Monday, July 02, 2007

A Difficult Day

[The new memorial plaque in Auschwitz-Birkenau]

I'd set aside today to go to Osweciem and visit Auschwitz, Birkenau, and the Osweciem Jewish Cultural Center. While having breakfast this morning, another hostel guest (an American grad student in economic theory from Berkeley named Pratesh) heard my plans and asked if he could join me. I said sure.

We took the bus, which dropped us off right in front of Auschwitz I (aka the Stammlager, or original camp). About an hour and a half by direct bus. Entrance to the camps is free, as is the shuttle bus that runs between them, but there is a charge for the film. The English-language film (excerpted from footage taken by the Soviet troops who liberated Auschwitz) is only 15 minutes long, but only screened at 11 and 1.

Afterwards we walked through the camp without a guide. Several of the barracks have been converted into a museum, which explain the extermination process, the valuables stolen from the victims, and daily life of prisoners within the camp. There wasn't a long line to the punishment block, so we went into that as well (which I skipped last year). This year I skipped the block on the martyrdom of the Jewish people, since this exhibit, prepared by the Polish communist government in 1967, is very, very problematic. I did suggest, however, visiting the Roma (Gypsy) exhibit, which is very good and effective. By the time we went into the reconstructed small gas chamber and crematorium, we'd been in the camp for over 2.5 hours.

We just missed the bus to Birkenau (which leaves hourly), so we took the opportunity to grab some food. Not much vegetarian options, by the way, though they offered the unusual vegetarian option of scrambled eggs with ham.

Birkenau is much larger, but has fewer exhibits; rather, one simply walks through the remaining structures of the camp. When we were in front of Crematorium II, I tried to describe an incident recounted by a surviving sonderkommando, but just broke down in tears and had to stop.

After that we walked to several parts of the camp I didn't get to last year because of a summer storm. In particular, I wanted to go to the "Kanada" section, where the loot stolen from the victims was stored, and the "Sauna," where new prisoners where stripped, shaved, washed, and tatooed.

As we walked back it looked like it might rain again, but it never did more than drizzle. I need to make sure I tell my students next year to bring umbrellas.

I also wanted to visit the Oswiecim Jewish Cultural Center. Oswiecim (which the Nazis renamed Auschwitz) had a large, prosperous Jewish community before the war, and there's now a museum commemorating the community. It's a small museum, but well worth visiting.

After we got back I went to the Post Office to mail two packages of books back to the States, only to face a lot of hostility from the postal staff. Two of the clerks didn't have enough stamps, the one who did was upset that I stapled the envelopes closed (as added security), saying that I was exposing them to liability suits from Americans (he painstakingly removed each staple).

I had a so-so dinner and was thinking about dessert when the sky turned very dark. I got to the bus stop before it started raining (it was actually much warmer today, the warmest day I've had in Poland). Luckily Polish storms tend to be very short and brief.

Now all I have to do is go upstairs and pack. Tomorrow I leave for Warsaw, and Wednesday I head for Berlin.

No comments: