Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Day of Remembrance

November 11th. It is, and has always been, one of the most important days of the year to me.

In Poland November the 11th is well known as independence day. They celebrate their gaining independence on November 11, 1918. Though, those aware of history may see that this requires a little bit of fudging. And the slightly tipsy gentleman I wished a happy independence day to last night, just after midnight, seemed to agree. “Independence? What independence!” he screamed. Lovely guy though, good talker, “look, I know you want to leave – so I'll make this short.” He did not.

For me the 11th is better recalled as remembrance day. A day when we think about those who have served in the armed forces around the world. Those still fighting; those who have fallen. My respect of this day has caused me no small amount of trouble, especially during the high school years. Especially when my principal refused to play tribute to the day. Words were exchanged. Things were said. He was shamed. It could have played out very differently. But, as I said, this day holds a lot of value to me.

Whether you agree with the wars going on, or that have been fought, is one thing. But you respect the troops. You respect those people who put your personal freedom and safety in front of their own. And you respect those who have fallen for no reason other than that they were in the way of someone else's goal.

So on this day, what more could I do, then go to the location where over one million lives were snuffed out? When members of the S.S. cruelly stated to all those arriving that the only way out was through the chimneys. Where else could I go but the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Auschwitz II?

The pollars gets you on the one and a half hour bus ride headed out towards the camps. And once there entry is free. It is a heritage site that welcomes all viewers because none should ever forget what had happened here. Those, as they say, who forget the past are destined to live it.

Getting off the bus, I was almost thankful for the rain which poured down from overhead. Walking under the entrance gate proclaiming that “Work Brings Freedom” I had a hard time imagining what this place would be like, with bright delightful sun shining overhead, in the brilliant blue skies.

As I walked the paths past the various buildings I tried to imagine the horror that transpired. I tried to imagine the beatings, the cruelty, and the pain. But I could not. It was all so far away. All so big.

If you told me that you had one trillion dollars, and then told me that you had one hundred trillion dollars it would all seem to same to me. Yes there is a vast difference, but my mind can not handle it, can not process it. To me you just say I have [one large number] of dollars.

One and a half million people were killed here. Some would say murdered. All would agree expunged unjustly. Well, except maybe for those that were here for crimes that would have put them against the death penalty anyway.

It's important to remember that Auschwitz was not just about the extermination of the Jews. In fact, it wasn't even created with that purpose in mind. Very shortly after construction, it was set towards that goal – but at first it was to put the Polish prisoners who rebelled against the German occupation (remember when I said that 1918 was an awkward time for Poland to call their Independence day?)

Auschwitz housed Gypsie prisoners, anti-socials, Jewish prisoners, homosexuals, and – well – just about any other prisoners that the Germans could round up. Some were treated better than others, but all had to endure the work camp.

While much of Auschwitz has, unfortunately, been turned into an overly tacky museum some important areas are not to be missed. And I know what you're thinking – but here me out. Auschwitz has had the buildings were thousands were stuffed in small corners turned into art galleries for school children, or flashy multi media presentations. It's hard to appreciate the scope and horrors of the holocaust when looking at bringing coloured images displaying nonsense.

And I'm not alone here in thinking this. A number of the Polish locals that I met made the same claim – everyone feeling awkward to be the first to put this idea forward. There are no ghosts here, because they've been expunged and replaced with easily controlled emotions.

Cell block 18 has been converted into a bathroom for tourists! Imagine being a survivor of the horror, having spent your life in fear, only to return and find that where you once suffered is now a urinal for the masses?

But, as I said, some powerful areas still remain. Block 4 and block 5.

Block 4 details the horror and the suffering. Portraits of those who did not survive stare out at visitors who walk through the halls. Looking at the eyes one can't help but wonder what they thought when their photos were taken. Some eyes scream out in anger, others in defeat. Others still are charming, verging on seductive. It is impossible to know their thoughts, or even who knew the truth of what was to come. In some areas the concentration camps were shown to be resorts, places of pleasure where jobs would be provided to those in need. Propaganda videos are a powerful tool.

On the top level is 1950 kilograms of human hair, shaved from the heads of the victims after their lives were ended in the mass gas chambers. Their hair was used to create wigs, and cloth, and other textiles. Examples of this haircloth are also on display. Chemical tests reveal trances of the Cyclon B that caused their final moments.

Cell Block 5 offers a chilling reminder of how many of the Jewish prisoners were tricked with the videos. Told that they were being relocated to a better place, they brought their most valuable possessions with them. Seen here are hundreds of suitcases, with return addresses and names printed on them, glasses, bowls, clothes – everything they had was taken from them and resold to the Germans, the soldiers, the towns people.

Most of these possessions were destroyed in the days before liberation, as the Germans tried to hide their crimes. Until then the goods were stored in the warehouses that the Germans, ever so kindly, named Canada – due to the beauty of those things kept inside.

These are the two areas that will chill you, and cause you to think of the pain and the suffering. The other aspects of Auschwitz are – I don't know. I don't understand why they are the way they are. And to be honest, I would suggest going to this camp as your second stop – because it truly is a way to feel better about what you've seen. It's a way to leave with a smile on your face, having walked through themed exhibits to put your mind at ease.

Where I would suggest starting is Auschwitz II – Birkenau. This is a concentration camp as it has always been. And it is a terrible terrible thing to behold. Walking down the road (it is three kilometers from the first camp) you see the death gate from a ways off. It was here that the guards could oversee the entire camp. And it was here through which the box cars carrying hundreds of prisoners in each, often for journeys lasting a week at a time – during which most of the old and young perished – passed.

Walking the tracks, you find yourself passing hundreds of barracks – some mostly destroyed, others fully standing. Eventually you arrive at the sorting platform, where those who could work were shoved to one side, and those who could not were ushered into the gas chambers. The barbed wire fences, and guard towers, still stand erect - haunting reminders of what once was. There is no pretense here. There is nothing to make you feel better about yourself. There is just the horror, and the pain.

Inside each building stands the triple layered bunks on which up to eight people would sleep on each level, on cushions of moldy straw. The further back you press, the closer you get to the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoriums. Though mostly destroyed – once more by the Germans trying to cover what they had done, you can still see the undressing rooms – where the Jews were told to disrobe before their showers. Better to preserve and resell the clothing – especially clothing for children which was much needed by the German soldiers at the time, for their own growing families.

At the extreme end sits a pond, murky with the ashes of the dead decades later.

It is here that you will see the holocaust for what it truly was; it is here that the ghosts of the past still walk around, not sure whether they wish to be remembered or forgotten – but there all the same.

Start here. Finish here if you must. But take the time to see this site:

Lest we forget.


  1. And this is coming from the guy who thought it was funny to play "Concentration" with the Jewish kids at our camp. What a laugh. I'm surprised you were allowed to take pictures inside Auschwitz?

  2. Funny is the wrong word. Odd, strange, ironic. These are the right words. That's a great game, by the by - I still play it. Although there's a better, similar, game that I've picked up lately called Bunny Bunny.

    Why wouldn't you be allowed to take pictures there?


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