From Krakow to Auschwitz

The Cloth Hall, Rynek Glowney, Krakow

From Krakow to Auschwitz

With so many places still left to add to Easymalc’s Wanderings, people may wonder why I’ve chosen somewhere to write about that will hardly lift the spirits, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been asking myself the same question – and as yet, with no answer.

My trip to Krakow and Auschwitz took place in late September 2003, and it’s inevitable that this account will make for some uncomfortable reading at times, but it’s my intention to make this blog interesting and educational rather than depressing, but at the same time I have to warn readers that there won’t be much to laugh about either.

Now that I’ve lost the few readers that I do have, I need to explain that a subject like this demands a lot more information than I’m able to give here, and so it’s worth bearing in mind that there are bound to be gaps in the story, and I’m also sorry to say that the photographs are at a lower standard than I would have liked; there are gaps here as well, because there are some things that I won’t photograph out of respect.

Wawel Cathedral, Krakow

To make sense of the places I’ll be talking about, it’s necessary, as you would expect, to put things into historical context from time to time – so here goes.

Krakow is the second largest city in Poland, and although this blog is mainly about events that took place during the Second World War, it has to be said that Krakow has a long and varied history, and without doubt one of the country’s most interesting places to visit.

If I were to go back in time to Poland’s early history it would help make for a better understanding of why things turned out the way they did, but it makes more sense to turn back the clock to the 1930s when Adolf Hitler became leader of Nazi Germany.

He had always blamed the Jews for Germany losing the First World War, but he also had a deep hatred of the Slavs to the east, which included the people of Poland (and Russia).

Russia also had a dislike of Poland, which prior to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, covered a much larger area than it does today: With war looming, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 23rd effectively meant an unholy non-aggression agreement between Russia and Germany on how to split Poland up once the inevitable happened.

World War II began on September 1st when Germany invaded Poland, and sixteen days later when Russia annexed the eastern half of the country, Poland was no longer an independent nation.

The German occupation masqueraded as a new territory under the jurisdiction of the General Government based at Krakow’s Wawel Castle, but it wasn’t long before the intentions of the new masters became clear.

Wawel Castle
Wawel Castle

The city of Krakow itself may have been spared (unlike other Polish towns and cities), but its people weren’t so lucky. At first, the biggest threat to the ‘new order’ were the Polish intelligentsia including the political, cultural and social elite who were arrested and sent to concentration camps such as Sachsenhausen – but that was just the beginning.

The Jews may not have been such a threat, but they had to be dealt with, and Krakow had over 60,000 of them, a quarter of the city’s population – and most of them lived in the district of Kazimierz.

Although the current population is naturally much smaller, Kazimierz as a Jewish neighbourhood still exists, and so I went to see what it looked like today (or at least what it looked like in 2003).

Kazimierz

It obviously looks very different from the pre-war years, but it was good to see that the community, albeit a lot smaller, still survives. Based around Szeroka Square, there are still a few synagogues and Jewish businesses that keep the Jewish way of life going, and it was my intention to go back one evening to listen to some Klezmer music that is more often than not on offer at one of the cafes in the square, but unfortunately I never made it.

Szeroka Square

In ‘Mein Kampf’ Hitler described his vision of ‘Lebensbraum’ (Living Space), where Germany could expand into Central and Eastern Europe: His Generalplan Ost was essentially a plan that would use, expel, or exterminate those that were in the way, and for the Jews of Kazimierz it meant all three.

The Generalgouverneur, Hans Frank, wanted to cleanse the city of all its Jews, and so in March 1941, he established a ghetto across the River Vistula from Kazimierz in the suburb of Podgorze.

To get there I walked across the Most Powstańców Śląskich (Silesian Insurgents Bridge) to Plac Bohaterow which, under the name of Plac Zgody, was the focal point of the ghetto.

Podgorze - Part of the Ghetto Wall

To begin with, the square was somewhere that people could escape to from their cramped conditions, but it wasn’t long before it became somewhere to dread.

Beatings, executions, and people being rounded up to be sent to the death camps would have all been witnessed by Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the proprietor of the Apteka Pod Orlem (Eagle Pharmacy) at the far end of the square.

The pharmacy was the only Polish establishment allowed to operate inside the ghetto, but the owner didn’t only dispense medicines and pills he also provided false documents as well as being involved with other clandestine operations that undoubtedly helped to save many lives. It was a small museum about ghetto life when I was here, and I’m glad to see that it’s still going strong.

