Saturday, April 16, 2016

Day 14 - Krakow and Trip Reflections

The final day of the Holocaust Study Tour 2016! Last night after dinner, back at the hotel we had to say goodbye to Shalmi, who was leaving early today.  We had a talent show with a “Shalmi rap” and an incredibly accurate and hysterical Shalmi impersonation.  We gave him our individual thank you letters and said goodbye to this wonderful Holocaust educator who had taught us all so much during the past two weeks.   

This morning  was another beautiful day – sunny and warm.  We spent the morning with our guide, Paulina, walking and learning the history of Krakow and the Wawel Castle district.  Our first stop was Castle Hill to see the fire-breathing Krakow dragon and and were reminded how it came to be the symbol of the city.  The dragon didn’t seem to be in a fire-breathing mood, so we continued on inside the walls of Castle Hill where the Wawel Cathedral [more formally known at the Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus] looms over the plaza.  Stanislaus is Poland’s patron saint. 

Built in the mid-14th century, Wawel Cathedral is primarily gothic.  Yet each successor king wanted to add to it, using whatever was the current style, so the cathedral is a combination of many architectural styles.

It is the Polish national cathedral and has been the traditional coronation site of Polish kings.   Karol Wojtyla, said his first Mass in the crypt of Wawel Cathedral on November 3, 1946.  In 1963, he took over the cathedral as Archbishop of Krakow, later becoming Pope John Paul II.  A statue of Pope John II stands outside Wawel Cathedral. Wawel Cathedral is also the burial site of the most important royal leaders of Poland. 

Before entering the cathedral, Paulina pointed out an odd assortment of massive bones which are chained to the wall above the door.  While some claim these to be the bones of  Smok Wawelski (the Wawel Dragon)  they are believed to be a blue whale, woolly mammoth,  and rhinoceros, or all three.  It is believed they have magical properties, and are credited with protecting the city from destruction during centuries of Polish partition and during WWII when Krakow was not damaged, while almost every other major city in Poland was decimated.  She said that it is believed that when the bones fall, it will be the end of the world.

Inside Wawel Cathedral we saw some of the tombs of the greatest royal leaders, including Wladyslaw Jagiello, the  Lithuanian prince who would begin the Jagellonian Dynasty.  All of the kings’ tombs have a canopy symbolizing heaven, a carved likeness of the body of the ruler with a sword and orb, and all kings facing east as it is the symbol of the rising sun, in Christianity, resurrection.    Beginning in the 17th century, Krakow was no longer considered the capital of Poland, mostly because logistically, for travel and communication, having the capital further east, in Warsaw, was more efficient, but Krakow remained where royal leaders were coronated and buried.  Paulina said Warsaw is said to be the brain of Poland, and Krakow the heart.    We saw the tomb of King Kazimierz after whom the Jewish Quarter is named.  It was he who brought Jews here in large number and built the economy.  It is said that when he became king Poland was made of wood, and when he died, Poland was made of stone. 

Paulina told us that unlike Warsaw and most other Polish cities, Krakow had not been destroyed by the German army as it occupied Poland, because the Nazis had decided to make Krakow their headquarters.  Most buildings in Krakow, therefore, are the original buildings.  Why?  Many Poles spoke German because 20 years earlier it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire whose primary language was German, and Krakow also had a large German population, so the main offices of the German occupying government were in the Royal Palace we would soon visit. 

We saw the Royal Palace, home of Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland during World War II.    The Palace is best known for its magnificent collection of elaborate tapestries that were woven in Brussels, Belgium.  Each square meter of these tapestries took one year to weave.  During the war it was known that Hitler wanted to acquire these tapestries and bring them back to Germany, so they were smuggled out of Poland and found their way to Canada where they remained until the end of the war when they were returned. 

Walking down Castle Hill to the town below, we were shown the home where Oskar Schindler lived in Krakow.  We also saw the statue of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who helped the Americans during the American Revolution, and viewed plaques in the wall of Wawel Castle which were placed in honor of people who helped the restoration of the Castle. 

