Day Three

Although a shorter day than yesterday in terms of activities, today was just as physically and mentally exhausting, but also gave me an awful lot to think about.

Detailed tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau, 9:00 - 12:00
Our group met with yesterday's tour guide, Kasha, for an intensive tour of the huge, purpose-built camp site. Arriving so early in the morning, particularly when most people visit Auschwitz I first, the site was almost empty. The silence was deafening, the vastness as incomprehensible as I will ever find it.
We essentially covered the whole perimeter of the camp. The tour began by visiting the reconstructed wooden barracks in the men's part of the camp, where we entered one of the camp latrines and a block for accommodation. Kasha explained just how crowded the bunks were; the structures were originally designed to house 52 horses, but around 400 people or more were kept in them. As many as 12 prisoners would share one level of a bunk, and had to sleep on their side. Turning another way meant all prisoners had to turn, and this sometimes caused the bunk to collapse, killing people underneath.
We then made our way up the railway track (only put there in 1944; before this, transports arrived on the 'Judenrampe' outside the camp area) and stood before the original train wagon that is now a permanent part of the camp. This place is the ramp that was used for selections from 1944 onwards; the place where families were separated forever and life or death was designated by SS doctors. Turning right through one of the gates separating different sections of the camp, we took the same route that many before us had taken to Crematoria IV and V. Behind us was a building once used as SS offices, now - controversially - used as a Catholic church.
Walking towards the back of the camp, myself and a course mate talked to Kasha about her work as a guide. She has worked freelance for the Museum for 15 years, and was one of the guides that recently showed the England team around the site. She also worked for the survivor who founded many of the exhibitions in the Museum, Kazimierz Smolen, for 10 years. Certainly, hers has been an interesting life, but she stated how important it is to detach from the emotions and live a normal life outside of work.
We eventually made our way to the ruins of Crematorium V. Just beyond that was, as Kasha put it, "an innocent-looking field. But even with all this nature, it is not so innocent. This is where pits were dug and bodies were cremated. Under this grass, there are ashes." This is proven by a few photos a member of the Sonderkommando managed to secretly take in 1944. The spot is marked with four commemorative stones, in Polish, English, Hebrew and Romani.
We turned left to Crematorium IV, which was actually blown up in the only revolt ever to take place at Auschwitz on 7th October, 1944. Next to these ruins are ponds where more ashes were dumped and stones are placed here to indicate this.
Next, we walked to the foundations of Kanada, where belongings from incoming arrivals were sorted. In one of the blocks, a small glass display case remains, showing items that have been found around the site over the years; mostly cutlery, scissors and bottles. From there we walked into the Sauna, where new prisoners were registered, showered, disinfected and shaved. Through the window, Kasha pointed out the place where the Little White House once stood, and another 'mass grave' of ashes nearby. The field did once have bodies buried there until Himmler ordered them all to be exhumed and cremated.
The last room in the Sauna has a large display of photographs belonging to the prisoners, some with descriptions of the families within them. Although I have now seen this exhibit three times, I am always touched by its poignancy. Innocent faces, smiling brightly in normal situations; weddings, births, birthdays, family dinners. And always, the one question that springs to mind when I look at such things: why did this happen?
After this, we made our way towards the memorial at the end of the railway tracks. On each side remain the ruins of Crematoria II and III, where the sections for the undressing room, gas chamber and crematoria can still be seen.
To finish the tour, we walked through the women's camp, where the original brick barracks still stand. To compare the conditions in their accommodation to the men, we entered one block, where we observed how muddy the floor would have been, but prisoners would still have had to sleep there. All around this area, I was reminded of the testimony of Kitty Hart-Moxon, highlighted in her documentary 'Return to Auschwitz'.
After a few last questions, we left Kasha to take a coach to our next activity. If you ever visit Auschwitz, ask if it is possible to be guided by Katarzyna Wasita-Wrobel - she is fantastic.

Visit to Chewra Lomdej Misznajot Synagogue and the Auschwitz Jewish Foundation Educational Centre in Oswiecim, 12:30 - 14:00
We were shown round the centre by Maciej Zabierowski, a full-time member of staff. He stated that before the war, there were around 8,000 Jews in Oswiecim; today, there are none, the last Jewish resident having died in 2000. He showed us photographs and footage of Jews from Oswiecim who had resettled in Israel and worked backwards, going from post- to pre-war Jewish life in the town. We were told about the destruction of the Great Synagogue by the Nazis, the impact on families and businesses in the area and were finally taken into the adjoining synagogue. The centre is also located right next door to the house of Mr Kluger, the last Jew in Oswiecim. You can find out more about the centre here.

