As a Lithuanian, I was very excited to go to Krakow, Poland. As any Lithuanian will remind you when you respond, “I haven’t heard of that country,” the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest country in Europe during the 14th century, and Krakow was one of the main capital cities of the country.
The Polish are a proud people. They have seen some of the most brutal wars, famines, and atrocities of any European country. Since the 11th century, they have only seen about 100 years of peace total, in the 16th century. In the span of WWII to the fall of the Soviet Union, they lost about 35% of their population to death camps, shootings, war, and gulags. They have a fierce hatred for oppression, extreme national pride, and they oppose all things Nazi and Soviet. According to our tour guide, ask a little girl about 4 years old what the colors of the Polish flag stand for, and she will respond with intense expression, “White is for the innocence of our country in the many wars waged on its soil, and red is for the blood that our people have sacrificed in those wars.”
After the lighthearted tour of the old city, famous for its walled defenses, beautiful castles and wonderful cathedrals, my group and I were ready to face one of the most difficult topics in human history: the Holocaust. About 1.5 hours outside of Krakow is the site where the most people were killed in the shortest span of time in history. Auschwitz and its sub-camp Birkenau, Nazi death camps, are today Krakow’s main tourist attraction. No one is excited to go to Auschwitz. Remembering all of the atrocities committed there is not a fun day trip. But it is something that every human should do, and it is a burial site that everyone needs to make a pilgrimage to.
The victims were mostly Jews, but also included Soviet prisoners, Romani people, and Polish people. Here are some statistics from the US Holocaust Museum website: “Jews (1,095,000 deported to Auschwitz, of whom 960,000 died); Poles (147,000 deported, of whom 74,000 died); Roma (23,000 deported, of whom 21,000 died); Soviet prisoners of war (15,000 deported and died); and other nationalities (25,000 deported, of whom 12,000 died).” When you enter Auschwitz, you see the sign above the entrance “Arbeit macht Frei,” meaning, work sets you free. However, this was not true at all for the prisoners sent there.
After arriving off the cattle cars after days of journey without a break, food or water, you would be filtered through the entrance. If you were sent to the left, you would be sent directly to the gas chambers. If you were sent to the right, you would be put in the forced labor camp or sent to the human experimentation area. The only people sent to the work camp were strong young men. Women, children, the elderly and those with any sort of disability were sent to the gas chambers.
When you entered the gas chamber, you were told that you would be taking a shower. Prop shower heads would be on the walls. However, the room was filled with Zyklon B, which would kill you painfully in about 10-20 minutes depending on your proximity to the vent. We walked inside the gas chamber, and could see the nail marks on the walls where people had tried to claw their way out of the gas chambers.
After the people were murdered, a forced Jewish labor force would have to shave all of their hair to be used for coat lining or mattress filling, and all gold teeth and rings would be taken (along with any possessions they had taken on the cattle cars) to houses in the camp known as ‘Canada.’ These storehouses for valuables were called Canada because Canada was a symbol of wealth for the Polish. Then, the corpses would be placed in ovens and incinerated. Walking the paths of these people was incredibly moving and powerful.
If you were sent to the work camp, you would be given insect-riddled and soiled uniforms and tattooed with a number. You would sleep 8 in a bed in barracks with mud floors, full of rats and insects. Only one latrine was provided and almost everyone had dysentery. You were given about 200 calories per day. You had to work 14 hours or more of backbreaking labor, and if you fell, injured yourself, or passed out from starvation, you would be sent to the gas chamber. If you did not fulfill work quotas, you would be subject to capital punishment, including having your arms broken, lashings, beatings, spending a night in a suffocation cell (no ventilation, many people to a room, only a few survive) or a standing cell, (four people placed in a 1 meter by 1 meter cell with no room to move at all. After all of this, you would be expected to work the next day.
At Birkenau, the site of the largest mass killings, our tour guide informed us that there was a 1 inch layer of human ash just below the grass. The camp was liberated by the Soviets. Many of the prisoners that survived, however, were sent to gulags – Soviet-enforced labor camps – immediately following their liberation.
I know this post has been really heavy, so I want to leave you with an inspiring story. On our tour, our tour guide mentioned a professor that was arrested and sent to Auschwitz in the beginning of Nazi occupation. He survived four years of hard labor in the camp. After the war, his political ideals landed him in a Siberian gulag, because he opposed the Soviets, where he survived another four years of starvation, hard labor, and cold. He lived to be 104 years old. When asked by a student how he lived so long, he responded “I wanted to live long enough to see Poland peaceful. Now, after 80 years of nonstop war, I can tell them at the moment of my death that everything is alright.”