It’s taken me a little while to get to this part of our trip, it’s taken a little while to Marshall all my thoughts. It may be a lengthier post than normal, but I am not going to do this in ‘parts’, once is enough, so anyone with a short attention span feel free to bow out now 🙂 .
First thing to say is I was wary of going here, I, like many, have seen harrowing movies, Schindlers List, Sophies Choice, Boy in striped pyjamas, The Pianist, etc, and have seen the truly staggering news reels from when the camps were liberated, and been deeply horrified, so a trip to see the place where it all happened seemed a question of how much worse could I feel about it all? Second thing to say is I am not going to write about or explain the history of the place, plenty of proper historians and better writers than I have done that and can be googled, and unless you live under a rock you already know the gist of what it’s all about.
We set off early from Eddy’s for the 2 hour drive, on a beautiful blue sky day. We arrived at 11.30am, got parked up and went to get our tickets. The queue was lengthy, as they had a portacabin with three servers on and there was a lot, and I mean a lot, of people wanting to get in. It was a Bank Holiday in Poland so maybe not the best day to visit.
While we were queueing Eddy went to find out bus times for us to get to Krakow as we were flying home in the evening, and then we said our final goodbye to Eddy. Phil left me to go and put our luggage in a ‘left luggage’ store where he was told his backpack would have to be left too as it was too big to go in with, so then he had to come back and tell me the same would apply to my camera backpack. So out with the camera and stuffed my pockets with the lenses (didn’t want to use them, just not let them out of my sight!). We of course were dressed for the cooler weather we’d been having, so standing in the sun wasn’t that comfortable, but we did. People were stoic, and we had little chats with some Chinese ladies and a Canadian family either side of us. It took about 50 minutes to get to our turn at the portacabins. There we found out that you were not allowed to wander around on your own until 4pm, and would have to go on a guided tour. The tours were timed every 1/2 hour and were categorised by nationality. It turned out the English speaking tour would set off too late for us to go round in time to catch our bus, so we chose the next one to leave which was the Polish tour. We got our tickets and went through to the next bit where you picked up a headset so you could hear the guide, as we were on the Polish tour we didn’t bother to get one, as we don’t understand Polish. That was a big mistake! After we left the headset room, we gathered in the courtyard before the entrance where there were 3 or 4 groups getting ready to set off. It was quite confusing as there were no clues as to which group was which so we just tagged on the the end of the nearest group. There was an English couple with us but the rest were German and Polish. The first bit we got to was the entrance, and everyone stopped to get a shot of the famous sign above it, Arbeit Macht Frei~ Work Sets You Free.
As we started the tour I realised the guide was actually speaking in English, but it was difficult to hear him over all the people so at this point we wished we’d taken the headset! So we followed along, and were not always sure of what we were seeing, but even so there was enough information in the buildings and rooms he took us round to understand what had gone on there. Half way round the lady chaperone of the group realised we were without a headset and gave me one. Phil let me wear it first and listening to the guide added a whole different layer, as he explained what went on in each of the places we went through. He was quite monotoned, but knew his facts and figures by heart, and after a while I could not listen anymore without crying so gave the set to Phil. I accept it’s necessary to be upset, but not in front of loads of people who were not as visibly so.
I found the whole experience very surreal. There were so many groups going round that we would meet the tale end of another group while the group behind caught up with us, and we became an endless herd of people going through each area, stopping now and again while the guide told us his information, sometimes there would be 2 or 3 guides in the same room all talking to their groups, so it was noisy and difficult- hence needing the headsets! We were taken into rooms where the belongings of the people who were killed there were behind glass panels, where there were models of the process people went through, where people had been packed into tiny rooms and left to die. The guide told us of the experiments performed on people in each room and what each room was used for. We went round quickly because of the number of people needing to be taken round, you could register what you were being told, but there was no time to assimilate it before you were on to the next bit.
After that part of the tour finished, we were to get on a bus to be taken to the second part of the tour at Berkenau but unfortunately we couldn’t go without missing our bus to Krakow. I think, hope, someday we will go back to complete it, but not on a bank holiday.
I found the sunny day incongruous to my expectations, so with that and the speed at which we were taken round, the atmosphere I had thought I would experience just wasn’t there. Consequently the outside shots I took of the place I processed to make it look like I felt about it, and I (mostly) avoided getting tourists in my shots. It is only since I got back, seeing the pictures I took and doing some more reading and watching about it, that it has all made sense (no sense) in my mind. Phil got out one of his movies for me that I hadn’t seen before, entitled ‘Good’ and starring Viggo Mortensen. It shows how a mild mannered German literary professor goes from being against the Nazi party to working for Adolph Eichmann and goes someway to explaining how “ordinary ” Germans could get caught up in it all. The movie didn’t get great reviews but I found it enlightening.
Also Phil had me a watch a brilliant series on Auschwitz by the BBC called “The Nazi’s and The Final Solution. It really should be compulsory viewing, so much detail and accurate history.
From wiki-The series uses four principal elements: rarely seen contemporary colour and monochrome film from archives, interviews with survivors such as Dario Gabbai and former Nazis such as Oskar Gröning, computer-generated reconstructions of long-demolished buildings as well as meticulously detailed and historically accurate re-enactments of meetings and other events. These are linked by modern footage of locations in and around the site of the Auschwitz camp. Laurence Rees stressed that the re-enactments were not dramatisations but exclusively based on documented sources:
There is no screenwriter… Every single word that is spoken is double — and in some cases triple — sourced from historical records.
The computer-generated reconstructions used architectural plans that only became available in the 1990s when the archives of the former Soviet Union became accessible to Western historians.
I still think about what I learned from this, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s available as a book, a DVD and the episodes are all on Youtube.
So now my shots.
We went and sat in the sun and had our lunch before we caught the bus to Krakow, talking about what we’d seen, and our thoughts on it all. We caught the 3.30pm bus, but it was full, so standing room only, and we were packed in like sardines. It was hot, airless, and we had our coats on and luggage with us. It was an hour journey, during which we became more and more uncomfortable, both of us at one point felt like we were on the verge of passing out. The co-incidence of that did not escape me, but we were on the way home when this journey ended for us, and able to carry on with our lives.
That’s the end of my trip to Poland, I didn’t post every photo I took, and for anyone interested the full set can be found HERE.