Having relatives in Europe, I’ve always been a bit closer to European history and World War II (WWII) than most North American youngsters. I grew up hearing stories about communism, deportation to Siberia, and fighting in WWII. At about age 12, I visited Auschwitz and heard horrifying stories from my grandparents. My grandpa, a modest and quiet man, would always speak with pride as he remembered what unnatural skill he had with anti-aircraft artillery, although the conclusion of his deadly accuracy was always a little disturbing. My grandma would also tell a story of watching two of her eight siblings die of hunger in the plains of Siberia. I still remember her telling me that starvation was a very peaceful way to die.
Then the teenage years hit, the wonderfully egocentric years, and I stopped thinking about the past. But the seed had been planted, and though dormant, became quite fertile in this past year.
I’m not an historian. I don’t enjoy studying facts for the sake of knowing facts. I benefit most from applying what I learn to real situations, imagining what it would have been like, or what would it be like if it happened today (who says it can’t?). So, during my visit to Europe, I spent a vast amount of time traveling war-affected regions of Poland, visiting the horrifyingly extensive underground factories, and visiting Auschwitz. And I also had a few interesting chats with my grandma.
Essentially anyone who has traveled to the countries formerly known as “Allies” knows what it’s like to see impressive feats of architecture in ruin. Many Middle Age castles, churches, and even structures as old as the Acropolis were standing in relatively good condition until the Nazis came through and destroyed them from spite. Even the communists had a hand in the senseless destruction, not believing in the beauty of art or religion. It’s enough to bring you to tears, when you see these amazing buildings that had been constructed at a time when the technology we have today was not in existence, at a time when architectural grandeur was a sign of wealth, and therefore created with much pride, all destroyed out of hate. Malbork, the largest castle in Europe built over a span of 150 years by the Teutonic knights, had never been defeated by any army and was still standing in good condition until the middle of the 20th century. Then, the Nazis came in and blew it up.
In countries like Poland that were ravaged for their defiance and underground missions countering Nazi domination, the utter senselessness of WWII exists in daily life today. One castle we visited had a display of photographs of Jews living in Poland in 1939, right before the war broke out. A film had been cleverly hidden in a building in Germany until it was found in 1992. The film proved to be a valuable find in terms of historical evidence. There were trains full of Nazis, with graffiti in German displaying such sayings as, “Poland must go down.” And indeed Poland had paid an awful price. The Warszawa depicted in the castle’s display of photographs is a significantly different city than it is today.
Visiting the underground factories in the northern region of Poland was a totally new experience for me. While I somewhat recall skimming through some information on these factories during my WWII unit in grade 12 social studies, the significance never hit me until I was there myself. As my cousin explained, no one really has all the facts about these factories. We know that they were constructed sometime before WWII, likely beginning at the time that Hitler’s financial policy in Germany focused on war preparations. We know that some of Germany’s best architects were involved in the project, and that many Poles were taken there to serve as slave labour, and later died there from meager food rations and poor living conditions, conditions similar to work camps. Yet, even knowing these supposed facts about these factories does not prepare you in the least for what you see when you get there. There are enormous caverns dug into mountains where tanks and aircraft were at least partially built. Bunkers, beds, helmets, arms, and other authentic Nazi objects lie right there before you. Complex aeration systems were dug into the rock to prevent gas poisoning. Even so, the creepiest part of walking through those dank tunnels was the fact that not everything is known about them. There have been several tunnels found in three or four other mountains, all at the exact same height from sea level. This implies that all the tunnels were interconnected, forming a network of a span larger than New York City. It is also known that there is a level below, and a level above, the level where we stood. Are there are any more levels? We haven’t the slightest clue. And there has also been suspicion that tunnels linked to Kazimierz, the castle Hitler made his headquarters during WWII, that is located a couple of 100 kilometres away. What’s crazy about this situation is that there is a world of unexplored, un-recovered information in these tunnels, but there has never been enough money or interest generated to fully explore these tunnels and factories. After WWII when the Nazis were fleeing, they set booby traps and bombed entrances so no one could find out what had occurred in there. The Communists further hid the secrets. There’s a world of knowledge lying there in northern Poland, which makes me wonder, what else don’t we know?
The drive up to the particular tunnel-factory we visited is riddled with secrets, as hidden passageways that have been obstructed by rock pop up in obscure areas. The planning that went into these factories is unbelievable.
Finally, we went to Auschwitz, my first mature look at the death camp. One thing I didn’t realize was that Auschwitz was, and still is, a city. The death camp is more of an aside, almost like a museum. The city in itself is depressing, with few people walking the streets, and essentially no one smiling. Not even the children smile.
Entering Auschwitz, the death camp, is like entering a land of ghosts. Sure, there are plenty of tourists. But with the oppressive silence that is observed, it is clearly a place of death. It was eerie being there, but I wouldn’t have turned back for the world. I needed to see, to know. Moreover, I was surprised to hear that many Auschwitz survivors visit each year. If these survivors who have seen the greatest human horrors wanted to keep the memory alive, then so did I.
