One can’t really come to this part of the world without visiting Auschwitz Birkenau, the location of one of the most infamous of the Nazi death camps. On Sunday we caught the 9am bus – its a journey of about 60km, an hour and a half. Entry to the museum is free, but we decided to pay to join a guided tour. We were glad we did because there was so much to see we could have been overloaded! We began at Birkenau, which is about 3 km from Auschwitz, and is the site where most of the gas chamber murders took place. I had no idea the place was so large. The extent of the camp was chilling, the rows upon rows of barracks. The wooden barracks had all been destroyed by fire, their chimneys the only things remaining. They had rebuilt a row of barracks for visitors to see what conditions would have been like. The barbed wire fences, watch towers and train line still remain, making it easy to picture what it might have been like. At the far end of the camp were the gas chambers and furnaces. They had been blown up in the final days before the camp was liberated, but the ruins were still disturbing. A dramatic memorial stands there now, and is a special place for people to come and remember and mourn.
We returned to Auschwitz, which was primarily a work camp, although plenty of people were murdered here too. We passed through the gates with the words “Arbeit macht Frei” (Work brings freedom) and began a tour of the exhibitions. Several rooms contained items taken from those murdered at Birkenau, including reading glasses, shoes, suitcases, and the most sickening, an enourmous pile of human hair taken from the heads of some 40000 women.
We spent the whole day at the museum; there was more than enough to see (too much?). Like the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, this is a place all people should come if they possibly can. It is not a pleasant day, but it is an important one.
Tomorrow we take the train to Warsaw, where we will stay for two nights. After that we head west to Poznan, where I will visit Trzciel (formerly Tirschtiegel) which is the village from which my Hampel ancestors came.