From here, we walked back to the market square, the largest square in Europe dating from the mid-13th century.  In the middle stands the huge Cloth Hall [so named because this is where linen was traded], which serves as the oldest shopping mall in Europe. 

Our last stop was St. Mary’s Basilica, which has the largest altar piece from the Middle Ages.  We arrived just in time so see the daily opening of the altar piece at 11:50, and then Paulina explained the story of the altar piece which depicts the life of Mary, mother of Jesus, on two huge panels, and the death of Mary in the center.  It was known that Hitler wanted to add this piece to his collection, also, so an attempt was made to save it as with the tapestries.  It was dismantled and smuggled out of the city but they were caught in Eastern Poland and the altar piece was taken.  After the war, it was returned to Krakow and reconstructed, with only one piece missing, a candle that a discipline should be holding as he is blowing it out, symbolizing the moment of death of Mary. 

Paulina then told us we could climb the 300 stairs to the tower of the Basilica and several of our more intrepid members bought tickets for an afternoon “hike” to be able to see the glorious views of the city.  As it approached the top of the hour, the bugler appeared at the window of the tower and  played Hejnal Mariacki, [Saint Mary’s Dawn also called the Krakow Anthem].  It is played every hour on the hour, four times in succession in each of the four directions.  

We had lunch and then time for shopping for souvenirs, climbing the tower of St. Mary’s, walking through an open air market, before heading back to the hotel to prepare for our final dinner this evening.    Shortly after arriving back in the hotel, the skies opened up and we experienced a thunderstorm.  It waited until we got ‘home’ --- we have certainly lucked out on the weather front this trip!!

 Student Trip Reflections:

Alysia says:
This trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I thank myself and all the people that pushed me out of my comfort zone so that I could experience this unique educational experience. To be able to learn about the atrocities that happened during the time of the Holocaust in the locations in which they happened is something that changes a person. Along with the education we received, we were able to relate the faults of the past to the problems of the present.  This is something that will be a great asset to the students who had the devotion for this trip. 

Chanila says:
During this fantastic journey, I have learned more than I ever expected to in a short amount of time. I learned the history of the Jews, the injustice that occurred, and the road that leads to being a better person. This journey helped open my eyes to the world around me and never take for granted what I have right in front of me. 

Brandon says:
The most important thing I will take away from this trip is to appreciate everything that I have in my life and to make myself a better person as a result of all that I do have.  I will take with me the names, the stories and the lessons that will forever be a part of my being.

Kaitlyn says:
When I was at school and heard stories of others who went on this trip, I could only imagine what it would feel like to be standing in the presence of a survivor or how a knot would form in my stomach when looking into a book which contained the all too familiar names of victims from the Holocaust or how a tear would roll down my face when looking at a wall displaying pictures of innocent people enjoying their lives. Experiencing this tour for myself has made the history I have been taught and the stories I have heard become so much more tangible, something that is difficult to do when reading from a textbook. The opportunities I have had on this trip have broadened not only my comprehension of history, but expanded my perspective of how I will view my life and the lives of others with more empathy and deeper understanding. 

Mary says:
For two weeks, I've done nothing but look at the subject of the Holocaust through an outside perspective. I didn't live throughout the period of the Holocaust, but I've tried to take a step back and put myself in the situation of those persecuted and try to understand their perils. This subject is so much more than a page in a textbook, it's emotionally and physically connecting with various places, memorials, museums to create a brand new perspective on not only the Holocaust but the current world issues. 

Dave says:
The Holocaust Study Tour has taught me the importance of the power of one person or any person taking the chance to do the right thing and the potential impact that decision can have on one's life. Life is fragile, someone can be taken from you in the blink of an eye. 

