Thursday, June 25, 2015


I'm not sure I want to stay in this hotel again.  It has both strong pluses and minuses that make the decision difficult.

On the plus side, I can't beat the location or the price.  We can walk to Kazimierz and we can easily get trams to wherever we want.  We're on a quiet cul-de-sac, and while we can hear trams in the distance there are no loud partiers walking by. 

On the minus side, the wifi is lousy, dropping in and out.  The rooms are clean, but the beds feel like sofas that have been covered with sheets.  The furniture is old and wooden, and while this gives the place some charm, it's not the most comfortable.

Yesterday was our second long day in Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I made the decision after the last trip's disastrously long day to split the trip to the camps in two.  On Wednesday, our schedule as as follows:

8:30 - depart hotel
9:45 - arrive Auschwitz I
10:30 - take English-language tour of the Auschwitz I main exhibition
12:15 - break way from main tour for lunch
1:30 - tour Barracks 6 (prisoner conditions in Auschwitz I)
2:15 - tour Jewish Pavilion
3:15 - tour Roma Pavilion
4:00 - depart Auschwitz I
5:15 - arrive hotel, discuss and process events of the day as a group
6:30 - break for the day

This was our Thusday schedule:

8:30 - depart hotel
9:45 - arrive Birkenau
10:00 - lead the students on a guided tour of the Ramp, Gas Chamber & Crematoria II and III, the "Kanada" section (the warehouses where all the loot taken from victims was stored), the "Sauna" (where new prisoners were shaved, tattooed, washed and registered), the barracks of the women's camp, and the quarantine barracks of the main camp. 
12:30 - lunch in a new cafeteria adjacent to the camp.
1:45 - meeting with Polish college students at the college in Oświęncim
4:30 - guided tour of the "Labyrinth" art installation created by Marian Kołodziej, who arrived in Auschwitz in 1940 on the first transport and was prisoner #432.
5:45 - depart for Krakow
7:05 - arrive at the hotel

Unlike Wednesday, on Thursday our driver would be taking us to three different locations.  Also unlike Wednesday, our driver spoke almost no English.  I brought him inside the hotel and the concierge acted as translator to explain where we were going and in what order.  Still, he got confused and went past the turn to Birkenau until I stopped him and we headed back.

We began our tour on the Ramp.  In spring 1944, prisoners built the spur rail line allowing the Nazis to deport Hungarian Jews directly into the camp (instead of having them march 1.5 kilometers from the station).  Three quarters were gassed on arrival.

I printed out a short selection from Yaffa Eliach's book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust about a 13 year-old boy whose mother pushes him away from her on arrival in Birkenau.  Forced into the men's column, when he reaches the selection point the man behind him lies and tells Mengele that the boy is actually 16, and that they are both the world's greatest mosaic artists.  Before the boy can protest, he's kicked by a kapo and sent to the "Sauna" for induction into the camp.  After he came to realize what the man had done, he searched and searched the camp afterwards to thank him for saving his life.  One day he realized he would never find the man because he was Elijah the Prophet, sent to answer his mother's prayers to save her only child's life.

It's not a story I can read out loud to the students or I will start to cry (I cried just typing the synopsis), so I had each student read just a paragraph while I cried.  Then we walked to gas chamber and crematorium II, which is a ten-minute walk from the ramp.

I explained how the undressing room, the gas chamber, and the crematorium operated, and we saw some of the ponds where ashes were dumped (most were put in a field near the camp, where archaeologists have found layers of ash many meters deep over a very wide area). 

From there we walked about 10 minutes to the "Sauna."  This rarely visited museum explains what happened to those prisoners fortunate to be selected for slave labor.  The average life span of a slave laborer in Birkenau was three months.

The exhibit ends with a memorial to Jewish families sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and uses family photos found (I believe) in the camp.  In almost all cases, virtually everyone in the family perished, so archivists use what records they can find to piece together the stories of these people.

 I could see we were starting to run late.  Even though the main tour offered by Auschwitz gives only 1 hour in Birkenau, and even though we had already spent 2 hours in the camp, we still hadn't seen the living barracks and I told our driver we would meet him by 12:30.

We hurried back to the women's camp, whose barracks were built more securely out of concrete and brick, and so have survived, while almost all the wooden barracks in the men's camp have disappeared.

In block 16a, we found a barracks where Polish children and their mothers from the Zamosc region and later Warsaw (after the failed uprising in fall 1944) were interned.  The walls still preserved some drawings for them.

From there we went to the quarantine barracks and then left the camp.

Rather than risk trying to find a place to eat in town and then miss our 2 pm meeting, I decided we should eat at the new cafeteria just opposite the entrance to Birkenau.  The food was ok, but I found out later that several students were unable to eat so close to the camp. 

