Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Auschwitz & Birkenau Extermination Camps

Grey, un-textured patterns painted the flat skies above the long horizon.  The late summer air, warm and stale, was silent with little more than a light breeze to remind us that we were not imbeded in a photograph, but actually standing on the grounds of one of the biggest mass murder scenes in the history of mankind.  The day’s weather matched the preconceived images in which we have grown familiar from films such as Scihndler’s List and countless other documentaries that chronicle this horrific and notorious space. 
Our day in Auschwitz and Birkenau was not our first time visiting a place of genocide.  In 2007, during a visit to Cambodia, we visited the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh, as well as the Tuong Sleng Genocide Museum where Pol Pot exacted murder and torture on his own people during the years of the Cambodian genocide.  Similar to our experience there, we returned to Krakow from Auschwitz and Birkenau emotionally and intellectually drained.  


As an avid follower of twentieth century history, visiting the grounds of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau has always been on my list of important places to travel.  Places like Tuong Sleng and the Nazi extermination camps are eternal and somber memorials to the victims of the worst kinds of atrocities   and serve as physical evidence which reminds us that humanity’s predisposition towards madness is real and more present than we sometimes like to believe.   


The tour begins at Auschwitz I, largely the prison camp portion of the site and the more museum-like of the two, documenting every last detail of the Nazi’s “Final Solution”, thanks largely to the Nazi’s own highly efficient, methodical, and documented plans.  Auschwitz I is also the only portion of the camp which still contains a fully undamaged gas chamber and incinerator, owing to the others being destroyed on the eve of the Soviet advance and as an attempt to cover up evidence of the genocide.  The tour finishes at the sprawling Auschwitz II-Birkenau site, the primary purpose of which was mass extermination, a highly organized and meticulous killing factory composed only of gas chambers and furnaces with only the most rudimentary barracks and watchtowers as the other structures on the grounds.
While in Krakow it is also worth a visit to Oskar Schindler’s Factory, located in the industrial area of the former Jewish ghetto.  If you have ever been to Budapest and visited the House of Terror Museum which chronicles life in Budapest under both fascist and communist rule, then you will enjoy this newly refurbished world-class museum, Schindler’s former factory, which exhibits life in Krakow under Nazi occupation.  To gain a better appreciation for the relatively recent and tragic history suffered by Poland, and to marvel at how far they have come as a nation since, a visit to this museum is highly recommended.    

The Holocaust remains one of the most frequently recognized atrocities of the last century with volumes upon volumes of analysis attempting to understand how it could have reached the scale that it did.  The concentration camps that remain should serve as a warning to the world that man, at his very worst, is capable of the most appalling evil.  If you have any interest in World War II or in the social sciences or modern history in general, then there is plenty to keep you occupied in and around Krakow, including a visit to this site which I would consider to be required and essential for any traveler. 


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