Holocaust Remembrance Day

Seeing as yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wanted to post about my experience traveling to Auschwitz in Krakow, Poland this past summer, in addition to meeting a Holocaust survivor in Budapest just a few short days after. I already wrote about this a few months ago in my blog, but seeing as this important day is designated to remember the atrocities that occurred years ago, I thought it would be appropriate to repost some of my experiences.

When my tour group arrived at Auschwitz, the line of people waiting to get in seemed endless. The one positive note about this experience was that so many people wanted to learn about the tragedy that was the Holocaust, so at least we as a society are not forgetting our past. As we walked through the gates into the camp, a sign above us read, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Makes You Free,” and one could feel a chilling sensation passing by these words, all while knowing what had once happened here.

There must have been thousands of people on separate tours walking through the camp, but even so, it just seemed so gloomy and desolate. You read about the tragedies that occurred here, you hear stories, and you see movies, but there is nothing that can truly prepare you for walking on the actual grounds. The fencing and barbed wire, the watchtowers, and old, dark brick blocks, and the gloomy gray sky above us really makes you think how people were able to survive such conditions and brutality. The strength and courage that everyone must have had during the Holocaust is unbelievable, and there really aren’t any words that can describe how it makes you feel.

Throughout our tour, we saw hundreds of suitcases, personal belongings, and family treasures that countless people were stripped of. And as we concluded the tour with a viewing of the gas chamber and crematorium, we saw where many of these people were stripped of their lives. It is crucial that we do not forget about this devastating time in history so that such atrocities do not repeat themselves. Genocide has occurred all throughout the world, and with such unspeakable acts of horror continuing to this day, we must speak on behalf of those who lost their lives and advocate for those still alive today before it is too late.

A few days after touring Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, my tour group arrived in Budapest, Hungary, where we walked through the immaculate Dohány Street Synagogue. After walking through the beautiful Synagogue, we came across an elegant little shop run by this cute, little elderly woman who was selling handmade Jewish crafts and goods. We were told that this elderly woman, Lucy Brown was actually a Holocaust survivor. Lucy was a teenager when she, her mother, and sister were taken with the other women from their town on a march, led by the Arrow Cross Army. As they were marching towards the Danube River (where the Jews would be shot and thrown into the River), a street cleaner opened up a gate to clean the grounds behind the gate. Lucy grabbed her mother and sister, and ran through the gate, and fortunately enough, the Arrow Cross leader didn’t notice. Lucy ripped off the yellow stars from their shirts, and the three of them went into hiding until the end of the war, thanks to gentile neighbors and friends of theirs. Because of Lucy’s courage, she saved herself, her mother, and her sister.

There are countless stories of heroic Holocaust survivors, but we must listen to them and pass these stories on before there is no one left to share such experiences.

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Day 2 In Kraków, Poland, Continued

I decided to write two separate blog posts for my second day in Kraków because even though we had seen so many sights during the first half of the day (in the previous blog post), nothing could have prepared us for the second half of the day which was spent at Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. To make it easier to follow along, the way this post is written goes hand in hand with the pictures and signs below, as I detail my experience throughout.

We arrived at Auschwitz, and the line of people waiting to get in seemed endless. The one positive note about this experience was that so many people wanted to learn about the tragedy that was the Holocaust, so at least we as a society are not forgetting our past. As we walked through the gates into the camp, a sign above us read, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Makes You Free,” and one could feel a chilling sensation passing by these words, all while knowing what had once happened here.