Fiona says:
Though this trip is entitled The Holocaust Study Tour, the things that I learned from this once in a lifetime experience ranges so much wider and deeper than just the Holocaust. Going into this trip I knew it would be something that would extremely impact my life but I never expected it to alter the way in which I view history, the present, others, and most importantly myself in the way it did. From learning about the history of the Jewish community to physically getting the chance to talk to Holocaust survivors and walk the same halls and steps as they did, this trip became so much more than just a "study tour"; it became something that truly gave me a new perspective on life and humanity itself.

Stephanie says:
This whole trip has been a roller coaster from happy moments to really sad ones. I didn't think I would learn this much about not only the Holocaust but also everything that ties into it. I am so happy that I got to experience it because I got to learn so much, see amazing things and meet wonderful people. 

Erika says:
The Holocaust Study Tour was a once in a lifetime experience that I could only dream about, and it finally became a reality where I was able to not only learn about Jewish culture and history first hand, but learn about humanity on a level I never imagined possible. With the help of speakers, survivors, guides, and the other students on the trip, I am able to leave this journey with a new perspective on life. Now I have an appreciation of the history, as well as a want to tell others about all that I have learned so our society could protect the world from having a tragedy like this from happening again. 

Lizzy says:
The Holocaust Study Tour has made me realize how much more I have to learn. The world is constantly changing and evolving.  The minute you think you are done learning is when you are truly mistaken. I have learned that while the Holocaust is technically "History" it still alters and shifts the contemporary world and everybody living in it. 

Wanlin says:
Learning about the systematic abuse, racism, and gradual violation of supposedly God-given rights that affected the Jewish people throughout the time period preceeding and including the Holocaust made me realize how important the protection of human rights is. The changes in Nazi Germany did not happen over night, there were many warning signs on the twisted road to Aushwitz, and I hope now I will be able to identify and speak out against such signs in our world today. 

Bryce says:
With these two weeks of both historical and humanitarian immersion in the Holocaust, I've learned to question the motive and morality behind my own actions and the policy of my nation. I know the Holocaust could have never happened with a single person, but only through the collective consent of the voters in that democratic form of government. Having met survivors face to face, hearing the horrors they were forced to endure firsthand, I think I'll be more inclined to speak out when I see a similar series of events beginning to unfold.

Nikki says:
Going into this experience, the main question that stuck with me was "How could this horrible event occur in such a progressive and democratic nation?" Through the experiential learnings on this trip, such as survivor testimonies and site visitations, I realized that I was viewing the events leading up and including the Holocaust with the benefit of hindsight. Moving forward, I now know to dig deeper and understand the times which preceded the events that occurred rather than just the events themselves. 

Saige says:
Overall, this trip has been nothing but a great learning experience. The past two weeks has really made me look at the world differently. Meeting the refugee teenagers in Berlin opened my eyes to their real situation and their need for a better life and how our world can help solve that problem, not contribute to it. 

Justin says:
This trip has been absolutely amazing. Even though I didn't go on it to see beautiful sights and meet amazing people, I did both of those things. But even more than that, I've been questioning things and looking for answers that I know will come in time. I am ready to return to the United States and further my research on the Holocaust and expedite my journey to understanding this time in history.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Day 13 - Rabka - Zakopane

Today we headed south to visit two cities:  Rabka Zdroj and Zakopane.  There would be no rain today but the morning was overcast.  We hoped for the best.  We would not be disappointed.
                                                   Artwork by Gayle Bart HST 2014 - The Story of Rabka

As we left Krakow, Paulina told us about the ties of Pope John Paul II, now Saint John Paul, to this area.  Born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, near Krakow, in 1920, he grew up in an apartment building which was owned by a Jewish family.  He grew up with many Jewish friends.  He also was an avid sportsman who loved hiking and skiing in the Tetra mountains bordering Slovakia that we would see today.  He was named Archbishop of Krakow in 1964, made a cardinal in 1967, and was elected Pope in 1978.  He visited Poland during the communist era and is credited with helping to bring about the fall of communism in Poland, he was the first pope to visit the State of Israel and in 1985 he initiated the first World Youth Day.  The first World Youth Day, put on by the Catholic Church every 3 years is a one week event which draws millions of young people.  This year the WYD will again be held in Krakow and they are expecting more than two million participants. 

