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Auschwitz – Disneyland of Death

We woke up to a horrible discovery: In my excitement of touring Krakow at night, I totally forgot to charge my camera batteries. Totally unlike me, but it’s what happened. I left one battery behind to recharge for coming back (bad decision because it had a little juice on it) and Jacek and I ran to the bus station.

Krakow station is just a mess. Nothing made any sense. We saw the sign, 9 am departure, but the bus wasn’t where it was supposed to be! We ran around, clock said 8:59 am, and then we found the bus. We jumped on and it was truly quite full. An old rickety, wobbly machine it felt like we were on one of those buses you see Hollywood stars travel on when they’re investigating lost treasure in the Amazon. We had to stand and people had placed their bags in the walkway as the overhead ‘bins’ were merely nets. Dear sweet lovely Jacek declared that it was wrong to leave bags on the floor. With the bus rattling along in full motion and with little room to stand, Jacek asked first in a soft voice, whose bag is this? (in Polish of course). Then louder, Does this bag belong to anyone? Then he leaned over two people, opened the window, and loudly stated, Well, since no one wants this bag…, and yanked it off the floor and started shoving it out the window of the moving bus! Too fun! The owner’s ears suddenly started working and he turned around and put it in his lap. We stood for quite a ways as no one was pulling the string to ring the bell for a stop.

Finally two people got off and I collapsed in a seat. The bag’s owner quickly dropped his prized possessions back to the floor in the place I was standing, and Jacek chose to use his bag as a stepping stone to grab the seat near me.

We arrive at the Auschwitz Museum and I’m amazed at how popularized this attraction has become. There were at least 8 tour buses, and way way way too many Americans. The scene really resembled Disneyland. There were fat ugly Americans with their cameras, Japanese with their mini video cameras, and all other flavors of the world’s spectrum. There are several booths where you can buy an assortment of postcards, books and videos, snack bars, and a restaurant. It’s the Polish version of Disneyland.

We decide to empty our hour-long-held urine and trot down to the toaletas (toilets) and toss our coins in the attendants’ dish. This is one of the fun things about Poland. The public toilets cost money and have female attendants. You toss whatever amount is posted into a small dish and enter. If you use the pissoir it’s less than if you use the closet. Crazy fun!

We enjoy some food from the cafeteria, me finally having real Polish bigos (a stew of sauerkraut and kielbasa) and potato pancakes. Then we set off for the camp.

I must say that Auschwitz resembles a retirement home. A very nice one. The grounds are exceedingly clean, the architecture pleasant, and very nicely and compactly designed. Even I, knowing full well the history of this camp, would sign off high marks if I were a Red Cross inspector. This one also has the nicest, and most famous, Arbecht Macht Frei sign, though the wily Jew who forged it purposely rotated the letter ‘B’ in the sign, rendering the letter top-heavy. I liked this clever bit of fuckery with Nazi precision myself, actually.

Passing under the sign we spotted the area directly to our right where the camp orchestra would greet new prisoners to the camp. Further down on our right is the reconstructed mass gallows used by the Nazis to deter prisoner escapes. We sort of breezed through Auschwitz as we knew we’d be spending time at Birkenau, and had only allotted ourselves six hours total between the two camps.

We walked down the main path here and got to a sort of central road. Each direction down each ‘street’ directed our eyes to yet another watchtower. There was basically nowhere you could be in the camp without someone watching. To our left we saw a gallows and walked in that direction. This turned out to be Rudolf Hoss’ last stand. The commandant of Auschwitz was tried after the war and hung here on this very gallows. There was a small barrier around the steps, I guess to ward off fun-seeking tourists who wanted their pictures taken in the same place.