“Throughout the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. The German forces occupying Poland during the Second World War established a concentration camp, on the outskirts of the town Oświęcim, in 1940; the Germans called the town Auschwitz and that is the name by which the camp was known. Over the next years it was expanded into three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz and more than forty sub camps. The first people to be brought to Auschwitz as prisoners and murdered here were poles. They were followed by Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies and deportees of many other nationalities. Beginning in 1942, however, Auschwitz became the setting for the most massive murder campaign in history, when the Nazis put into operation their plan to destroy the entire Jewish population of Europe. The great majority of Jews who were deported to Auschwitz (men, women, and children) were sent immediately upon arrival to death in the gas chambers of Birkenau. When the SS realized that the end of the war was near, they attempted to remove the evidence of the atrocities committed here. They dismantled the gas chambers, crematoria, and other buildings, burned documents, and evacuated all those prisoners who could walk to the interior of Germany. Those who were not evacuated were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945. On July 2, 1947, the Polish Parliament established the State Museum of Oświęcim – Brzezinka on the sits of the former camps at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. In 1979 these camps were formally recognized by UNESCO by their inclusion on its World Heritage List.”

There must have been thousands of people on separate tours walking through the camp, but even so, it just seemed so gloomy and desolate. You read about the tragedies that occurred here, you hear stories, and you see movies, but there is nothing that can truly prepare you for walking on the actual grounds. The fencing and barbed wire, the watchtowers, and old, dark brick blocks, and the gloomy gray sky above us really makes you think how people were able to survive such conditions and brutality. The strength and courage that everyone must have had during the Holocaust is unbelievable, and there really aren’t any words that can describe how it makes you feel.

“On 7 October 1941 a camp was established in Auschwitz for Soviet POWs. About 10,000 men were registered as prisoners and held in a special fenced-off compound comprising blocks 1-3, 12-14, 22-24. Most of them died of hunger, hard work, and SS brutality. Many others were gassed or shot by order of a special Gestapo commission. Those who refused to work were forced naked out of their blocks in the freezing winter weather and doused with water, as a result of which many froze to death. Within five months, by March 1942, some 9,000 had died. The remainder were transferred to the newly constructed Auschwitz II-Birkenau.”

The first bunk we entered was Bunk 4, which is currently a room dedicated to selection of Jews deported to Auschwitz. Upon entering into the bunk, you immediate see a quote by philosopher, poet, and both literary and cultural critic, George Santayana. It reads, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” That’s why constant learning and trips like these are so important because just like any genocide survivor, Holocaust survivors will only live for so long. Sooner or later, it will be up to us to share their stories and make sure that no people of any race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religious belief are targeted ever again.

“Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. In the years 1940-1945, the Nazis deported at least 1,300,000 people to Auschwitz. 
1,100,000 Jews; 140,000-150,000 Poles; 23,000 Roma (Gypsies); 15,000 Soviet Prisoners of War; 25,000 Prisoners From Other Ethnic Groups
1,100,000 of these people died in Auschwitz. Approximately 90% of the victims were Jews. The SS murdered the majority of them in the gas chambers.

“We must free the German nation of Poles, Russians, Jews and Gypsies”
-Otto Thierack; Minister of Justice of the Third Reich

“Jews are a race that must be totally exterminated.”
-Hans Frank 1944; Governor General in Nazi occupied Poland

June 1940: Beginning of deportations of Poles. The Nazis sent to the camp 140-150 thousand Polish prisoners; half of them perished
June 1941: Beginning of deportations of 25 thousand prisoners of various nationalities; about half of them perished
Summer 1941: Beginning of deportations of 15 thousand Soviet POWS. Most of them perished.
March 1942: Beginning of mass deportations of 1.1 million European Jews. Auschwitz started fulfilling two functions: while remaining a concentration camp, it became a sit of the Holocaust, the biggest mass murder in the history of mankind. Perpetrated by the Nazis, about 1 million deported Jews were murdered by the SS mainly in gas chambers.
February 1943: Beginning of deportations of 23 thousand Roma (Gypsies); 21 thousand of them perished.

Estimated Numer of Jews Deported to Auschwitz:
430,000 from Hungary; 300,000 from Poland; 69,000 from France; 60,000 from the Netherlands; 55,000 from Greece;
46,000 from the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia; 27,000 from Slovakia; 25,000 from Belgium; 23,000 from Austria and Germany; 10,000 from Yugoslavia; 7,500 from Italy; 690 from Norway; Plus approximately 34,000 Jewish individuals transferred from other concentration camps.

