Susan in Sarajevo #10/11
I am traveling to Russia in my Susan-esque non direct way and now find myself in Krakow, Poland. I’ll be back in Sarajevo in late June, when I will start a new job at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as the Economic Development manager.
Of all of the places I could have gone to, I choose to go to Auschwitz, a Nazi extermination camp. Actually, I had been wanting to visit Auschwitz for a long time, I just never had the time to go.
Instead of flying from Sarajevo, I went with my friend Carmen by car to Pecs, Hungary and from there I took the train to Budapest and then came by train to Krakow. On the drive from Bosnia to Croatia, we passed through numerous destroyed villages, a sight I have gotten very used to, but this time it really struck me. I saw one house with a cross painted on it, I assume it had been inhabited by Muslims before and destroyed by either Croats or Serbs. Once we left Bosanski Brod and made it Slavonski Brod in Croatia, there were no more burnt villages. Seeing “normal” villages, meaning intact houses, was a pleasant surprise.
I only got to spend about 30 minutes on the banks of the Danube in Budapest before I had to catch my northbound train, but even a half an hour reveling in the beauty of Szechenyi bridge and the castle district was enough to make my day. We often think that we have closed chapters in our life, but I realized that even though I left Budapest three and half years ago, it still lives in me. I don’t walk the Hapsburg era avenues anymore, but I feel so comfortable there.
By the time I arrived in Krakow, I was exhausted and in desperate need of a shower. As I thought about how much I wanted to take a shower, I told myself not to complain since the people who were forced to come here by the Nazis didn’t have the luxury of choosing to come here. They probably couldn’t sleep in the train and they certainly did not have the opportunity to enjoythe beauty of Krakow before going to Auschwitz. If they got a shower, it was most likely not with water but with Cyclone B, a poison which killed them.
Krakow is a gorgeous city and I am just fascinated by the old city, Staro Mesto, and the main medieval market square, from where I am sending this email. I look out the window and see a Renaissance market building and a 15th century Clock Tower. The university is right in the old town, so there are young Polish students everywhere, giving the area a young, vibrant
Yesterday, I made to trek to Auschwitz, an hour and a half away by bus from Krakow. Originally my sister’s friend Axel was going to fly in from London and go with me, but our schedules didn’t work out. This is one trip I definitely wish I had not done on my own. Usually, I don’t mind traveling
alone and sometimes even prefer being a solo adventurer, but I am still reeling from what I saw yesterday.
After so many Holocaust movies and books, nothing was as strong as seeing the gas chambers, cremation area and horrible living and work conditions at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex. I took a 3 hour tour. We saw the quantities of children’s’ shoes, eyeglasses, suitcases and other objects the Nazis stole from the prisoners. What was even more shocking was the huge amount of female hair, that the Nazis sold to textile factories in Germany for 50 fennings (1/2 Deutche Mark) per kilo. I won’t go into details about the miserly living conditions or the history of the genocide, because I am sure all of you know it well.
Before coming to Auschwitz, I didn’t know that the Germans massacred so many Polish people. At the beginning Auschwitz was made as a concentration camp for Poles and it wasn’t until 1942, that the Germans sent Jews there for their death. Political prisoners, homosexuals and Gypsies were also prime Nazi extermination targets.
The tour was long and my feet got tired from so much standing. Just as I was complaining to myself about my aching feet and legs, the tour guide showed us the standing room in the death hall, where prisoners had to stand for a whole night (or days, I can’t remember) to make them suffer. Susan,
stop complaining about your legs.
At the end of the tour, we came to the gas chamber in Birkenau and then walked to the monument for the dead. When we go to the monument, a torrential rain started and we all got soaked. I had to walk from there to the watchtower by foot in a strong rain. It was about a 7-10 minute walk. At least I could walk out. How about all of those who had to suffer living in that hell? They didn’t have umbrellas to give them some protection. They couldn’t take a bus back to Krakow.
After the tour, I went back to Auschwitz because I wanted to take a look at the national exhibits made by countries whose citizens were murdered by the Germans. The national exhibits were in former barracks, were prisoners were held. I went to see the Yugoslavia exhibit and as I was reading the names of those deported from Yugoslavia, the lights turned off. I yelled “Someone turn on the light” several times, no one answered. I knew that I was the only one on the second floor and hadn’t seen anyone on the first floor of the Austrian exhibit. There was nothing to be afraid of, but I got out of there as fast as possible Being in a building, where people were expelled to awaiting their death, is not a place to be alone in the dark. After that, I wanted to see the French and Italian exhibits, but there was no one there and I did not have the courage to go in by myself. At least I could chose not to enter.
I got hungry and bought food in the cafeteria and felt guilty as hell. Who am I too be so lucky to be able to buy food here? The prisoners here would have given their life savings for just a portion of the mashed potatoes I ate.
The town of Oswiecem, where Auschwitz is located, seems like a normal town with apartment buildings, stores etc, absent the Nazi welcome sign of “Arbeit macht frei”, “Work brings freedom”, a sign the Germans made to make the prisoners think that they would be free if they were good workers.
I can’t reconcile the horror of the camps with the splendor of Krakow. How can humankind create a marvel such as Old Town Krakow and turn into devils making death camps? Yes, I am embracing Krakow with open arms, but I can not stop thinking about what I saw yesterday. Is this real?
To see the marks of genocide, I don’t have to make such a tiring journey to Krakow from Sarajevo. All I have to do is walk out my door in Sarajevo and see the numerous cemeteries and shell marks. The signs of massacres and genocide are fresh.
Even though Europe prides itself on its civilization and culture, the countries of the continent have produced more strife and death than any other place on the planet in the last century. No matter how educated people are, they can still be moved by demagoguery and kill in cold blood. The
terrors of the wars in the former Yugoslavia were all masterminded by college educated people. So at what point does education prevent us for barbarism?
I am on my way to Copenhagen tomorrow and will meet with my parents and my
mom’s long lost second cousin, whom she has never met before. I will get to
Russia via Norway and Estonia. I am anxiously awaiting my trip to Russia, it
has been six years since I was last there.