If you would like to use any of these photos, please contact me. Additionally, please respect their educational and sentimental value and use them only for educational purposes.

Testimony of Professor Zbigniew Kaczkowski, survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, 15:00 - 16:30 (overran 'til 17:00)
Polish-born Professor Kaczkowski speaks no English, so through a translator we heard part of his incredible testimony.
Kaczkowski was a member of the Warsaw Grey Ranks. After settling in the White Mountains and Grabow, he was eventually arrested by the Gestapo under the false name of 'Kaczanowski'. He was sent to Radom prison in 1943 before being sent to Auschwitz I, along with his mother, on 24th June of the same year. In 1944, his mother died, and it was at this point Kaczkowski decided to try and escape. Hiding out in the attic of an SS dining room for a few days, he and another prisoner successfully escaped the camp perimeter (also due to an SS guard turning a blind eye) but were eventually caught and sent back to Auschwitz. They were given 25 floggings and sent to the basement of Block 11, the 'prison within the prison', for 10 days. It was decided that they would be sent to Buchenwald under the criminal unit, which both prisoners understood would only bring grave consequences.
Both were indeed transported to Buchenwald, but by luck documents regarding them had been destroyed in a fire in the camp and so they were not put into the criminal unit. Kaczkowski was then sent to Ravensbruck where he was liberated. After the war, he became a professor specialising in engineering.
I asked Professor Kaczkowski what it was like to come back to Auschwitz, after all these years, as a free man. After a long pause, he replied that it was difficult but it was necessary for people to be educated and find out what really happened here. "Such things need to be passed on, documented and taught to future generations," he said through his translator. He added that he had always had the will to survive and believed that he would get through the experience. His last words of the meeting, with a small smile, were, "You have to believe".

The rest of the evening was dedicated to free time. I chose to stay in the camp and walk around the different blocks that I had not been in, either at all or so far on this particular trip. I visited Block 7, which documents living and sanitary conditions of prisoners, where the rooms are preserved but behind glass. Again, along the corridor hundreds of faces of scared, tired-looking prisoners followed me. I read the time between their arrival in Auschwitz and death; in most cases, only one or two months, sometimes only a few days. I also visited the Czech, Polish, Hungarian, French, Belgian and Austrian national exhibitions, each very different in character and style. Some of the atmospheres within made me rather nervous to be alone, but I eventually found a course mate and we viewed the last few together.
Before visiting some of the blocks, I also walked into the courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11 once again. I had the whole courtyard to myself. I stood in front of the Wall of Death for a moment of reflection, glancing into the corner where Kazimierz Piechowski has said corpses of those executed were once stacked before being taken to the crematorium. I tried to imagine the scene of people being lined up against the wall, or those prisoners crying out in pain whilst being hung by their wrists, but my imagination either did not or could not take it. Indeed, some aspects of the Holocaust are so beyond comprehension, who would want to consider such things? In my opinion, this is one of the reasons that denial of the Holocaust can take hold so quickly.
I also wandered down to the gas chamber and crematorium. On my way, I passed a building once used as the administration centre by the SS, now a temporary 'hotel' for visitors and survivors that return to the camp. As I glanced up, I saw Professor Kaczkowski leaning out of his window, talking on his phone. In that moment, I wondered what he thought, looking out over the place where he had once been prisoner, and what satisfaction he might gain from staying in a building once used by his persecutors.
The gas chamber was also empty. I studied the walls - the apparent scratch marks, the graffiti visitors have left over the years (yes, it does happen, for reasons unbeknownst to me) and, again, tried to consider how many people had died in the room in which I was standing. Impossible; simply impossible. I took a left into the crematorium and again, stood, studying the ovens and the equipment once used to load bodies into them. As a student of Psychology, the impact this must have had on the Sonderkommando, and how they could carry out such a job day in, day out, is something that fascinates me. I stood and thought, what would I have done in their position? Would I have become so used to death all around me that it wouldn't have such an effect, or would the fear of my own death compel me to carry out the orders given?
Later on, I walked back to the hotel with a fellow course mate, and felt something of a pang of guilt that I was free to leave when so many people entered through the gates and never came out.