between them. Auschwitz I had served as a Polish army barracks before the Nazis arrived, and the buildings are relatively sturdy and well preserved. The gas chamber, which is still standing, is half underground because it was originally a munitions bunker. The first prisoners arrived in 1940, and for the first year they were primarily prisoners of war and Polish political prisoners. Many were killed, often in gruesome ways, but it was not until September, 1941, that Nazis began mass executions using the gas Zyklon B. In October, 1941, construction began on the massive Birkenau camp, and by early 1943, it served primarily as an extermination camp. In Auschwitz, the Nazis made some effort to conceal from the prisoners the mass killings, but there was no way to hide what was happening in Birkenau. As Soviet troops closed in on the camps in January, 1945, retreating Nazis destroyed the gas chambers in Birkenau. There has been some reconstruction and restoration of various buildings, but the gas chambers in Birkenau are still rubble, and all the more moving because of that. All told, probably around 1.1 million people were killed in the camps.
The English-speaking guide I was with was excellent. She was very knowledgeable, and even though she has undoubtedly repeated the same points over and over again, she conveyed a seriousness of purpose and tried hard to get us to think about what it would be like to experience the place from the point of view of the prisoners. When I asked her questions that pushed her off script – how certain photographs were recovered, for example – she usually knew the answers. She told me that she had been giving tours for about 6 years, and I asked what she knew about the place before she started working there. She knew all about it, she said, because Oświęcim is her hometown. (Auschwitz is the German name for the town.) But she also thought that schools are doing a better job than they have in the past at educating students about the Holocaust. In answering another question, she mentioned that they occasionally get a Holocaust denier taking the tour. Her approach is simply to let them have their say, and then to move on making her points. In that context, at least, this seems like a wise strategy, although Holocaust denial is apparently a crime in Poland. She – and the entire arrangement – was very good on the who, what, where, and how, but only in retrospect did I realize how little there was about the why. I don’t know what they could do to enter more fully into such controversial territory – or, more importantly, if they should do anything at all.
It’s very powerful and emotional to be told, “this is the building where…” or “this is the cell where…” One of the more amazing things to me was that the whole complex had been preserved at all. Part of the immediate reason for preservation, no doubt, was to preserve evidence for criminal proceedings. But it was former prisoners who led the effort to create a memorial. They received official authorization to do so in February, 1946, and, although there had been many visitors before, the official opening ceremony took place in June, 1947. I just have to believe that most people were simply trying to put together some semblance of a life after occupation and internment, but fortunately some were visionary enough to realize the importance of informing future generations in such a powerful way.
If you go – and you should – be prepared. Personally, I was basically in a state of low-level sobbing the entire time I was there, and several things had my stomach turning in knots. It’s not an easy place, or a place you’ll want to go back to, but it’s worth making the effort.