Friday, June 17, 2011


We had to race out of here to get to the bus station. I hoped to find a closer stop to our hotel, but it wasn't across the street from the one we got off at. We had to walk quickly to the other stop. When the tram let us off at the train station, we had less than 10 minutes to get to the bus. That meant racing through the mall, down to the tunnel, past all the train platforms, up the other end, and then down stairs to the lower level of the bus terminal, where our bus was waiting at the opposite end. By the time we reached it, we were drenched in sweat (as it was already quite warm and humid). Luckily there were still 5 empty seats. I paid for our tickets and the driver closed the door and took off.

The bus (really a short bus or large van), took us through the quiet, rural backroads of Poland. I've always thought the Polish countryside is one of the most beautiful features of Poland. After an hour and a half we reached the Auschwitz museum.

I went in and bought us a guided tour, and then hurried the students into the English language film that had just started. The guided tour of Auschwitz I took two hours. The first barrack block covered the extermination process, the second block had the items plundered from victims, such as tons of human hair, suitcases, clothing, children's shoes, tooth brushes, glasses, etc.

The third block covered the daily life of prisoners selected for extermination through labor. Here there is a stronger emphasis on Poles in Auschwitz, since most Jews arriving in camp were gassed immediately on arrival. The camp was originally created for Polish political prisoners in 1940 and only expanded to include extermination facilities in 1942.

The next part of the tour was the punishment block, block 11. This was a prison (really a torture chamber) for prisoners who violated camp rules. As always I skip this one. The space is very narrow and very crowded. I waited outside until everyone came out and then I rejoined the tour. From there we walked to an appelplatz. While the guide was discussing public executions, a synagogue group next to us started singing "oseh shalom." It felt somewhat odd to hear a carefully arranged choir, with harmonies, singing this there.

The last stop in the camp was what in camp slang was known as "the little white house." This was the original gas chamber and crematorium for Auschwitz I. In December 1944, it wasn't blown up by the SS like the ones in Birkenau, but converted to a bomb shelter. As a result, it survived intact.

Instead of joining the tour to Birkenau, we broke away from the group. It was 12:30 pm, and I wanted us to get lunch first. There is a cafeteria next to the parking lot, but I warned the students not to get their hopes up; no one goes to Auschwitz for the food. I went with my default choice in situations like this: chicken schnitzel with cole slaw. One student has brought a seemingly endless supply of granola bars to sustain her rather than have to eat in dodgy establishments.

After lunch, we went back into Auschwitz I. In addition to the main overview barracks, there are individual "pavillions" created by various nations describing what happened to their citizens in Auschwitz. We started with the Roma pavillion. Right off the bat, the students noted several differences with the Tarnow museum. First off, it doesn't open with photos of gypsy women begging, but of middle class Roma. It also makes it clear how offensive the term "gypsy" is. The pavillion traces out the persecution of Roma and Sinti in Europe, culminating in their ghettoization, deportation to death camps, and their extermination. On the walls in one section, they have all the names of Roma deported to Birkenau to the so-called "gypsy camp." They have a small darkened room for contemplation. An eternal candle burns faintly in a black square on the floor, while images of Roma children are displayed, and a mournful Roma melody is heard.

Next, we went to the Hungarian pavillion. Called "Citizens Betrayed," it chronicles the combined guilt of the Hungarian political elite, Hungarian society, and the Nazis in the murder of the Jews of Hungary. It's really an early version of the Hungarian Holocaust Museum in Budapest. In the late 1990s, the Viktor Orban government proposed changing the pavillion in order to white wash the role of Admiral Horthy, but public outcry blocked it. To see what he intended, you can go to the "House of Terror" museum in Budapest, which engages in Holocaust minimalization. Now that Orban is again leading the Hungarian government, with the neo-Nazi Jobbik party the third largest in Hungary, I wanted the students to see it before he gets a chance to fiddle with it again.

The final pavillion was the Jewish pavillion. Originally opened in 1967, this was a very problematic place. Since the Polish communist government was ideologically anti-Zionist, no Hebrew language texts appeared in the exhibit. After the Six Day War, the pavillion was closed, only to be reopened over a decade later. When I went through in 2006, it was a mess. Yesterday we found that it is now closed while they redo the exhibit. It's about time. The only section open was the final room where you could push a button and hear a song. It was "El maleh rachamim," from the yiskor service. Sung in Ashkenazi accent, with organ and some distortion from the speakers, it was heard to make out all the words, but I translated as best I could. Despite all that I still found it more meaningful and appropriate than the Oseh shalom we heard earlier. The El maleh prayer is more a scream of pain, and reflects the feeling of horror of being in this place, while Oseh shalom feels more synagogue.

We left Auschwitz I and caught the bus to Auschwitz II - Birkenau. I led the students from the Quarantine barracks to the women's camp, telling them different stories I and heard from survivors. One story, about a boy saved on the selection ramp by a prisoner brought me to tears, and I had to pause for a while. We made our way to the ruins of Crematoria II and III and saw how 2-3,000 could be gassed in each in 30 minutes. I told the students about the gassing of the Czech family transport. In 2007, I tried to tell that story to someone and completely broke down. I guess I'm getting a little jaded, as I only had to pause for a bit to collect myself.

The Czech Jews had been in the camp 6 months by that point and were in much better condition than normal prisoners. There was an effort to organize an uprising, but the Nazis took precautions and used extraordinary force to beat them into the undressing room. Many were beaten to death in the undressing room but they refused to undress. Instead they sang the Czech national anthem and Hatikvah. One sonnderkommando who witnessed it, and survived, decided to commit suicide by joining them in the gas chamber. There a group of women told him that his death wouldn't save them, told him he had to live and tell the world of the injustice done to him, and threw him out of the gas chamber. He survived.

We went from there to the so-called "sauna," where new prisoners were inducted into the camp: their heads shaved, washed in either scalding or freezing water, and then they were given camp uniforms.

Our final stop, after seeing some of what they've found in the ruins of the Kanada barracks (where the loot of those murdered was kept) was Crematoria IV and V. There I told the students about the uprising of the sonderkommando in October 1944, who destroyed one of the crematoria, killed a few of the SS guards, and managed to escape from the camp. Unfortunately, all those who escaped were captured and killed.

It was getting late, so we went back to Auschwitz I and then went to catch the bus back to Krakow. There was a large crowd by the bus stop, and only two buses left back to Krakow. When the bus arrived, it was clear it wouldn't be large enough for all of us. Some people cried out that those with pre-paid tickets should go first. We were among the more than a dozen who couldn't get on.

I knew, however, that this bus wasn't our only choice. The private bus we took had left us off outside the camp area, so we walked to that place, where there were far fewer people waiting. To make a long story a little shorter, we all got on that bus (though one person lectured me about line jumping, since I hadn't yielded position to those who had been sitting on the bench). This bus actually got quite crowded later on as the driver continued to pick up passengers in small towns on the way back. I noticed that although the no smoking sign was posted, apparently that was only meant for the passengers since the driver puffed away.

Back in Krakow, I suggested a restaurant near the train station (it was nearly 8pm). U Babci Malina (Chez Grandma Raspberry) turned out to be a cute, kitschy, and not to expensive place. I ended up with the schnitzel again, and it was really good. The Hungarian latkes, covered in gravy, cheese, and sour cream (ordered by two students) looked like a mess, but if you like latkes, it's supposed to be good.

After that, three of the students went to the mall to shop, while I and another student visited an ATM and went back to the hotel. I went to sleep early, slept nearly 9 hours, and am now rested and mostly refreshed for today's trip to Zakopane.

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