Whether the pharmacist was still here when the ghetto was liquidated in March 1943 or not, I don’t know, but it would have been a sickening site if he was. Those still able to work were marched off to the nearby Plaszow forced labour camp, but the old, young children, and sick were either killed where they were standing or sent off to Auschwitz. The square and the surrounding streets were just left strewn with what remained of their belongings.

The Eagle Pharamacy

Before leaving Podgorze there was still one place that I wanted to seek out – the building where Oskar Schindler ran his enamelware factory.

For anyone who is not familiar with the name, he was the subject of a film by Stephen Spielberg called Schindler’s List – and in my view, one of the best films ever made.

Oskar Schindler was a member of the Nazi party who ran a factory not far from the Krakow ghetto, and the film (based on a novel by Thomas Keneally) is a true story of how he saved the lives of around 1200 Jews who worked for him.

I managed to locate the building, but if I hadn’t known what the outside of it looked like, there would have been nothing there to tell me. Today, it’s a museum that recognises Schindler’s contribution to humanity and what life was like for the Jews in Krakow under the Nazis.

Stephen Spielberg’s family had a Jewish background, as did another well-known film producer, Roman Polanski, who was a young boy when he managed to escape from the Krakow ghetto. His parents weren’t so lucky: His father was transferred to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria and his mother was sent to Auschwitz.

Oskar Schindler's Factory

The journey to Oswiecim, where Auschwitz-Birkenau is located, takes about 1½ hours by road from Krakow, but the camp is split into two between Auschwitz I (the original camp) and Birkenau (Auschwitz II), and convenience over cost was the main reason I chose to use a mini bus service to get here.

Nothing quite prepared me for the experience though. The words Arbeit macht frei welcome you through the gates into Auschwitz I, but they wouldn’t have been a welcome sign to those who were transported here. In English the words translate into ‘Work sets you free’ meaning that if a prisoner was able to work and therefore useful, then it was just possible that they could survive a bit longer than those that weren’t.

'Work Sets You Free'

Inside the gates, blocks were used to house the prisoners that were subjected to the most unimaginable cruelty.

Block 11 was known as the ‘Torture’ block, which literally sent shivers down my spine when I went inside. There were cells with no light, cells where there was only enough room to stand, starvation cells where prisoners were left without food and water until they died, and even a cell (No 27) which was where the first tests using Zyclon-B were conducted. 600 Russian prisoners of war and 200 sick prisoners were the first people to be gassed to death at Auschwitz, but there were many more to come.

Inside the Camp

Between Blocks 11 and 10 is the ‘Black Wall’ where executions took place. Official Nazi records show that 1,646 prisoners were shot here, but according to the Auschwitz Museum the number was nearer to 20,000.

Block 10 was where medical experiments took place, and outside are two wooden poles where prisoners were hung by their arms tied behind their back.

The Death Wall with Torture Block 11 on the right

Blocks 4,5,6 and 7 have been converted into a museum with glass cases that contain objects that belonged to prisoners – suitcases, shoes, spectacles, false limbs and even hair. This isn’t just a few items; this is personal stuff on a massive scale. Nobody could possibly come in here and not be affected by what they see. A glass case full of children’s stuff still haunts me now; baby things like little mittens and dummies – it’s all here.

Block 10 where Medical Experiments took place

It’s even possible to walk into one of the gas chambers for an even more sobering experience, if that’s possible – and if you still got the stomach for it, you can go into the crematorium where the trolleys are still here ready to load bodies into the ovens.

The only saving grace is that nearby is the site where the first commandant of the camp, Rudolph Hoss, was hanged on 16th April 1947.

Entrance to the Gas Chamber and Crematorium
The spot where Rudolf Hoss was hanged

Birkenau, in many ways isn’t as intensive from an intimate point of view as Auschwitz I, but it’s just as poignant, purely because of the scale of it.

The camp was built by the Nazis as an extension to the first camp – and it’s massive. This was where the transports arrived bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the death camp. When they arrived, they were segregated into those who could work, and those who couldn’t, and by and large that meant that men who could work were sent one way, and everyone else was sent the other – the elderly, the sick, women and children.

The End of the Line for Transports to Birkenau
The Gate of Death

On their retreat from Auschwitz towards the end of the war, the Nazis tried to destroy as much evidence as possible, but there are a few barracks showing what conditions would have been like for those who had to endure cramped conditions and communal sanitation until they were exterminated (I hate that word) – inhuman isn’t a strong enough word to describe it all is it?

