I left my hostel even earlier today and I made my train on time. No toilet drama or anything. I had bought myself a pastry and some juice the night before since I assumed nowhere would be open at 4 AM, which proved to be a good decision.
The train was nice and warm and I dozed most of the way. When I woke up, it was raining. I was sad for my shoes.
Auschwitz is a 15 minute walk from the train station, so my shoes were completely saturated by the time I even got there. I couldn’t really mind though, being at auschwitz. I was right about beating the crowds. Like I said, they make it really hard to get there at 8:00. I was the only person on that train. I don’t know how the other couple people got there, but we were few.
Well, besides the school group. They pulled up in the parking lot at the same time as I walked in, and the people who worked there kept trying to herd me into their group. I kept insisting that I was alone, and finally I broke away.
It was pretty surreal to see the gate. It was difficult to walk through it.
When people ask me why I want to go to Auschwitz, I think they expect me to have some Jewish heritage. I don’t. Well, maybe I do, Grandma Prouty might have discovered someone in our family history… But that’s uncertain, and certainly not my reason for going.
The horrors of the holocaust are part of a legacy that all humans have inherited, not just Germans and Jews. It’s important for each of us to confront that. I feel that Auschwitz was something that I needed to see, if I ever had the opportunity to do so. I want to be a witness for the victims. Eli Wiesel said, “to forget them is to let them die again.” I may not have been alive during WWII, but I have I herited that responsibility.
It’s difficult to talk about the emotional aspects of what I saw today. And even being there, it’s hard to grasp the enormity of it all.
I am glad that I went early and without a guide. I was completely alone at the execution wall, in the standing cells, walking down halls lined with mug shots of the early prisoners. One man looked so bewildered and mildly surprised in his, he reminded me of my brother David. He always has that look like he’s not really sure what’s going on. That man was murdered in less than a month at the camp.
I went for over an hour without seeing another person, and almost two before I started running into tour groups. This I took as my cue to move on to Auschwitz II, Birkenau.
This is the Auschwitz that you see when you picture Auschwitz. It is amazingly huge. I was on the first shuttle over to it, so again it was uncroded. This camp was so much larger than the first. This is where you see the three level pallets that slept 15 prisoners. The pond filled with ashes, the field where they burned piles of bodies in open air. Much of it was destroyed by the Nazis near the end of the war in an attempt to destroy the evidence of their deeds.
The only time I smiled was when I came across Crematoriam IV. I’d studied this in one of my many Holocaust classes. There is an excellent movie about it called The Grey Zone. It was destroyed by summerkummandos (the prisoners forced to take on the job of burning the bodies of other prisoners; they never held this post for more than six months before they were executed themselves) in the only successful resistance movement in the history of Auschwitz. It was never restored.
I was on the far edge of the camp by this point. The barracks are still surrounded by barbed wire fences, and I was on the outside. A gate in the middle of the fence was open, and a path cut across, so I started across it.
I don’t know what gave me the feeling that I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. It had been ages since I’d seen another person walking around, and the men on tractors mowing the grass didn’t say anything to me. I got all the way to the other side before I realized that there was no outlet, only more barbed wire. I know that Holocaust jokes are always in bad taste, but I thought to myself at that moment: “oh my god, I’m trapped! I’m going to die here! It’s happening again!”
It had been a 30 minute walk across a muddy, rocky field in the freezing rain. But I did make it back to the other side, found a place where I actually could cross, and thus made my own escape from Auschwitz.
I was tired, hungry, and cold, but I still hadn’t found Canada. That is the name of the warehouse where the possessions of the prisoners were sorted and pillaged by the nazis. It was called Canada because Canada the country had a reputation for being a wonderful place, like heaven. The Jews who worked there sorting the goods, only women, had a much better quality if life. Not only did they have access to all of the things the other victims had brought with them, but they were better taken care of. If you had a contact in Canada, you were able to get more of the basic necessities like food and shoes.
This is where I assumed the collection of shoes would be. You always hear about the mountain of shoes. The warehouse had been destroyed, so when I asked where all the things were, I was told they were back in the first camp.
I went back to Auschwitz I. I explained that I had been there this morning, so they kindly let me back in without making me join a tour. I ran into Matt and Corry on my way into the building, while they were on their way out. They didn’t appear to have cried as much as I did. The shoes were moving, but the pile of glasses made me so sad (the movie Bent to understand why, and for a good film about the fate homosexuals during the war). Worst of all was the case of tiny children’s shoes and baby clothes.
In the book shop was a biography of the family of dwarves who saved the daughter of a holocaust survivor I met last year.
And that was my Auschwitz experience. It’s not for everyone, but I am so glad I had the chance to be there. It’s hard for me to find adjectives when taking about that place. I don’t want to say I was “excited” about going there, or that I had a “great” time. It was challenging but rewarding.
It had been a very long day, and it had finally stopped raining. I was just in time to catch a 2:40 train and grab some lunch to take with me. Pierogies, of course. I am so sick of having wet, cold feet. It always lasts for days at a time. It’s such a miserable feeling. On the train, I discovered that my shoes were not only wet but full of mud.
I started thinking about these shoes I’ve seen in shop in Kansas City. The store is on 39th street and it’s called Retro Vixen. It’s a really cool little place. But they have these shoes, that are basically rainboots in the shape of retro kitten heels. There is almost nothing I wouldn’t give for those shoes right now. I didn’t pack rainboots because I didn’t have room. I have one pair of shoes that I wear every day… And I wish it was those shoes!
And I’d pay just about anything for them at this point, short of having them overnighted from KC. But seriously… My firstborn child?
I spent hours walking around the mall at the train station. This mall has more shoe stores than I’ve ever seen in any mall, but I didn’t see any like this. I didn’t really expect to. I’ve never seen them anywhere else. The other reason I was there is because I felt like I just had to keep moving. I was so incredibly tired.
Let’s think about the last five nights for me: Saturday, I was up til 5 AM, Sunday I slept (“slept”) on a train, yesterday I woke up at 4:45 AM, today I woke up at 4:10 AM. Tonight I’m sleeping on a train again. Tomorrow should be interesting.
I’ve really had a decent amount of energy. I’m pretty happy with the fact that it’s only now starting to get to me, and only late in the day. But I’m going to use it to justify why I was wandering around a mall on my last afternoon in Krakow. I was avoiding taking a nap at all costs. That would ruin everything. I feel like if anyone has ever had a chance of falling asleep on a train, it’s me. Tonight.
Speaking of which, I have to go catch that train. My plans were dubious for a moment. Fabulous Jolie gave me the practically irresistible offer of joining her in Athens. I was fine with eating the money I’d put on reservations and such… But then I realized it involves 90 hours of train for me. It breaks my heart, but I’ll have to save Greece for another time.