In the following pictures, you can see Jews arriving to Auschwitz from Hungary, and exiting the cattle cars. You can then see them off the cars and standing outside, awaiting selection, during selection, on their way to the gas chambers, and then the grounds emptied out after selection, with only SS soldiers and personal belongings left behind. The next picture is of the only known footage of women on their way to the gas chambers. The source of these pictures is unknown.

“The people were selected on the railway platform. Those to be gassed were assured that they were going to take a bath. Dummy showers were fixed to the ceiling. Cudgelled and hallooed with dogs, 2,000 victims were crammed in the chamber- 210 square meters/approximately 235 square yards in area. The chamber door was locked, and Zyklon B was poured. After 15-20 minutes, the chamber was opened, corpses were stripped of gold teeth, hair, earrings, rings, and then transported to a crematory. Victims’ personal documents were destroyed.” The next few pictures show a model of the gas chamber and crematoria, as well as some of the many empty cans of Zyklon B that were used to kill those who entered. A map of the camp also helps with understanding the layout of Auschwitz.

“From 26 March 1942 until mid-August of that year, Blocks 1-10 were used as a camp for women prisoners. It was separated from the men’s camp by a high wall. About 17,000 women, Jewish and non-Jewish, who had been deported from Germany and throughout German-occupied Europe were housed here. During these four months, a few thousand women were sent to the gas chambers or died as a result of the conditions in the camp—starvation, rampant epidemics, lack of sanitary facilities, and slave labour. Those who were still alive in August 1942 were transferred to the new main women’s camp in Sector BI of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.”

The next picture shows a collection of glasses that were taken from the Jewish victims who entered into the camp with them. The following picture shows aids (such as prosthetics, crutches, etc.) used by the Jewish victims who were handicapped. You can then see pots, pans, and dishes that were collected upon arrival. When the Jewish people were evicted from their homes and forced to leave, they brought some of their belongings with them, pictured below. They each had a suitcase, piece of luggage, or basket, and in the pictures, you can see the names of who the luggage belonged to, and the addresses of where they lived. You can also see piles and piles of shoes belonging to those who entered the gas chambers, seeing as they undressed first. The final picture of belongings is that of personal items of hygiene included shaving brushes, hair brushes, etc. As we left the block we were in and went back outside, we passed by the experimentation block.

“Several hundred women prisoners, mainly Jewish were held in two upstairs rooms of this block and used as human guinea-pigs for sterilization experiments conducted by Prof. Dr. Carl Clauberg, a German gynecologist from April 1943 to May 1944. Some of them died from the treatment they received, others were murdered so that autopsies could be performed on them. Those who survived were left with permanent injuries. Other SS doctors also conducted experiments on women in this block.”

As we walked past the extermination block, we came across a wall with flowers in front of it, unaware of the additional atrocities that took place before us.

“From 1941 to 1943, the SS shot several thousand people at the wall in this courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11. Most of those executed here were Polish political prisoners, about all, the leaders and members of clandestine organizations and people who helped escapees or facilitated contacts with the outside world. Poles who had been sentenced to death in nearby towns were also brought here to be shot, including men, women, and even children who had been taken hostage in revenge for operations of the polish resistance against the German occupation. Prisoners of other nationalities and ethnic origins, including Jews and Soviet POWs, were also sometimes shot at this wall. The SS administered brutal punishments here: floggings, and also the torture known as “the post,” in which prisoners were hung from a post by their wrists with their arms twisted behind their backs. The execution wall was dismantled in 1944 on the orders of camp authorities. Executions were subsequently carried out elsewhere, most often in the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. After the way, the execution wall was partially reconstructed by the museum.”