Barracks at Birkenau

The figures speak for themselves; the best estimates for the number of people who were deported and died at Auschwitz-Birkenau are; –

  • Jews (1,095,000 deported to Auschwitz, 960,000 died)
  • Non-Jewish Poles (140,000- 150,000 deported, 74,000 died)
  • Roma (Gypsies) (23,000 deported, 21,000 died)
  • Soviet Prisoners of War (15,000 deported and died)
  • Other nationalities (25,000 deported, 10,000- 15,000 died)
View of the Camp at Birkenau from the Guard Tower

I endeavour to make my blogs fairly short, but I make no apologies for the length of this one – in fact it’s nowhere near long enough as far as I’m concerned.

As to the question as to why I decided to write this blog, I still haven’t come up with an answer, in fact, if anything, it has thrown up even more questions.

Reliving the trip hasn’t been easy at times, but I’m glad in a way, that I’ve brought myself to do it. If nothing else, it’s my small contribution to help keep these inhuman activities fresh in our minds to stop them ever happening again. Perhaps I’ve just answered my own question, but I’ve an uneasy feeling that it won’t make a scrap of difference.

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15 thoughts on “From Krakow to Auschwitz

  1. Fergy.

    Another brilliantly written piece Malc, I am so glad you felt able to write it

    I was in Krakow in ’92 and the student friends I was staying with offered to take me there but, for various reasons, I didn’t feel up to it emotionally although if I am ever back that way I most certainly will.

    I am struck by the parallels between what you experienced here, both in the visit and in writing about it, and what I experienced visiting and writing about Tuol Sleng (S21) in Cambodia which I visited in the company of a woman most of whose family had fallen victim to the Khmer Rouge. It moved me tremendously and still does and writing about it years later on our former “home” on VT reduced me to tears, a fact I am not at all ashamed to admit. I told the lady she did not have to accompany me and I would get her a tuk-tuk home but she insisted, telling me that I must go back to UK and tell everyone what had happened there and I think that is the crux of the matter. Those of us fortunate (if that is the correct word) enough to have visited places like this must bear witness as you have done so eloquently here. The hope would be that by remembering the past we ensure that history does not repeat itself but I fear the hope is somewhat forlorn as events continue to prove.

    Again, very well done on sharing this.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks for your encouragement Fergy. Have you written, or should I say re-written, your entry on Tuoi Dleng? I’d like to read it if at all possible

      Reply
  2. Alli Templeton

    I don’t think there is a word in the English vocabulary – or any other language for that matter – strong enough to describe all this. You’ve delivered an informative but sensitive insight into what was truly hell on Earth. I’ve never seen Schindler’s List, although I know about it, so I must make sure I do see it, especially as we’re coming round to Remembrance Day. A very difficult subject to cover, but it’s good that you have shown us all this as it can’t ever be allowed to be forgotten. Those poor victims deserve all our remembrance.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks for taking a look Alli. I know that it doesn’t make for comfortable reading – and not everyone would want to, but I’m pleased that you did.
      If nothing else it puts life into perspective.

      Reply
      1. Stuart Templeton

        To be honest I’ve read a lot about the Nazis and the Third Reich in the past – to the extent that I feel I know enough to never forget. I’m not into them particularity, but being a study of WWII its a subject you have to cover. I don’t really get the fascination some people have though – every night there seems to be a ‘NazI’ program on – it’s a bit ridiculous. I’m waiting for the new series of Hitler’s vegetarian cookbook.

        I’ll tell you a story though. in the early 1990’s I went to East Germany with my Dad. One night when we were driving he piped up and asked me if I’d just had a funny feeling. I had as it happens, I’d felt a really nasty atmosphere and a sense of dread, and asked him how he knew? ‘We’ve just driven past the site of a Concentration camp’ was his reply – I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling.

        One can only imagine the terror those poor souls went through.

        Reply
        1. Easymalc Post author

          I’ve heard stories similar to yours before Stuart, but I can tell you one thing – I have no desire to go back

          Reply
  3. Nemorino

    Yes, I agree that Schindler’s list is a powerful film. I can also highly recommend the opera “Die Passagierin” (The Passenger, female form) by Mieczysław Weinberg, an amazing opera about Auschwitz and its aftermath.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Albert. I tried to get the balance right, and I do believe you would get something from the experience if you were to go. I’ve just watched Shindler’s List again – which I think is the most powerful film I’ve ever watched – but it’s still not as powerful as the real thing.

      Reply

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