Our second stop was the he Center for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim.  I had arranged for Professor Joachim Diec to bring some of his political science students to meet with my students and have a wide-ranging discussion.  This went very, very well.

While we did discuss the Holocaust somewhat, mostly we talked about American images of Poles and Poland, and Polish images of the United States and Americans.  The discussion was so good we actually went past our scheduled stopping point and I had to end it so we wouldn't miss our tour of the art installation in Harmeze at 4:30.

Several of the students thanked me for arranging this and said how much they enjoyed the chance to talk to Polish students.  I told them that I thought it was very important that we don't just travel through these countries observing people as outsiders but at least get to know a few of the communities we were visiting.

Our final stop was the "Labyrinth" art installation in the basement of St. Maximillian Kolbe Church in Harmeze, just 2 kilometers from Oświęcim.  This installation was prepared by Marian Kołodziej, who has an 18-year old was arrested by the Gestapo for trying to escape Poland to join the Polish army, and was sent to Auschwitz on the first transport of prisoners.  After being interned in the camp for many years, he was death marched to four other camps, until he was finally liberated in 1945 at Ebensee.

Our guide to the exhibit.

Marian was a trained artist and after the war he became a stage designer in Warsaw.  He married (twice) and had children but didn't talk publicly about his experiences during the war. 

His depiction of his 18 year-old self.

In 1992, he suffered as stroke that partially paralyzed him and as part of his therapy they gave him pen and paper.  He began to produce numerous drawings showing his experience in Auschwitz, including with Father Kolbe, with whom he had to stand at roll call.

The walls of the basement of the church are covered in the art he produced, much of which has a surrealistic, almost Hieronymous Bosch like appearance.

 For example, this small detail of a much larger drawing, shows his induction into the camp.  Even though he was tattooed much later (the Nazis only adopted the policy after they experienced enormous difficulties matching emaciated skeleton corpses to the mug shots), here he's shown himself being tattooed, while his head was shaved, and his civilian clothes stripped from him.

Although Marian was Catholic, many of his drawings depict the fate of Jewish victims of the camps.  Here he shows Jewish culture going up in smoke as it emerges from the chimney of the crematorium.

In many of the drawings, he shows both his prisoner self (#432) and his older self.  Here, he shows his paralyzed body (he couldn't stand and he had trouble moving his hand) being guided by his younger self.

The final drawing of the series shows his adult self carrying his prisoner self and the concrete pillar of Auschwitz over the barbed wire and out of the camp.  Note that the concrete is actually composed of human bodies.

As we left the installation, we were handed a piece of paper with the translation of the exit text written by Marian Kołodziej:

"... Finally, before you immerse into everyday things of life - stop - listen once again to what I, number 432, was telling you. I wish to cordially thank you for experiencing Auschwitz together. Your presence here is a tribute to my companions who passed away reduced to ashes. And they always stay with me.

"My drawings that you have seen were tattooed, like number 432, on my arm. They are deeply burnt wounds. Publicly whipped with unimaginable cruelty and bleeding profusely, I crawled along the streets of Auschwitz, carrying my concrete crosses - to my Golgotha. It was my cry of pain and rebellion. My nakedness, my shame, my vain sermons of lines put with great effort. Rock carvings in caves - a testimony of animalization in the 20th century for the future generations, but also attempts at saving humanity.

"The Holocaust. The extermination of millions. The enormity of the tragedy. Selections to the gas chambers. Daily dying in the pigsty of the camp, in constant hunger, filth and rottenness, rushed to work with curses. In despair, hopelessness. The entire five years.

"Now, I scratch on my wall, as then on the wall of my cell of death, questions. Help me to answer.

"What you willed to see is not only about Auschwitz...."

Marian Kolodziej died in 2009.  It was his wish to be cremated and his ashes scattered at Birkenau, but the law did not permit that.  Instead, he is buried in the church as part of the installation.

Many of the students thanked me for taking them here.  They talked about how seeing the buildings earlier had shown them how the process worked, seeing his drawings helped them feel what the prisoners actually experienced.

When we got back we went to dinner.  Most of the students went up the block to a bar selling lots of different types of beer (I think they were still somewhat shell shocked).  I went with another student to find some Polish food to eat.

I finally had some spring borscht soup.  It was very good.

 While the student ordered mutton and potato dumplings, I had the veal in forest mushroom sauce and a carrot and apple salad.  I was too full afterwards to order dessert.

 The rynek at night.

After walking a bit, I decided I could handle some sorbet.  After that it was back to the hotel to check email and news and then go to sleep before our last full day.

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