Our first stop on today’s journey was the small town of Rabka Zdroj, often just referred to as Rabka.  We learned that many of the towns in this area also have ‘zdroj’  [meaning ‘spa]] added to their name. This area of Poland is well known for a number of spa towns and health resorts.  Rabka has been a source of fresh air for people suffering from lung ailments and allerties for more than a century.  

We were here to visit a Jewish cemetery we had first visited in 2012 and again in 2014.  We trudged up the hill until we were before a convent, then took a path which led into the woods.  Before we headed into the woods, Shalmi stopped and wanted to give us the context for what we were about to see.  Before the war, there was a Jewish community here in Rabka, and although the exact numbers are unknown, they were probably about 1/3 or perhaps more of the townspeople, inasmuch as much of the health business was in the hands of Jews.  There was also a convent here; the same building but run by a different order.  During the war the Gestapo took over part of the convent and used it as a school for interrogation.  Part of the experiential learning phase necessitated that they practice on human subjects, and members of the Jewish community were to serve this function.  Their interrogation practices involved torture and ended when the subject was dead.  They then just threw the bodies out behind the convent building.  The sisters knew that they were Jewish and wanted to give them a respectful burial, but they knew nothing about the Jewish rituals for burying the dead.  They knew the Germans would not approve, and they were possibly risking their lives, so in secret, they dragged the bodies from behind the convent into the woods where they buried the corpses, one by one, trying as best they could, to provide a respectful burial.

After the war, the convent never spoke of or publicized what they had done---it was a hidden cemetery.  And to some degree, it remained a hidden cemetery.  Four years ago, we had attempted to talk to the new order of sisters about the cemetery but they said they knew nothing and did not encourage us to go see it.  There was also a neighbor who watched us trek into the woods and was visibly upset with our presence.  The same had been true of our last visit here, in 2014.  But, Shalmi had said, before we entered the woods, we think the mayor is paying attention to the site.

We waded through muddy sections of the unmarked, often barely distinguishable path, going around the convent building and into the woods.  And suddenly was we turned a corner, we came upon a scene which was surprising and shocking.  A theme of this trip does seem to be emerging:  that change can happen, and we can each be a part of that change.  Before us was a stone path, with a bridge constructed over the stream, with railings which led to the Jewish cemetery which was now marked by an information guidepost marker stating what had happened here.  Inside the cemetery, it was obvious much work had been done.  The weeds had been pulled, the trees and shrubs had been pruned and one could see the memorial markers and the grave sites. 

Shalmi then spoke to us about other people who didn’t have to act, but did so just because it was the right thing to do, such as these nuns.  One story that came to mind was that of the Bulgarian Jews, who numbered about 50,000.  Bulgaria had allied with Germany during WWII in the hopes of acquiring territory from Greece and Yugoslavia.  In 1943 Nazi Germany notified the Bulgarian government that the Bulgarian Jews were to be deported to Nazi-occupied southern Poland.  The patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Stefan, ultimately decided to act to oppose the deportations, found out where the Jews had been rounded up and went there, to a school.  When he asked to come in, he was denied access to the Jews.  He climbed over the wall and went to the Jews, telling them not to register, but to go home.  When questioned by the authorities as to what he was doing, he asked them what they were doing and threatened to excommunicate them if they proceeded with the deportations.  The Jews returned home.  Later King Boris, under public pressure, officially forbade the deportations.  Bulgaria’s Jews were saved and after the war about 80% emigrated to Israel. 

Shalmi revisited the subject of leadership and change.  People often prefer not to take the initiative if the matter does not concern them.  But if you have a leader, who shows the way, there can be positive change.  We remembered Jan Masaryk and how as President he changed the status of Czech Jews in his country, so much so that they would sing the Czech national anthem as they walked to the gas chambers in Auschwitz.  Of course, much evil has also been done because of leadership, so it is important that people take responsibility for their actions, monitor their governments and leaders, and be willing to speak up and become involved when they know that to take action is the right thing to do.  Not for glory and praise – but because it is the right thing to do.

