~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~
A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death. For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.
So the day that many of us approach with a bit of apprehension is finally here. We are on the bus from our hotel in Cracow to Auschwitz, about 40 miles to the west south west.
Yesterday we arrived in Crakow from Prague, taking the night train on a sleeper car.
Rolling southward one of our tour leaders points out an impressive large building on the top of a hill that looks like a five star hotel. Built after the German invasion in 1939, it was a rest and relaxation villa for Wehrmacht officers rotating off the Russian front to unwind for a bit, as industrialized mass murder was unfolding every single day less than an hour away.
So, to introduce some of the major players:
I don’t make it a habit to showcase the perpetrators on this site, but in this one incredible photograph, taken at Auschwitz, you can see some of them above. Hoss was hung at Auschwitz following his trial after the war. Kramer was executed by the British after his stint presiding of the horrors of Belsen after his transfer there. Of course, smiling Dr. Mengele escaped to Argentina and died in a drowning accident in the late 1970s.The pictures in this photo album surfaced only a few years ago and were studied by my friend archivist Rebecca Erbelding at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can read more at the weblink above if you like.
On to the tour.
Soon we see the road signs for Oswiecim, the small Polish town at a railroad hub that has become one of the most visited tourist sites in Poland. Most of the world knows it by its German name-Auschwitz.
The bus lumbers into the overcrowded parking lot and docks in the slot. The driver kills the engine. And it begins to rain as our other leader, E., relates the story of her mother’s family, the idyllic childhood in this beautiful prewar country, a young teen when the nation is invaded, the oldest of four children. No one on the bus makes a sound. It is now raining very hard.
What is this place? Our guide A. is a top notch scholar, and she leads us on a day long tour that is hard to put into words.
We begin at Auschwitz I, the first camp. This place is centrally located, a railway hub dating back to the turn of the century.
The first prisoners, after it is converted from a Polish military facility, are Soviet POWs and Polish prisoners and other “security risks” who will be worked to death slowly expanding this camp, and the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau. She walks us through the exhibits and the displays at the various blocks. Block 4 is the “Extermination Exhibit”. We think about the words, the language. Extermination- as if the victims were vermin. Over 1,100,000 were killed here, most of them Jews.
We see the map with the spiderlike rail lines radiating inward to Auschwitz like tentacles, from northern Poland, from Germany, Hungary, as far south as Greece and as west as Paris and the Netherlands. In the summer of 1944, tens of thousands were murdered here, per day.
We see again the large scale terra cotta model of the process, which the German engineers had perfected at Auschwitz II-Birkenau- the arrival of the transports, the undressing rooms with signs admonishing bewildered people to hang their belongings carefully and to remember the number of the wall pegs where they left them for quick retrieval later. The shower rooms that could fit in some cases entire transports, which were in fact the hermetically sealed gas chambers. The Germans above with their gas masks, waiting for the proper temperature to be reached through body heat, just the right humidity to be achieved before dropping in the pellets so the gas released would work more effectively. The anguished death throes of the thousands of naked figurines assault our senses. The process is not complete until the corpses are carried out by the sondercommando slaves, defiled for any gold fillings, the hair shorn from the women, the bodies then burned in the open air behind or cremated in the ovens.
But the tour is now just beginning. Minutes before, we were looking at a terra cotta model. And now in Block 5 we will be presented with the evidence. This is an exhibition, after all. Exhibit A is about to slap us in the face. Hard. It is a room, 50 feet long, with nothing but human hair piled several feet back and as many feet tall. My heart skips a beat.
What are my eyes perceiving? Now we see a photo of stacks of bale bags, carefully labeled, packed and stacked, awaiting shipment back to the Reich for use in various products for the German war effort. Slippers for submariners so they can walk quietly aboard ship to evade Allied sonar. Stuffing for the seats of German pilots.
We shuffle on in silence with hundreds of others past the spectacles, the pots and pans, the suitcases carefully labelled by their owners with chalk on the orders of the perpetrators, again, for “quick retrieval”. And the shoes. Sorted. Case after case of women’s shoes. Men’s footwear. And then the children’s shoes.
Our knowledgeable guide takes us into Block 27, the new exhibit on the Shoah. This is a temporary relief of sorts as now we see faces, film and stills, of pre war Jewish life, projected on the walls. We hear songs and voices.
At the end is the Book of Life, containing four million names compiled thus far. A moving moment when E. and others in our tight knit group find entire pages with the names and dates of family members murdered during the Holocaust.
And now it is on to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.