Our final stop in Auschwitz was to the gas chamber and crematorium, which we were not allowed to take pictures inside of. As you step down into the chamber, you can see where the dummy shower heads were up above, leading people to believe that they were going to take a shower and get cleaned off. I think the most powerful image I recall from walking through what was once a munitions bunker and then a gas chamber was the scratch marks all along the inside of the walls, where the victims desperately tried to escape once the chamber door was closed and locked. On the other side of the chamber was the crematorium, where some of the Jews were assigned to place the corpses inside the lit fire. And often times these crematorium workers came across the bodies of neighbors, friends, and even family members.

“Before the war this building was a munition bunker. From 15 August 1940 to July 1943 the SS used it as crematorium. In the autumn of 1941, the largest room, which had been designed by the camp as a morgue, was adapted for use as an improvised gas champed, the first of its kind in Auschwitz. Several groups of Soviet POWs were also murdered here in this way, as were sick prisoners whose return to work was considered unlikely. Poles form outside the camp who had been sentenced to death by the German summary court were shot here. After the establishment in Auschwitz II-Birkenau of two more improvised gas chambers in spring and summer of 1942 for the mass murder of the Jews, the gassings here were gradually stopped. Later, with the completion in Auschwitz II-Birkenau of four purpose-built gas chambers with crematoria, the burning of corpses here was also stopped (July 1943). The building was subsequently utilized for storage, and then as an air-raid shelter for the SS. The incinerators, chimney, and some of the walls were dismantled, and the holes in the roof through the SS had poured Zyclon B were sealed. After the war, the museum partially reconstructed the gas chamber and crematorium. The chimney and two incinerators were rebuilt using original components, as were several of the openings in the gas chamber roof.”

The next two pictures are of another camp map, and the evacuation route that was used while the Red Army was advancing towards the end of the war. At this point, our group boarded the bus and drove over to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which is just about a two-mile distance. As we walked into Birkenau, the first thing you immediately notice the long stretches of land completely surrounded by fences, barbed wire, and watch towers. The railroad tracks also lead right up to the center of the camp.

“Immediately after getting off the train, the Jews were ordered to line up into two columns, one of women and children and the other of men. Each column was subjected to ‘selections’ by SS doctors and medical orderlies, there and then on the ramp: the strong and the healthy were separated from the old, the sick, and children. People selected as fit for work were sent to the camp. The others, usually 70 to 75 percent of a transport, were sent to be murdered in the gas chambers (photos taken by the SS, 1944).”

We saw a bunk that was designated as a latrine, and it was merely holes where the victims would have to do their business in public, cramped alongside one another. Needless to say, it was beyond unsanitary and often times they were beaten by the guards while using the latrines. And some people were even assigned to clean the latrines by hand as another way of dehumanizing them.

“I suddenly see Steinlauf, my friend aged almost fifty, with nude chest, scrub his neck and shoulders with little success (he has no soap) [He] sees me and asks me severely why I do not wash. Why should I wash? Would I be better off than I am? Would I please someone more? Would I live a day longer?…. Does Steinlauf not know that after half an hour with the coal sacks every difference between him and me will have disappeared?….

[Steinlauf says]“…even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilisation.

“We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but… … we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets…. …for dignity… We must walk erect, without dragging our feet… …to remain alive, not to begin to die.”

– Primo Levi, “Survival in Auschwitz”

The next bunk we went into was the barracks containing three-tier wooden bunks intended for 15-20 prisoners to sleep, for a total capacity of more than 400 prisoners per barracks. The barracks also happened to be unheated in the winter. Two iron stoves were eventually installed, but they weren’t sufficient enough to heat the entire space. With a few minutes to spare before having to return to the bus, we came across yet another guard tower as well as a train car used to transport the victims to the site. And with that, our tour of Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau had concluded.

Day 2 In Kraków, Poland

Our second day in Kraków was beyond impactful, so I’ll be splitting it up into two separate blog posts. That being said, we began the first part of our second day in Kraków walking through the city’s Jewish center.

