In my last post about Krakow, I mentioned the tragic streak running through Krakow. Without mentioning it by name. That I left for this post. There are few places on this planet, if any, that compete with Krakow and the nearby extermination camp as far as tragedy is concerned. I don’t think I need give much of a historical write up of Auschwitz or Oscar Schindler. The stories have all been told many time before, much better than I could tell them. But if you do feel you need to brush up, then Wikipedia is your friend. This post simply aims to share my experience as a visitor.
Auschwitz can be a difficult place to visit for many people. For me too, although not on an emotional level. Auschwitz is actually divided into three main camps – Auschwitz, Auschwitz Birkenau and Auschwitz Monowitz. The latter was the last to be built, least famous and least visited. The first is where most visitors (the word ‘tourists’ would be accurate but just seems a little wrong) begin their tour. This is the original camp, a concentration camp. A particularly brutal prison. And yet this is where I first found my visit ‘difficult’.
Whenever visiting somewhere, you need to use your imagination a little, to help take yourself back in time, to feel the atmosphere of the place, to get a sense of its purpose. And yet, walking around the neat brick buildings, you can’t quite place this as the scene of mass murder. Murder is brutal, spontaneous, messy, ugly. This place is too organised. Too clean. It looks like a little village of some sort. Or a holiday camp. It looks like all sorts of things. Except a concentration camp, or place of genocide.
There are moments that ram home the true purpose of the place. When you go inside these buildings and come across portable gallows, the stacks of shoes and cases and the pictures. Most of all one of the last buildings on the tour, the prison within the prison. Where ‘miscreants’ were sent to have their deeds considered. And the courtyard next door to it. There’s a piece of wall at the end. Thousands of people were lined up against that wall and shot to death.
On to Auschwitz Birkenau, a five minute taxi ride away. This was the site of the worst horrors of the Final Solution. It’s vast. Really vast. Most of the wooden barracks are gone, just the brick chimneys left. But the iconic rail line and building leave you in no doubt where you are. The air is chill in March. It’s hard to imagine the suffering of a person dressed in rags, malnourished, forced to live here in mid winter. It’s hard not to think that a swift exit via the gas chambers and crematorium might have been the preferable option.
At Birkenau I had my second difficult experience. There were quite a few large groups of Israelis touring the site. All clad in white fleeces with the name Israel bold on the back. Lots of them were waving huge Israeli flags. What was this about? Did I find it slightly unsettling? Inappropriate? Disrespectful? Triumphalist? I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on it. I don’t think I really liked it very much. Perhaps I found it simply distasteful. I normally associate grand flag waving with sporting events or parades. Auschwitz is a mass grave. The scene of a grave crime. It just didn’t seem right. Having said that, I didn’t speak to any. I know not their intent or feelings.
My third ‘difficult’ experience was how to photograph the sites. Is there a right way, or a wrong way? Is it disrespectful to manipulate my images? To the point – is it ok to turn photos of tragedy into art? Or at least, to try to. I did give this some thought. I played around with my photos in Lightroom. And I created three sets of photos that I liked. I did manipulate a lot of them with filters. I liked the results. I felt they gave the photos atmosphere. They described not only what I saw, but what I thought and felt. So I published them
The following day we went to see Oskar Schindlers factory, just south of the Vistula river. Everyone’s seen Schindler’s List, haven’t they? One of the most human stories ever told, and true to boot. The concentration camp featured in the film is Plaszow, not Auschwitz, and is just another couple of kilometres beyond Schindler’s factory. We didn’t go there. Just to the factory. It’s recently been converted into a museum. It’s one of the finest museums of its type I’ve ever visited. A real must see. The only negative is that there’s little in the way of the factory to see, once you’ve passed the famous front gates. It would have been nice if they’d recreated the factory itself. There’s still plenty of room in the complex – maybe that will come.
On the way to Schindler’s factory, you walk through the Jewish Ghetto. The display of chairs in a square serves as a memorial. There are also pieces of the ghetto wall left standing. The city here looks different. It’s industrial. But there are also a lot of clearly derelict buildings. I was told that these are buildings with no known owner. Presumably, of Jews who never had the opportunity to come back and claim them. Apparently, the government are unwilling to interfere with them. So they stand there as decaying monuments in their own right. In many ways, this part of Krakow has the feeling, the atmosphere, the sense of tragedy which at times was missing from Auschwitz.
These are all fascinating places to visit. Sobering places, too. The very worst of humanity is on display here. For me, it doesn’t matter that the victims were Jews, Poles, Russians or gypsies. People all hurt the same regardless of their beliefs or skin colours. The real significance of these groups is a warning as to the potential consequences when societies become divided, and one group decides to write off another as inferior. Have we changed? Every day I read drivel on news sites, blogs and Facebook which tells me that no, we haven’t.
This will happen again one day. Again and again, on differing scales. I’ll always oppose prejudice and bigotry, even when they’ve got the facts right on one of their trivial cherry picked stories. Why? There are more than a million reasons why in Krakow alone. My photos? Click here, here and here for Auschwitz and here for Schindlers factory.