While we were there a family came to the cemetery and the parents and two young children walked respectfully around the cemetery as we were talking.  We had never before seen anyone in the cemetery.  We chose to take the easy path out, to see if there was a marker on the street, which there was, a signpost reading “Jewish Wartime Cemetery”.

The next stop was just for fun:  Zakopane.  As we left Rabka, the weather had turned absolutely beautiful and we had a warm and sunny day in this ski resort town in the Tetra mountains.  This was a favorite spot for Krakow Jews before the war, for skiing.  Many photos and videos we had seen in the Berlin Jewish Museum had been filmed in Zakopane.  We tried  oscype, the local smoked cheese which was delicious, marveled at the beautiful scenery and the wooden architecture for which the region is known and the wonderful floral folk costumes.  We took the funicular to the top of the mountain from where we could see the city of Zakopane below, the spectacular view of the “Sleeping Giant’, and walked along the ridge, having a photo stop as several students posed for pictures with a lamb and dog.  We had some time left for shopping in the market for gifts before heading back to Krakow.  Yesterday had been a difficult day --- today was such a positive day; seeing change and celebration of actions by good people during the war, and just enjoying the food and culture of  a beautiful resort town. 
Time lapse video of ride up to the mountains !

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Day 12 - Auschwitz-Birkenau

Last evening our Berlin guide, Olaf, joined us for dinner.  He had flown to Krakow to be able to spend the day with us as he wanted to share the experience of having Shalmi as a guide through Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Early this morning, at 6:30 a.m. Olaf and Paulina met us at the hotel and we headed off for the day in Oswięcim, the Polish town where Auschwitz is located. Perhaps we should not have said anything about the weather, because today it rained all day.  In some ways it seemed fitting.

At 8:00 a.m. we arrived at  Konzentration Lager [KL] Auschwitz.  Auschwitz was not one camp but was a complex of three primary sites:  Auschwitz I was the administrative center and concentration camp for primarily Polish prisoners, Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II] was the death camp, and Buna [Auschwitz III] was for manufacturing and testing facilities, which also had dozens of labor subcamps.

We had requested Wojciech, as our guide through Auschwitz I which now serves as the museum.  Wojciech had been our guide several times before and we had been very impressed with both his knowledge and his style of interacting with the students.  We started under the iconic sign:  Arbeit Macht Frei.  There, he gave us the history of the camp.  Built in the town of Oswiecim, Auschwitz is the Germanization of the name of the town.  It was established by the Nazis in 1940 and was in use until the Allied liberation in 1945.  The camp has 28 brick buildings, called Blocks, which served as barracks. 

“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” --- George Santayana.  This quote confronts all visitors at the entrance to Block 4.

In 1940 there was only Auschwitz I which functioned as a prisoner of war camp.  In 1941 Himmler ordered the enlargement of the camp and Auschwitz-Birkenau was created.  In 1942, after the Wannsee Conference, this camp starts to function as a death camp.  Wojciech told us that of the 11 million Jews living in Europe, 90% lived in Central and Eastern Europe which is why all of the death camps were located in Poland.  He also said that 75% of the Jews killed in Auschwitz were not Polish, but because of railroad connections, many Jews were deported here from large centers such as Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague and Berlin.  In 1940 he told us there were only two languages spoken:  German and Polish.  By 1944 more than 20 different languages were spoken.

The living conditions in the camp were severe ---hard work, starvation, disease and brutal treatment--- so that the average time between one’s arrival in Auschwitz I and his death was about 2 months. An estimated 1.1 million people were murdered in Auschwitz.  An urn with a small amount of human ash symbolizes the loss of all these lives. 

