This post is mostly from the Journal I wrote. Again, I have indicated the one subsequent editorial thought added.
It is very hard to organize my thoughts about Auschwitz. It was not as emotionally potent as the Jewish Cemetery or Museum yesterday. I am not sure why, but maybe writing about it will help.
I am writing this on the bus; we just left Auschwitz II, or Birkeneow. Auschwitz was built in two parts, about a kilometer apart. The first part was designed for Polish political prisoners and then for Russian POW's. This was before the Final Solution and the Wanasee conference (if this is new to you, there was a good, and fairly accurate, as far as we know, film with Kenneth Branagh). When the Nazis decided to start killing all the Jews, Auschwitz I was not sufficiently efficient. While the place to gas the Jews was large enough, the crematorium could not keep up with the rate that Jews were arriving. So, they built Auschwitz II, Birkenau, to hold another 100K Russian POWS (that never got there), but mostly to process the Jews.
When we arrived at Auschwitz I, it could have been a zoo, or a park. There were large groups of people milling around outside, kids running and teenagers goofing off the way they do. There was a bookstore and a refreshment stand and sign to the WC. There was a large parking lot with lots of buses and some cars. Guides waving signs in different languages. That there were huge hordes of people looking bored, chatting, etc, throughout our 2 hour tour, many groups, people latching onto our group, children running around, made it feel like just another tourist attraction. It wasn't offputting, but it was not an atmosphere of seriousness. It was not a place that said: People were killed here. Lots of People.
The exhibits themselves were more simple than the previous museums. No electronics, no interactions. Having a guide gave good context to the information, and she did not overwhelm us with detail, although parts of the detail were moving. Our guide was a very serious woman, Polish, about 30, who was getting a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Anushka felt very strongly about Auschwitz, and expressed views several times. I gather expressing views is not something guides are encouraged to do, but she had views.
The two most important things that Anushka said were first: the ones who survived were not lucky. They survived because the war ended and the Nazis were defeated. The second was that the purpose and the importance and the reason for Auschwitz is to honor the dead. Nothing more.
I had a short discussion about this with a couple who were lawyers who did various public law things in their careers (they seem to be about late-70s now). They are clearly activist types and did a lot of civil rights work in the US. He said that he wanted to see more about this not happening again, and more about how this is happening now to other people. That if Auschwitz is just about killing Jews (which its not, but 90% of those who died were Jewish), it means nothing. This was not the view of our guide (who was not Jewish. There are very few Jews in Poland these days). I did not know what to say. The numbness of it all had invaded my bones.
But back to Auschwitz. Auschwitz I was a museum, but it was not a museum that spoke to me. Was it just too fast, too crowded? I tend to prefer lowtech museums, such as this, with lots to read. But we did not have enough time to read everything, though Anuschka's explanations were good, and challenging, and more than a surface reading. But Auschwitz I was also manicured. There were lots of trees (mostly young, mostly looking like they had been planted and landscape designed in the last 20 years). Most the exhibits felt like they were under glass, and cleaned up for viewing. (Note: I tried to capture this in the picture at right. The reflection was on purpose).
One part that was strong were the exhibits of the goods of the Jews that had been confiscated. 20 meters long of shelves of shoes. Shelves of pots and pans, of combs and brushes. Suitcases with peoples names and addresses on them. The room of hair was the worst. The window display case of ZylonB containers was powerful. I have pictures of all, but the hair. They do not permit pictures of the rooms and rooms of hair. These were awful, but I did not cry. We went from building to building. They were barracks built by the Polish Army. The Nazis did not design this, not the crematorium/gas chambers which were the old munitions depo for the Polish Army. Even the rooms with the three-tiered bunks for prisoners seemed to be under glass.
The only thing that was jarring to me, over and over, were the roads and paths. They were not repaired. They were not paved, or asphalted. They were broken stones. They were muddy. They were easy to imagine being in a death camp. The worn out stairs in the buildings, some kind of stone, with worn out depressions in the middle seemed more real to me in some ways than the black and white pictures. It was cold when we walked, and grey.
Auschwitz II was build to Nazi specifications for the Final Solution. It is series of buildings in rows, buildings that seem more like what we expect from movies. Many are gone, because they were wood, and in Communist Poland, there was no money for preservation. The Nazis blew up all the gas chambers here, Canada II, the name for the warehouse of Jewish belongings, the crematoria (there were four of them), and destroyed as much evidence as they could. But there are railroad tracks. What seems like miles of railroad tracks.
Auschwitz I is a museum,; Auschwitz II is a memorial. But I still did not feel the women who walked those paths. I did not hear their stories, see their life. I did not feel them.
At home, now, it seems I was not ready for Auschwitz.
Tomorrow we will tour Krakow, but on Sunday we will go to the Schindler factory, which is now a museum about Krakow under the Nazis.