In 1902, Helena Rubinstein revolutionized the world of cosmetics with her new personalized and innovative beauty regime. Because of her, there is now skin type classification (1910), and she helped create the first moisturizing, anti-acne and sun care.. Not to mention, she offered women the first waterproof mascara (1938) and the first modern mascara (1958) (http://www.loreal.com). Elizabeth Arden opened her first spa on Fifth Avenue and began to build one of the world’s first
global beauty brands (http://www.elizabetharden.com). So Helena Rubinstein lived in the house pictured below, and apparently her husband cheated on her with Elizabeth Arden. The ongoing joke of the city is that you can’t cheat on someone in the same industry because everyone’s bound to find out eventually.

During the Holocaust, the Germans actually took over the square, and lived here. There is a commemorative memorial pictured below in honor of the people from the city who were killed as a result of the atrocities.

We then traveled to the factory which belonged to Oskar Shindler, which is more famously known from the movie, Shindler’s List. Oskar Schindler arrived to Kraków hot on the heels of the German invasion in September 1939. As a member of the Nazi party and an agent of the German military intelligence he managed to appropriate the factory which had been set up by a group of Jewish businessmen in 1937. Kraków’s two Jewish proprietors who became dependent on Schindler, Abraham Bankier and Samuel Wiener, provided him with necessary capital. Under Schindler’s control the plant continued to produce cookware and varied metal vessels, primarily for the German army. He reduced costs by replacing the original Polish staff with cheap labor from the Kraków Jewish ghetto the Nazis organized not far from Schindler’s factory. When Germans liquidated the ghetto in 1943 and moved the remaining Jews to the Plaszow concentration camp, Schindler opened its branch on the premises of his factory complete with barbed-wire fences and watchtowers. In the face of the Soviet Red Army’s advances, Schindler relocated, and with the blessing of the German authorities, his munitions business and its workforce in the late 1944 to the branch of Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp in Bohemia’s Brunnlitz. Thanks to Oskar Schindler, about 1,200 Jewish prisoners from Kraków were liberated by the Soviets on May 8, 1945 (http://www.krakow-info.com).

The gate at Schindler’s Factory is the original one from when the factory was in use during the Holocaust, and the outside walls are covered with pictures of the Jewish survivors that Oskar Schindler saved. Nearby, there is also a memorial for air force members who were killed by the Germans during the war as well.

As we left Schindler’s Factory, we passed Lover’s Bridge, which was filled with combination locks, since couples put locks on the bridge to honor their love for one another. We then came across a second bridge shown in the movie Schindler’s List, which was reconstructed after facing damages during the Holocaust to look like it originally was before the war..

Our next stop was to Wawel Royal Castle that ranges back to the 11th century. Upon walking through the Wawel Castle, we entered the Wawel Cathedral, a Roman Cathedral over 900 years old, containing sarcophaguses of various kings. Unfortunately we weren’t able to take pictures inside the Cathedral, but the outside area was also an incredible sight. After walking through the breathtaking Cathedral, we came across a large courtyard that housed Sigismund III Vasa, the King of Poland from 1587-1632. In 1595, a fire burned down one of the castle’s wings. Sigismund III Vasa moved to Warsaw shortly after, which is when Warsaw became the capital of Poland. The people of Kraków begged him to return but he refused. The joke of the town is that he was probably too embarrassed to return since he could have been the one who started the first since it came from the castle corner containing his alchemy studio.

After our morning tour, we were given two hours for lunch, which we spent in Kraków Square, a quaint little square containing churches, restaurants, and both an indoor and outdoor marketplace with small crafts custom to the area. It is actually the largest medieval town square in Europe that is accessible via 11 streets and two passages (http://planetden.com/nature/visit-oldest-city-poland-krakow-rtr). In the square, there are two tours of St. Mary’s, which are both different heights. There is a bugle call played from the taller tower–Hejnalica, and a church bell known as Półzygmunt that hangs in the lower tower (http://cracow.travel). Legend has it that the two towers were built by brothers who were competing over the size of their own tower. In the heat of the competition, one brother stabbed the other, and accidentally killed him, so he went to the top of his tower and jumped off, which killed him instantaneously. For this reason, the buildings were never evened in size. And in case you were wondering, we had more peirogis for lunch, this time spinach and potato.

