(Should have been posted on morning of Wednesday, April 20th)
Although Auschwitz was the last camp on our tour, it was the most anticipated site before the trip. As the largest concentration/extermination camp, Auschwitz (which includes Auschwitz-Birkenau and Auschwitz-Monowitz) is the most well known around the world. Our tour of the site began at Auschwitz I, the portion of the camp that existed prior to WWII, which originally served as a military base for Polish troops. We entered a very busy building that serves as the entry way for the museum and grounds. In this building, you could hear several different languages, and according to our guide, Auschwitz is visited by people from nearly 100 different countries each year. To limit the noise throughout Auschwitz I (the museum portion today), they have begun using microphones for the guides and headphones for group members. These created a more personalized, reflective feel as our guide navigated us through the site jammed with other tours.
Our tour of Auschwitz I focused on two key themes: the extermination of the Jewish race and the other prisoners that inhabited Auschwitz I/II (Birkenau). As part of our tour, we saw amazing photos which were taken by SS men and found after Liberation. The photos showed various aspects of the process and procedure followed at Auschwitz. Additionally, the tour focused a great deal on items confiscated at arrival to the camp. These items were stored in places the inmates called “Canada” as the warehouses represented freedom and opportunity. We viewed exhibits filled with various belongings—combs, brushes, pots/pans/bowls, shoes, children’s clothes and toys, and the most disturbing of all: hair. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, hair was not shaved off upon arrival but rather after execution in the gas chambers. This method was preferred since it lessened resistance. The sheer mass and scale of the hair was unbelievable and touched many of us in a way similar to the exhibit of shoes at Majdanek.
After a short drive from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II, we toured the most well known portion of the camp. At Birkenau, thousands of European Jews arrived via railcar each day, they were sorted based on gender, and some may have had the fortune of becoming an inmate of the camp. For the others, they met a terrible fate in the gas chambers. Today, the remnants of the gas chambers reveal their true nature even though Nazis took efforts to destroy them before liberation. At the site, we were able to walk around and explore the massive size of the camp—the size is difficult to grasp without walking the grounds. The site had some unique features, and in particular the ruins of hundreds of chimneys helped reveal the true size of the camp. The chimneys today reside alongside beautiful wildflowers. In some ways this juxtaposition provides hope as it reveals beauty among ruin. The mere fact that beautiful things can exist at one of the most notorious extermination sites must provide hope for a better future. Auschwitz touched many of us differently than the previous camps. For many of us, we walked the grounds of stories we read, testimonies we heard, and movies we viewed, and tales from Auschwitz became that much more powerful.
Our day continued in Krakow as the kids met up with their Polish hosts in the afternoon. Some of the hosts had graduated earlier in the day, but their schooling is not complete as they have to sit for exams after Easter. In the evening, we all attended a concert at a large church in Krakow. Although the concert was rather long, it was beautiful to listen to traditional European instruments and arrangements in such a setting. The acoustics were also amazing!
Today is technically a free day of touring, but all of us will be making our way out of Krakow and exploring the salt mines. Students will have an opportunity to spend more time with their hosts, and we’ll all have a bit more time to shop.