One of the first things you see as you exit the information building is an open space around which all the bunkers are set up. There is the dirt area where newcomers were set up in rows to listen to their welcoming speech, which was delivered near a noose that was used weekly to publicly hang delinquents or persons suspected of plotting escape. This is all near the infamous arch in which the words “Work will make you free” are ominously written in cold iron. All around the premises are barbed-wire fences and some electric fences, which make you question just how long you could survive life here.
Each bunker was set up for a different purpose. There were several bunkers dedicated to various nationalities and provided a historical look at WWII, as well as Auschwitz, from different nations’ perspectives. There was much more information in there than I could swallow, but I tried to drink it all in. Some of the reports disgusted me. Apparently, many Allied nations, especially North America, refused to believe information contained in the reports about Auschwitz, because their populations could not comprehend cruelty so atrocious. So the information was written off as impossible and little help was offered. This is reminiscent of the people today who believe Auschwitz never existed. But it did, in cold, calculating, human horror.
A few bunkers I saw were dedicated to displaying the living quarters of the residents of Auschwitz. Nazis lived in relative comfort in spacious quarters; prisoners lived in abject, cramped quarters full of bunks or mats in which two people were to sleep in the same bed, barely large enough for one adult. The washing areas for the prisoners were disgusting and small by any standards. You can see immediately that privacy is a luxury that isn’t afforded in Auschwitz. Other areas show what happened to personal belongings, including hair, as it was collected and put to use by the Nazis (hair, by the way, was used to weave clothing for the prisoners, and this is proven by modern DNA analyses). Worldly possessions were collected in a bunker called “Canada.” These possessions would either be sold or taken for personal use by the Nazis. What made me cry the hardest were the tiny children’s outfits. It could have been my precious Ela that was taken away.
The execution yard is a small area between brick buildings in which people were shot until they laid in a massive, bloody heap. The bullet holes are evident in the buildings. The basements of the buildings were dedicated to torture areas, in which people were experimented on and tested to their limits. One particularly awful form of torture was a cramped space, about two feet by two feet, in which four adults would have to stand for hours, days, without being able to sit, eat, or even barely breathe. There was another prison cell used for the terror of isolation, in which one particular general used something (who knows what) to carve pictures of Jesus and Mary into the walls. Those pictures are still there today.
One of the most touching aspects of my experience in Auschwitz was to see that every photo taken of every prisoner that was brought into Auschwitz (since Nazis were so organized) are displayed on the walls, along with a brief description of name, age and profession. Prisoners were further categorized by religion and sexual preference. Doctors, priests, and educators were among the prisoners least liked by the Nazis, as they were the likeliest to cause problems. These were the prisoners subject to the cruelest punishment. Some women were selected for sexual experimentation, which included experimentation on newborn children. All these faces stare at you in the hall, many with fear in their eyes, and the effect is haunting. Children who cry in the photos, despite being forbidden to, are among the most crushing photos to view.
The gas chambers are another example of the coldly methodic ways of the Nazis. The rooms are small and were crowded with groups of hundreds of naked adults as they were poisoned to death. The ones on cleanup duty were other prisoners after the fact. The enormous ovens used to burn the bodies are giant metal mouths in which bodies were inserted on a piston driven plank and burned, one after the other.
For me, one of the saddest parts of being in Auschwitz was the modern day graffiti on the walls, as careless teenagers forced to walk through on school fieldtrips make their mark. My disappointment stems not only from realizing the disrespect shown to the poor souls, but also from realizing that some people are just apathetic toward this human tragedy.
A quote set up on one of the walls, and one I have been able to find on the Internet, runs along the lines of “the biggest tragedy of all would be to forget, because forgetting means that it could happen again.” I do believe this sentiment — with all of my being. Based on this sentiment, I believe Auschwitz is the site, of all the historical sites that people ought to visit, especially teachers and aspiring teachers. Auschwitz is a site of cruel degradation, of cold methodical activities, of despicable horrors that humans can inflict on humans.
In a rather serious mood, I went to talk to my grandma after visiting Auschwitz. I expressed my disbelief of much of what I saw there, especially the suffering that innocent children experienced. And my grandma, who had been one of the so called lucky who was deported to Siberia, just said, “I know.” But then she reminded me that other equally horrible things happened. For example, her aunt’s house had been set on fire by the Nazis with the children in the house. The children had no chance of survival. Yet, these things continue happening, and it’s all due to ignorance. My grandma said that thirty years ago she hosted a group of Germans at her house and they all took a fieldtrip to Auschwitz. They came back shaken, in tears, and begged my grandma’s forgiveness for what their people had done to her people. My grandma told them it wasn’t their fault (which of course it wasn’t) but she was surprised that in Germany, there is absolutely no mention of death camps and work camps. That part of history is entirely ignored in the school curriculum. In retrospect, as a matter of trying to change the image of Germany, especially for the young, it’s crucial to set that part of history aside. Yet, how can we force ourselves to forget?