Directly to the right of this monument is the first gas chamber and crematorium of the camp. The Nazis had built this up on the sides with earth so that the SS-Men could merely walk up the grassy hills on the side and drop in the Zyklon B through the hatches above. I’m not sure what planet the deniers are from because the hatches are quite seriously here, and have handles for easy lifting so the Zyklon pellets can be dropped in. Every time I read something from the deniers, they choose one thing to focus on, and ignore all other evidence. Me being me, I just had to go up to the rooftop myself, amazingly not being stopped by any camp workers, and I lifted a hatch and had a peek myself. I can’t see any other reason to have these hatches unless they were to air the place out after gassing.

Touring around the front part of the gas chamber/crematorium we walked into a big concrete chamber. A few hundred people could fit in here at once. I was quickly followed in by a tour group with a German-accented speaker. In tow were a couple priests, one kinda cute and chubby. Think he gave me an eye or two while he was learning about how the Sonderkommando would drag the corpses from the chamber to the adjacent ovens.

That part was kinda wild, seeing the metal wheelbarrow type cars on rails so they could haul the bodies from oven to oven and keep the whole machine moving. The tour guide mentioned that they had rebuilt the ovens partially as part has been taken apart during wartime. It seemed really old and mostly there to me.

I rejoined Jacek outside and we looked up a couple buildings on a map. Whenever I’m videotaping time goes a lot faster. It was already 1pm and we had to be on a bus back to Krakow at 6pm. We followed the map lines to where we thought they kept the main exhibits but that actually turned out to be the former storehouse for prisoners’ belongings, on the other side of the barbed-wire fence. We asked a kiosk clerk where we should be going and we turned to find ourselves at the notorious Block 11. This is where the first experiments with Zyklon B were performed, and also the location of the oft-mentioned Black Wall where prisoners were shot.

Block 11 has some exhibits on the main floor, like sealed-door recreated setups of the various Nazi officer offices, and holding cells for prisoners. Changing rooms and some prisoner art on display, depicting ‘life’ in the camp and Nazi cruelty. Downstairs is where all the torture cells are and there were just too many people down there to really have much fun. The Americans were the WORST! Pushing and shoving and whining and taking pictures and I dunno. I think I was just bummed that people were speaking English at all. Spoiled my illusions and all.

The original cells where the first Zyklon B tests were sealed but you can look through the peepholes. At the end of one row of cells are the teeny tiny little brick cells inside a room themselves. There were three of these cells, really only big enough for one person but they would be 3-4 people in at once, and they would have to crawl in on their knees through a little small teeny door near the floor, then stand once inside. There were no toilets in this little cells, just 3-4 men crowded together in a 4’ x 4’ space. Really horrible. This just looked so not fun.

We quickly got out of this rat trap tourist-filled cellar and made our way to the next building over with the Evidence of the Crime exhibits. These are too wild. The rooms filled with shoes, hair, baggage, crutches and prosthetic limbs. If someone wanted to ‘fake’ all this, they sure spent a hell of a lot of money, and got a lot of people to give up some very personal and valuable items to do it. There’s really just no way. The hair… wow. I know that’s what gets a lot of people but seeing it for real is wild. They also had the original model of the crematorium made by Polish artist Mieczyslaw Stobierski of which a recreation is on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I kinda like the one at USHMM more because at least you can see the back of it. The one at Auschwitz is enclosed on three sides so you can’t see the other figures behind the crematorium of SS-Men and their victims. It’s like eclipsing part of the history.

These rooms are just too much. The shoe room has two sides of shoes. All the prosthetic limbs are crazy. If they were going to fake this they would have to order used prosthetic limbs for about 200 different-sized humans and import them from over several countries. Too much. They also had some haircloth on display which apparently was spun from human hair.

We left this building and made our way to the front entrance to catch the bus to Birkenau. Auschwitz was okay. I’m looking forward to going back and checking out some of the other buildings which are filled with various historical exhibits, especially to learn about the various countries who had people deported to the camps. Each building represents a different country. But that’s for another day. I do wish we spent a little more time researching Birkenau before we got there.

Birkenau is no Disneyland. There’s a lot less there. And a lot more.