These birds greeted us as we arrived at Oświęcim to see the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum. I couldn't identify the species of bird, although they seemed vaguely pigeon-like. We had a quick bite to eat on the benches outside the museum, waving away bees, before we embarked on the four hour tour of the camps.
|Cannisters of Zyklon B at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum|
I knew that visiting the memorial would be hard. No matter how much research I have done and how much I already know about the Holocaust and Auschwitz-Birkenau, actually being in the camps still evoked strong feelings. But in a way, I welcomed it -- I never want to be unmoved by the evil represented by these camps.
|Display of prosthetic limbs and crutches|
The sheer enormity of the Holocaust makes it hard to really grasp. So many people were killed that it can become almost abstract. But a broken child's doll, a mountain of shoes, or piles of prosthetics bring the human toll into clarity again. Each one of these was taken from someone who then died -- most were killed outright after the sorting, although some might have died through rampant illness, starvation, or exposure that claimed the lives of so many in the camps.
|The barbed wire fences at Auschwitz|
There were so many ways in which the camps were created to cause suffering. I knew about the deaths and the gas chambers, but I didn't know about the prison within the camp, where prisoners might be tortured, starved to death, hung by their arms for hours or days, or forced to stand in quarters too small to move or sit ("standing cells"). I knew about Mengele's "experiments", but not about the efforts to perfect sterilization techniques on (non-Jewish) women in the camps, many of whom died from the surgery. I knew about the starvation, but not the rampant disease that resulted from overcrowding and inadequate sanitation. There were so many ways in which people in the camps were made to suffer.
|Suitcases from those brought to the camps, carefully labeled with names and addresses|
Our tour guide emphasized the extensive deception used by the Nazis to hide the realities of the camps. People brought to the camp were given "tickets" and were told to write their name on their suitcases so that they could get them back later. (In point of fact, these material goods went to warehouses nicknamed "Canada" by those in the camps, where all items of value or potential use were appropriated by the Nazis.) Many of those arriving at the camp believed it would be an improvement over the terrible conditions in the ghettos; few knew of the existence of the gas chambers.
|One of original trains that brought people to Birkenau from all over Europe|
|The memorial at Birkenau (the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum).|
|Sunset over the Birkenau camp|
I am not even going to try to share all that we learned on the tour and I can't fully express the depth of feeling it evoked. If you want to learn more about the history of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the PBS documentary series "Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State" provides a detailed (and chilling) history of the camps. Our tour guide also recommended the film "The Grey Zone" (I haven't seen it).
|The Ambasada Śledzia (Krakow, Poland)|
The Ambasada Śledzia is apparently the "Herring Embassy" -- hence, the herring poster pictured below.
|Ambasada Śledzia (Krakow, Poland)|
Next up: Wawel Hill and the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz