Guard tower and barbed wire fence at Auschwitz
We came to the city of Krakow to see one thing: Auschwitz. Several years ago we saw the prison camp at Dachau, which was the first German prison camp built under Hitler's rule and served as the pattern for the rest of them. But Auschwitz-Birkenau is the most infamous prison camp of them all and has actually become a symbol of the Holocaust to the rest of the world. The reason it is referred to as Auschwitz-Birkenau is that they were located two miles apart and were linked administratively and ideologically. What happened is that Auschwitz I became a concentration camp and basically remained one and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was built for one purpose: extermination. 80% of the people who came to Birkenau ended up in the gas chambers and ovens and the other 20% were assigned to work details. But unfortunately, even the 20% ended up in the ovens as more thousands of prisoners arrived and were recycled into the program. The scene you saw in the movie "Schindler's List" where the train pulled through the big gate and into the prison compound to unload the crying and fearful prisoners was actually Birkenau, not Auschwitz.
A former prisoner of war of the Nazis was asked if he still remembered anything from those times so long ago. He replied, "Remember them? I have spent my entire life trying to forget them!" Now the Poles have made sure no one forgets what happened here. They give you a very thorough tour of both of these camps and spare no words or descriptions to show their revulsion of what happened to their countrymen and many others from all over Europe. In some ways the camp grounds remind me of walking through a giant cathedral--you do so quietly and reverently, respecting the place you are in. This place is one giant cemetery. And everyone who walks on these grounds realizes the hallowed nature of this place. It is a very emotional experience for most of us. And they ask you to remember that, as you experience this for yourself, you may be standing next to someone who lost his whole family to these murderers.
For those of you who like to see justice served it might help to know that the Nazi SS commandant that commanded the German troops at Auschwitz was convicted of war crimes and brought back to the camp and hanged on a gallows in full view of the camp he had created. Not everything in life ends with such closure.
Tomorrow Kathy and I are planning a trip to the Salt Mines in K, and you might be surprised at what we have to show you from there.