I also included a picture of Żubrówka, more commonly known as Bison Grass Vodka, because the vodka is infused with bison grass. This Polish made vodka was a favorite drink of Polish nobility, and is quite popular with the locals as well. We found a local liquor store where we were able to sample the vodka, and it was surprisingly good. As they say in Polish, “Na zdrowie,” or Cheers!

Our afternoon tour consisted of visiting Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which will be written as a separate post.

Day 1 In Kraków, Poland

After spending the past few days in Warsaw, it was time for us to leave for Kraków, Poland, a drive of nearly four hours by bus. But on our way, we made a stop at the Jasna Góra Monastery, the country’s most famous place of pilgrimage, which contains the Black Madonna of Częstochowska, which many believe contains miraculous powers.

The Black Madonna was painted by St. Luke the Evangelist; and during this time, Mary told him about the life of Jesus, which he later incorporated into his gospel. In 326 A.D., St. Helen found the painting in Jerusalem, gave it to her son and had a shrine built for it in Constantinople. During a battle, the picture was placed on the walls of the city, and the enemy army fled. The Black Madonna was said to have saved the city from destruction. The picture was owned by many other people until 1382 when invading Tartars attacked a Prince Ladislaus’ fortress, where the painting was located. A Tartar’s arrow lodged into the throat of the Madonna. The Prince transferred the painting to a church in Czestochowa, Poland.

In 1430, the church was invaded and a looter struck the painting two times with his sword, but before he could strike it another time, he fell to the ground in agony and pain, and died. The sword cuts and the arrow wound are still visible on the painting. When the Russians were at Warsaw’s gates in 1920, thousands of people walked from Warsaw to Czestochowa to ask the Madonna for help. The Poles defeated the Russians at a battle along the Wisla (or Vistula River). As for the reason the Madonna is black, it is because of the soot residue that discolors the painting, which is the result of centuries of votive lights and candles burning in front of the painting (http://www.marypages.com/Czestochowa.htm). Countless numbers of visitors travel to Częstochowska on a daily basis to pray to see the Black Madonna in person, and pray to this timeless religious icon.

Upon continuing with our drive to Kraków, we passed an old, eerie-looking mansion, which we soon found out was a vacation spot for “good” Nazis who had been executing and following through with the orders they had been given. These Nazis were sent there for 2-3 weeks at a time as a reward, but the building currently serves as a university where classes are taught to college students.

After arriving to our hotel and dropping off our belongings, we took a group excursion to Wieliczka Salt Mine, located in Wieliczka, twenty minutes outside of Kraków. The Salt Mine, which begins when you descend 380 steps by staircase, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site that accommodates over 1 million tourists a year. The Mine illustrates the historic stages of the development of mining techniques in Europe from the 13th to 20th centuries, with hundreds of millimeters of galleries with works of art, underground chapels, and statues sculpted in the salt. The cathedral in the pictures was built by three self-taught men, and the result is immaculate, to say the least.

Following our trek through the Wieliczka Salt Mine, we came across a ministry located across the street from our hotel. Pope John Paul II stayed while visiting Poland in August 2004, before he passed away in April 2005. One night while staying in the ministry, hundreds and thousands of people gathered outside to pray and light candles in honor of the Pope. He opened his window and said, “I understand that I’m the Pope but I need to sleep too, so you should also go home and go to sleep.” Even still, candles and pictures of Pope John Paul II can be found outside of the ministry.

We spent the evening walking around the city, and ended up finding a pierogi festival. Naturally, we decided to try some of the pierogies (traditional Polish dumplings), since that’s all we had heard about since arriving in Poland. There were so many different flavors and types of pierogies, so it was a great experience to really get a feel for a big part of the local cuisine. When we were finally all pierogied-out, we tried to walk it off by stopping at an outdoor market on the way back to the hotel, thus concluding our first night in Kraków.