Read Part Two before reading Part Three below.
Adjacent to the main camp called Auschwitz I, about a kilometer away is a second camp called Auschwitz II-Birkenau.This is the camp with the famous “Tower of Death” that the endless train transports passed under on their way to “selektion.” You’ve seen it in countless documentaries, you probably remember it from Schindler’s List. It’s a chilling site that represents all images from the Holocaust.
When you get here you realize that the camp with the famous gate wasn’t the main Auschwitz, but only one of a network of several camps and sub-camps the Nazis built– just in this Polish village alone. And the Auschwitz facility was just one of dozens throughout Eastern Europe. It is mind-boggling.
Reading Prof. Bowman’s book The Agony of the Greek Jews was helpful to put this experience into a Greek context. More than 50,000 Greeks were sent here to their deaths from Thessaloniki alone. They also were transported here from Rhodes, Ioannina, Corfu and elsewhere throughout Greece.
I walked the length of the train tracks from the gate to the platforms where incoming prisoners were herded off trains and Nazi doctors stood— hand picking people for work, or for death. On those very platforms where I stood still for an hour, just staring, thinking— all of the incoming women, children and elderly were sent to the left and able-bodied men were sent to the right.
I imagined being there with my mom— and all of the sudden, being separated from her. I imagined the feelings of the victims as this happened. The cries, the screams, the begging— all things not deserving of human beings. I thought about my family, my brother, my nephews, and other people important to me, like Steven, and so many others, and said to myself— “what would I have done if all of the sudden, someone just came and took them away from me— forever.”
At the end of the train tracks are remains of what were the crematoria and gas chambers— remains, because the retreating Nazi cowards wanted to hide their crimes against humanity and they attempted to destroy any evidence. Even in ruins, the site was chilling. These were the factories of death– long, underground rooms where thousands were herded into to face death by gassing. The steps leading down to the gas chambers are gated– out of honor to the victims.
They also burned records— millions of pages of records, a fact that has a lot to do with the complexity of my research work that I was there to do, which you will read about in my next post.
Here, I saw groups of Israeli young people– probably high school students, many of them draped in their national flag and others carrying candles and flowers. They were everywhere– sitting in groups, holding hands, crying, staring at the sites. I spoke to several of them. Each of them had a story to share– their grandmother, their entire family– One said to me “47 members of my family were burned in this building.” I couldn’t even begin to fathom this.
I visited the “Sauna”, also known as the “sanitation” facility where the “lucky” prisoners who were selected for work upon their arrival were sent to be shaved, cleaned and tattooed. Bone-chilling to walk these corridors. I swear I smelled the sweat of these people. It could have been my imagination. At this point, you just don’t know what to feel.
Today was a long day. On the hour-long drive back to Krakow, I cried a lot. Peter, my guide didn’t talk to me. He had experienced this before with others, so he knew what was going on inside my mind.
When I returned to my hotel room, I was numb. I don’t know what hit me at that point. I opened my computer and hit “play” on my iTunes— Anna Vissi was playing. Songs about love, about life. I started singing as loudly as I could. And dancing. Crazy, I know. It’s all I could do after my experiences today. All I could do was to celebrate life.