May 22 ~ Auschwitz, Poland
I had been both dreading and anxious about today. Having heard about the atrocities that were inflicted by and upon mankind here, I was not sure how I would handle it.
Thankfully our day started out on a lighter note with a visit to see the Black Madonna.
Częstochowa is regarded as the most popular shrine in Poland, with many Polish Catholics making a pilgrimage there every year. Experts disagree on the age and original story behind the Black Madonna. It is dated as somewhere between the 6th to the 14th century. What they do agree on is that monks brought it from the Ukraine to Poland in the 14th century and built a monastery to house this relic.
“The dark tones of the Black Madonna’s skin are attributed to a legend that describes a fire that damaged the monastery but left the icon unscathed except for the discoloration of the pigments of the painting.” ~ goeasterneurope.about.com
Several miracles have been attributed to the icon, and followers come for miles to pay homage.
“The Black Madonna is said to have repelled invading Swedes, cured illnesses, and thwarted robbers by becoming so heavy the icon could not be lifted by the thieves.”
The church was filled with young children having their first communion. Some were staring straight ahead, others fidgeted. It started my day on a more positive and hopeful mood, that kids will be kids the world over.
Originally there were three – Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau, and Auschwitz III. Combinations of concentration camp, extermination camp and work camp.
We associate this place with the Jewish Holocaust and for good reason. Of the 1.1 MILLION people who died here, 90% of them were Jewish. The other 10% were political prisoners, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, and a variety of other nationalities, religions, beliefs and colors.
Many died from starvation, illness, brutal beatings, medical experimentation or were simply shot. The majority died in the gas chambers.
We began our tour at Auschwitz I. It was an eerie feeling approaching the metal gate with the overhead writing in German, “Arbeit Macht Frei” that translates as “work makes (you) free”.
A double row of barbed wire fencing made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
The brick buildings look benign. How confusing all of this must have seemed to the arriving prisoners that had been promised lodging and work, were asked if they needed medical treatments and were offered a shower.
The sorting process began as soon as they got off the train. Pregnant women, children, elderly, sick, or anyone deemed not strong enough to work were sent directly to the gas chambers.
We walked past and through building after building. Today this site is a museum, but the history, horror, memories, legends and massive brutality still hang heavy in the air. One long room housed bundles of human hair that had been cut off each person before they were sent into the “showers”. The stack was deep, wide and long. I found my mind wandering as I noticed most of the hair was brown in color with the occasional black or blond.
After having their heads shaved, they were given striped clothing, photographed and had an identifying number tattooed onto their arm.
Luggage, trunks, cases were immediately taken from each family upon arrival. Anything of value was taken and used to further fund the German war efforts or to line someone’s pocket.
Another building housed shoes. Well worn, scuffed, torn. People had walked for miles in these shoes. I swallowed hard as I stared through the window at all of the children’s shoes that had been neatly separated from the adult footwear.
Passing by the building where the medical experimentation was performed caused bile to rise into my mouth. I felt physically sick to my stomach and tried not to think about what monstrous deeds were done inside.
We stood in front of the wall where executions were performed.
Finally we were led to the gas chamber itself, followed by the crematorium. The numbers of people who could be gassed at one time was staggering. The crematorium went non-stop 24 hours a day. They could gas as many as 6000 people in a day.
A short bus drive away was our next stop – Auschwitz II, Birkenau.
The few standing buildings are for the most part reconstructed, as opposed to Auschwitz I, which is almost all original buildings. Here at Birkenau, the part we walked through showed us living quarters filled with bunk beds three rows high, and the communal toilets.
When the Germans realized that they were losing the war, they destroyed Auschwitz III and most of Birkenau in an attempt to cover up what had been done here. Behind the fenced area the chimneys are still visible that show where each building originally stood.
The chimneys stand tall as a reminder. They represented tombstones to me.
This was a grim and somber day for me. There is really no way to pay a proper tribute to those that suffered unthinkable pain and the hundreds of thousands that died.
There is no understanding that can come from this as the brutal acts of humanity upon others is not understandable. There is no pleasure that can be gained from viewing these scenes. Perhaps in sharing a few pictures I can at least help keep the memory alive for others to learn by.
“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” ~ Elie Wiesel
“Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” ~ Yehuda Bauer
GRATITUDE MOMENT: Today I am grateful for having been born in a free nation and for having the gift of freedom of speech. I am grateful that I do not have to live in fear. I am grateful that I have not been the victim of prejudice. Today I am GRATEFUL for more than I can put into words.