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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Auschwitz-Birkenau and our last hours in Krakow.

12:35 pm CET

Carrie and I returned to Budapest this morning and, thankfully, the train was on time. The night on the train was not restful, however; our compartment was completely full and, as such, there was a lot of noise. We shared our compartment with four random Polish men, so... that was more than a little awkward. Maybe I'll end up sleeping all day. I'm certainly tired enough.

Yesterday was a very long and taxing day. We started off fairly early with breakfast in the hostel before checking out and wandering around. At 9:45 we met the tour bus that was to take us (and a bunch of Italians, some French Canadians, and several other English-speakers) to the small town of Oświęcim. It is difficult to understand why people still live around there--I don't think I could, knowing what happened. On the bus ride there, we watched a film with images filmed during the liberation by the Red Army in 1945. It turned out that we went the day before the 66th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (the anniversary being today, January 27th), so that added even more purpose to our visit. When we arrived, the dread that had already settled in my gut became a bit more pronounced. We waited for our tour guide and were given headphones and receivers to better hear the guide among the throng of other tours at the site.

We started through the "Arbeit macht frei (work makes one free)" gate, which was surreal seeing with my own eyes after years of seeing it in photos and films. What was strangest was that Auschwitz I, the first part of the camp that was built on a Polish army base, seemed terrifyingly benign, even with the barbed wire fences and watchtowers. It was not until we went inside the buildings that things began to feel more sinister, and the more we saw, the more we broke through the place's façade. In one room was a massive case filled with human hair, and I could only take a quick glance before having to look away for fear of nausea. The worst ones were the cases in which shoes and suitcases were piled to the ceiling; some of the names on the suitcases hit far too close to home and just seemed to twist the dread even more.

We saw a reconstructed wall where prisoners were shot or hanged, and there were several people leaving candles and flowers at its base. There was also a very old man--a survivor, we thought--carrying a Ukrainian flag over his shoulder. It began to snow swiftly and silently, and it was a wonder to me that such beauty could fall over such a horrible place. We made our way through the snow across the camp to the only remaining gas chamber and crematorium. I hesitated briefly before going in, taking a deep breath and trying to keep the tears at bay that had been threatening to fall since walking through the front gate. There was an eternal flame lit on the floor that was surrounded by flowers, and it made me feel only the slightest bit better having living, breathing people surrounding me in this place of death. We walked through the small space quickly and quietly, and I mostly kept my eyes on the ground. Once out, we walked back to the front of the site and clambered back on the bus to drive the short distance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where we would end the day's tour.

Walking beneath the infamous watchtower was again a strange feeling; it was all so quiet and the land was blanketed in crunching white snow. The brick barracks to the left seemed to stretch on forever, and on the right, all that remained of the wooden barracks were two red brick chimneys where each building had stood. A few wooden barracks had been reconstructed with original materials, and we went into one and all I could think of were the photos I had seen in school for years. We left the building and walked beside the stretch of train tracks that led to the platform where people were sorted, separated, and led to their deaths. There was a single boxcar on the tracks and it looked dilapidated and almost forlorn, as if crumbling under the weight of the sorrows of those it once carried.

We made our way to the very end of the platform where the blown up remnants of the two crematoria are. This attempt to cover their atrocities only proved that the Nazis had something to hide, and I felt myself lifted slightly at the sight of the destruction of these horrific buildings. A large black monument also sits at the end of the tracks to honour the people who died there. There are several plaques lining the base of the monument in all the major languages of Europe, Yiddish, and Hebrew. They all say "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. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945." I am not a religious person at all. But standing there at this monument... I wanted to do something that would have been meaningful to those who perished. I had brought with me a smooth white pebble that I had taken from the beach in Nice three months ago, and I placed it on the Hebrew plaque. Against the black metal of the plaque, my white stone stood out with the shine and freedom of the Sea that bore it, and as I whispered the Mourner's Kaddish to the lightly drifting snow, I finally allowed my tears to fall.

The bus ride back to Krakow was not eventful. Everyone was either asleep or talking in hushed tones to their companions. I listened to some music to help me feel better, though I still felt sick for a few hours after returning. When the bus stopped at the meeting place in Plac Jana Matejki, Carrie and I went to a café for a quick cappuccino break. From there we walked through the Old Town (it truly is beautiful) to the river to see the statue of the dragon, the protector of the city. It was an abstract-looking dragon, but it breathed fire, which was really cool (except my timing was horrible and every time I wanted to take a picture of the fire, I missed it because I wasn't ready). I gave up trying to photograph the fire-breathing, and we walked to the Jewish Quarter. It was already quite dark, so we couldn't see all that much. We walked by the old cemetary and we saw a synagogue and some neat-looking restaurants, but continued onward, eventually crossing the river to look for Schindler's factory. We sort of found it, but there were no lights and and it was all locked up (super creepy), so we just looked at it from a train platform above.

The rest of the night we spent walking around, getting pastries, eating dinner at this little Italian place in the Old Town, and hanging out at a Starbucks in the mall next to the train station. We made it to our platform just minutes before the train arrived, and we were soon trying to sleep en route back to Budapest. As I said before, the night was by no means restful, and I hope that I will have enough time to recuperate before I hop on a plane for London on Saturday. But now I definitely do need to rest; I am physically and emotionally drained. Despite my heavy heart, I know that my unforgettable experience in Poland was good for me, and for that, at least, I am glad.

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