January Part 2: This post gets to be heavy, so stick in there if you can. I won’t be offended if you don’t get through it all. It is long, but I think/hope it’s worth the read.
1/16/13 – Poland bound. I had a couple days off from Szombathely so I decided to take a little trip to Krakow. After school I took the train to Budapest and from there an overnight train to Krakow. Sweetest night train ever…also my only night train ever. I really didn’t sleep well with all of the loud stops, but I think to have a mode of transportation where you can lay down and beat box by yourself without anyone listening to you is pretty sweet.
1/17/13 – After 10 hours of joy-filled, yet sleepless adventure, I proceeded my way to the Main Square of Krakow at 6:30am. I had to ask some backpackers that were Spanish where to go because apparently there are no maps of the city at the train station. I stopped by St. Mary’s Church where I prayed and reflected for a while, and realized how blessed I am to see these places. I got to my hostel around 9am (“Mama’s Hostel”) and rested up before the free walking tour at 11am. Little did I know that Poland is on the “Zloty,” not the “Euro” as I had originally thought. So much for being prepared. The walking tour guide definitely talked a lot; roughly 3 hours worth, and by the end I was ready to start a snowball fight with everyone. I met people from all over during the tour. Countries including: Vietnam, Greece, Slovakia, and England. We got to take a picture with the random lying head sculpture (‘Eros Bound’) in the Main Square. Later that night I went to a restaurant called “Gospoda Koko” and had the spinach filled pierogie (pictured to the right), which was delicious. Poland is known for its pierogie in case you had no idea. Afterwards, I randomly bumped into the girl from Vietnam from the walking tour and we walked around the city and hung out for a while (I went 4 for 4 being with people each night even though I travelled by myself. Hostels and tours are ideal.)
The rest of the trip (other than visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau), consisted of visiting the Wieliczka Salt Mine where I met and hung out with people from Ukraine, Brazil, Egypt, China, Indonesia and Japan. It was fun hearing so many different stories and getting to share mine in the process. The picture to the left is a room that took 3 workers over 60 years to make. That is a lot of salt.
I also met a few nice new friends on the Auschwitz tour; a couple from Northern Ireland, two girls studying in Cork, and a guy and a girl from Japan. They were a lot of fun to hang out and we spent the next two nights talking about life. It’s truly amazing how many different people you meet when you travel. I also took a 4-hour adventure by myself one night, seeing a stunning old gothic style Synagogue in the Jewish district, ‘Heroes Square,’ where the Jews and several others were chosen to stay in Krakow or go to Auschwitz, and I also stopped by Schindler’s Factory, where the movie “Schindler’s List” was based. On my way back to Hungary, I took the bus, which is definitely not my favorite mode of transportation. It was, however, 3 hours faster and much cheaper than the train. Tomato, tomahtoe. Train is better.
You are now entering a more intense part of the trip: AUSCHWITZ & BIRKENAU
1/18/13 – Auschwitz and Birkenau. I really don’t know how to put words to what I saw and experienced…It was powerful, heart breaking, intense and just plain mind boggling how something like that happened and continues to happen around the world. Auschwitz is about an hour drive from Krakow, so I was put in a van with six other people (the couple from Northern Ireland, girls studying in Ireland and Japanese couple). Even though we got along well before, during and after the tour, it didn’t lessen the impact of what we saw. I definitely think it’s worth seeing, but there really is no fun way to describe anything that happened in these places. Proceed with caution.
The cold breeze cutting through my warm jacket, the snow cooling the bottom of my feet through my boots, and grey skies eliciting a grey mood, I started to think what the conditions must have been like in the extermination camps from 1940-1944, especially in the winter. Not enough sufficient clothing, food and shelter; and in the summer, no easy way to keep cool or hydrated. Many victims suffered and eventually died from frostbite, hypothermia, and starvation due to these harsh realities. During the day, the victims/workers were allowed two bathroom breaks with limited water, and endured long, harsh, demanding workdays, often not sleeping much because of cruel punishments. Cleaning the latrines was considered the best job for a couple of reasons. It was the only place the victims could talk to other victims, trade items, and plan guerilla warfare. Latrine workers also avoided getting flogged by Nazis because of their smell. The entrance, which reads “Arbeit Machht Frei,” translates as “Labor makes you free.” I’m not sure if another sign could read as a more untrue statement as to what happened here.
