In The Bleak (Mid)Winter

I’m not really feeling today’s BEDM topic either, so I thought I would write about my trip to Poland in February, as I’ve yet to do so.  If you’re feeling a bit depressed, this post will not cheer you up in any way, shape or form, be warned.

For a long time now, I’ve felt like I should go to Poland and visit Auschwitz. I’ve read a lot of things about the Second World War and the Holocaust and wrote a whole project on the suffering of the Jews at that time at school (for which I got a B. I was gutted, but Miss Barker, my Religious Studies Standard Grade teacher thought I should have written about something less brutal. I never liked her) and found it morbidly interesting. Imagine my surprise when I managed to rope in 3 friends to come with me!

So on a bitterly cold morning in February, I found myself at Edinburgh airport, taking off for Krakow. A cheery man met us at the airport, holding this sign with a vague approximation of my friend’s name on it.

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We didn’t speak much Polish and he didn’t speak much English but with a lot of smiling and gesturing, he whisked us off to our hotel for about a fiver each – bargain. Our hotel was actually an apartment in a pretty good location near to everything Krakow had to offer.

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There’s Nat and Corrin gazing at Jo in amazement as she managed to book somewhere really awesome for much cheapness. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the town, having a whistle-stop buggy tour of some of the main sights, including the Jewish Quarter and then eating at a really awful Italian restaurant. At least we had pierogi for lunch.

Next day though, was our main reason for being there – our visit to Auschwitz. We got up early to meet our tour guide who picked us up from the apartment and drove us there. It took about an hour and on the minibus, they showed us a video with some background information on the camp and the circumstances which lead to it being there. I have to say, as horrifyingly interesting as it was, I found it super-distracting. The video was in English, with English subtitles throughout and as a professional subtitler, I find it very difficult to switch off from things like line breaks and grammar. Maybe that was a good thing, as it probably insulated me somewhat from some of the gruesome images.

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So, what was it like to step through the gates into what was certainly hell for so many people? Bleak, that’s what. Despite there being a fair few people around, it felt lonely and desolate and with the snow falling around us and a cold wind whistling round, it was easy to imagine the ghosts of prisoners past watching us from behind the windows of the buildings.

I had expected to feel a real sense of dread going in, but I didn’t. I guess that is what it was like for the people arriving there, and it’s something our guide said several times – when people arrived, they had their belongings and their families with them and most of all, they had hope. They had no idea what awaited them. Even when they stepped inside the gas chamber, they still had hope – they thought they were taking a shower, after all.  That thought was hard to shake off.

One thing that almost impressed me was the efficiency of it all – buildings with specific purposes, laid out in a logical way. The planning of this place is incredible, in the true sense of the word. The people who masterminded this must have been a race apart, unable to imagine the suffering they would be enabling. We were taken round the blocks where the inmates were registered, stripped, shaved and parted with their belongings. Portraits of inmates with their arrival dates and “dispatch” dates lined some of the corridors and looking at them closely, some of them arrived and were killed just days apart. Maybe even just hours.

The guide was very sombre and I had to think what his life must be like – every day coming to this camp and telling people the horrific story of what they see, over and over again. I wondered how he cut loose and relaxed, if he was a heavy drinker, did he talk about it to his family? I wanted to ask him but I wasn’t sure he’d understand me or maybe he wouldn’t want to talk about it. We saw the underground standing cells where 4 people would stand for days at a time, in the dark, in a tiny cell the same size as a telephone box as punishment. We saw the razor-wire fences, the checkpoints, the look-out towers and the courtyard where people were shot by firing squads. All the while, the snow kept falling, which seemed fitting.

We saw the swimming pool complete with diving board that was actually a reservoir for putting out fires, though this is hotly debated by Holocaust deniers, apparently. I wonder how many of them have been to Auschwitz? We also saw the medical block and massive piles of shoes, combs, pots and pans… After a while, a feeling of despondency crept in.

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The piece de resistance was a walk down a tree-lined path, past the camp commander’s house. We didn’t know where we were going and the guide didn’t tell us until we were almost inside – we were going to the gas chamber. Originally, before Birkenau was built up the road, people were gassed in Auschwitz and the gas chamber is still standing. We filed inside and hurried back out, as we made our way through the chamber and then through the crematorium next door, with grooves in the floor for rolling cart-loads of bodies through. At this point, I felt angry, mostly because of the tourists taking photos inside the gas chamber – why on earth would anyone want to do anything so disrespectful to the memory of the people who perished there? We arrived back outside, just a few minutes later, blinking in the daylight and a bit shell-shocked from what we had just experienced.

We didn’t have too long to ponder it, as were whisked straight up the road to Birkenau, to see what remains of the bigger of the camps. The vastness of it was really hard to comprehend. We walked across the camp, still with the snow falling, and passed a Jewish memorial procession of some sort, coming from the site of the crematoria back to the gates. We walked all round the site and though there is not a great deal to see, as the buildings were largely blown up when the Nazis knew the game was up, the atmosphere of foreboding still pervades. We saw inside a replica hut where people would have been kept and it was really grim. REALLY GRIM.

By the end, we were pretty much destroyed with the emotion of it all, and it was a relief to return to Krakow and real life. It’s really stuck with me though and I have found myself in recent months thinking of it and thinking myself lucky to be in my position and not theirs. I guess such a profound experience will stick with me forever and I’d like to think I won’t forget it in a hurry. Really, I think it would be great if everyone could experience it and understand what happened a bit better.

After that, I thought it might be hard to enjoy the rest of the day, but we gave it a good try and I suppose we were just feeling thankful and that we should be making the most of our lives and our time there. We saw some more of Krakow and ate a delicious dinner in a really odd restaurant themed like a medieval hunting lodge, complete with feather-capped waiters blowing horns. We drank some tasty bison grass vodka with apple juice and then wandered back to our hotel in the snow.

Next day, before we left for the airport, we had time to squeeze in a trip to the Oskar Schindler museum, he of the List. It was a crazy-nuts place, laid out in a haphazard fashion but really interesting, more of an in-depth tale of Krakow in general during the War, than solely about him. I’d recommend it if you are ever in Krakow.

And then, we went home.

Told you it wasn’t a cheery read. But I hope it maybe inspires even one person to go there and see for themselves what it is like. Grim, bleak, but in a way, slightly hopeful that because the story of what happened there is kept alive, something like that may never happen again in our lifetime.

I’m blogging every day in May as part of BEDM. Find out more here.

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One thought on “In The Bleak (Mid)Winter

  1. That is very very awesome that you went there. I’ve said for a while that I would like to go and see Auschwitz – like you said, people look at you like you are a bit mad.

    I’ve just finished reading HHhH which is about the assassination attempt on Heydrich but there is lots of detail and background about Heydrich and that dude was sinister. It’s the numbers of people that were killed that I always find it difficult to get my head round.

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