Countless numbers of victims were subject to suffocation rooms, standing rooms, hanging, being shot in the back of the head and, the most common method, led into the gas chambers (some disguised as big shower rooms). The gas used, called “Zyklon-B,” was invented by several people, but the main chemists who are credited are Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry, Fritz Haber, and Walter Heerdt. Strangely enough, Haber was a Jew and contributed a lot to the progress of chemical warfare. The gas was originally intended to combat insect and rodent pests in several countries, but the method was switched by the Nazi’s 20 years later, when the they used it against the Jews, Russians, Poles, Roma, etc. The Nazis filled up the chambers with hundreds to thousands of people. dropped the pellets into the chambers through pipes in the sides of the walls, which then released the cyanide gas when the pellets got wet. The victims inside the full gas chambers were then dead within 20 minutes.
Before we go further, I’d like to break down how this all started and why this location was used. Poland was considered the Jewish capital of the world before World War II with roughly 3 million people, more than any other country in the world at the time (now it’s home to about 10,000 Jews). Since it was already geographically located in central Europe, it became an ideal place for the Nazis to send Jews, Roma, Poles, Russians, homosexuals, etc. Hitler’s plan was to ‘purify’ Germany, wanting just the Aryan Race to rule the world. This couldn’t be done until all the Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Russians, etc. were ‘gone’. Other reasons such as robbery, fear of Communism, and earlier ‘religious’ prejudices should also not be ignored. The ploy continued and Hitler and the Nazis told these people that they would be ‘resettled’ in Eastern Europe. Sadly, those going to the extermination camps often bought, yes bought, their ticket to Auschwitz. They thought they were going to live normal lives, work, and resettle themselves and their families in a safe place. Some trips lasted as long as six weeks on crowded trains, coming from places as far as Greece and Norway. When they arrived, their suitcases, household belongings, shoes, eyeglasses, clothes, hair, and essentially everything they owned was stripped away, degrading them to what we would consider an animal. After getting off the trains, the doctor pointed them either to the left (death) (the elderly, weak, diseased, etc.) or to the right (to work), which in many cases led to death eventually. Apparently during an Auschwitz tour a few years ago, one visitor recognized a Nazi soldier helping the doctor as his own father. Since the Nazis were organized with documents and records, they were able find and confirm that it indeed, was his dad. This man knew his dad was in the army but didn’t know he was involved with the Nazis. Crazy.
Since Auschwitz had already been used as a Polish concentration camp before the Nazi’s occupied it, they weren’t able to make it any bigger, which led the Nazis to build Birkenau just a few kilometers away. Birkenau was roughly 20 times bigger than Auschwitz and it’s where most of the killings took place. The picture to the right shows a memorial in Hungarian saying, “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.”
Coming from Hungary, I was shocked to hear that about 400,000 Hungarian Jews were killed within 2 months in the summer of 1944. This was the largest percentage of Jews killed in that short of a time, which if broken down, ends up being 6,666 people murdered each day for two months. Unfathomable. Also, as I work with people who are Roma, I was surprised to hear about 23,000 Roma were killed during this four-year period. So many times I associate the Holocaust with just the Jews which is not true at all. Our tour guide, who did a great job, said that within another 5-10 years, there will be no survivors from Auschwitz left.
Taking a German film class in college and learning a lot about the Third Reich through documentaries and propaganda films, I remember thinking it was hard to imagine how something like this could happen. Having a chance to be in the actual location where the murders took place makes me even more confused as to why the Nazi’s or anyone could think of killing other fellow human beings; human beings who have souls, who can make informed decisions between right and wrong, who have opinions, thoughts, and are capable of changing the world for the better. What makes this whole thing more scary and confusing is the Nazis thought they were doing the right thing.
As a Christ-follower, I’ve been thinking, “Where is God’s place in all of this?” This is certainly not an easy question. My first thought comes from what the memorial says. “Forever let this be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity…” We must learn from our mistakes, whether they are small mistakes or big mistakes. We must forgive. We must take steps to look out for our fellow brothers and sisters, whether they are black, white, purple, Jew, non-Jew, Christian, non-Christian, homosexual, fat, skinny, or whatever society decides to “label” others. We must learn that the human condition of sin can be a deep, deceiving, and powerful thing. We must also learn we have the power to do as much good as bad. I think we should be crying out a lot more. Just like the memorial, we should let this be a cry out from our souls to something bigger than ourselves. Let this be a cry that we don’t know why bad things happen all of the time. Let this be a cry that we can rise up, toss aside bitterness and judgment, and start embracing forgiveness, love, and standing up for what’s right. And finally, let this be a cry and a prayer for those who suffer from injustice. That world leaders, as well as our own voices, would speak up for those in lower places. Amen.
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8
The end of the line…