In Block 4 we were shown a large model of a gas chamber which we would see later in the day, in Birkenau, which showed the three phases of its operation.  First, there was the disrobing room where people undressed.  The second phase was where two Zyklon B pellets were dropped through the vents in the roof, which with water, created a deadly hydrogen cyanide.  The total time necessary to kill all 1500 people in the gas chamber was twenty minutes.  The third phase required Jewish prisoners in a special unit called the Sonderkommando, to remove the bodies, shave the hair and remove any gold fillings in the teeth,  and then burn the corpses in the underground crematorium.  The average length of time one served in the Sonderkommando before being killed himself, was 3 months.

In  Block 5 were exhibited the ‘evidence of crimes’:  belongings brought by victims to Auschwitz, confiscated by the SS and found after liberation.  Thousands of items, every one belonging to a man, woman, or child, murdered in the camp. Separate rooms contained shoes, artificial limbs and crutches, eyeglasses, prayer shawls, shaving kits, household cooking items, and other items which had been packed in their labeled suitcases.   25% of the victims in the camp were children.  Several cases contained baby clothes, dolls, and rattles.   These cases provided physical evidence of the existence of so many victims as well as giving us some insight into what they might have thought would be their future.  Before a case of tins of shoe polish, Wojciech noted that these would be packed by men who thought they might need to be looking their best, to look for a job.

Before we entered a long room in which we were asked to take no photos, Wojciech said “Nowhere else can you be as close to the victims of the camp as in this room.”  A wall-to-wall display case held more than 4,000 pounds of human hair.  The hair was sold to textile manufacturers for production of army uniforms or gloves and socks for railroad workers.  We were shown a bolt of fabric; 30% of it was made from human hair.  We could see strands of hair protruding from the fabric. 

Leaving Block 5,  we were taken next to Block 7 which showed us the living quarters of the prisoners in Auschwitz.  Walking through the hall of the building we saw photographs of the predominantly Polish prisoners, women on the left and men on the right, with their name, prisoner number, nationality, date deported to Auschwitz and date of death.  We had been told that the average life expectancy of a prisoner in Auschwitz I was 2 months because of the harsh conditions and the pictures bore this out.  These photographs were taken as a part of the processing into the camp, most by Wilhelm Brasse, himself a prisoner.  He spoke fluent German and was a photographer before the war.  This made him useful to the Nazis who wanted good photographs of the prisoners as well as someone to take pictures at their private SS parties and of the experimental surgeries.  In this manner he was able to survive the war.  Wojciech told us that it was traditional for a moment of silence to be observed at Jewish burial in memory of the departed.  If that we're to be done for each person whose photograph hung in the corridors of Block 7, it would require 8 hours.  If this same moment of silence was to be observed for each of the 1.1 million victims of Auschwitz, it would take two and a half years.  

There were 300,000 survivors of Auschwitz, we were told. But the official number of Jews in Poland is less than 5,000 today.

In Block 11, which served as the prison for the camp we saw three types of punishment cells:  dark cell, starvation cell and the standing cell in which three or four people could be forced to stand for days at a time.  Punishment might be 3-5 days in one of these cells for a minor infraction of a camp rule or 2 weeks for sabotage.  Time in a punishment cell could be a death sentence.   We visited the execution wall between Blocks 10 and 11, where tens of thousands of prisoners were lined up naked and shot.

We visited Block 27, an exhibit created by Yad Vashem which opened a few years ago.  In the 1970’s the Auschwitz State Museum started allowing national exhibits to be set up in different blocks.  Holland, Hungary, France and Belgium, for example, each have a special exhibit highlighting that nation’s experience during the Holocaust.  From the perspective of Israel / Yad Vashem, Wojciech said, Auschwitz-Birkenau has a special place, because it is the symbol of Jewish suffering in Europe.  Most Jews didn’t die in Auschwitz but it is symbolic of what the Holocaust means to Jews.  The exhibit has several rooms:  one in which Jewish life before the war is portrayed in film and pictures, a second room has screens which show Nazi propaganda speeches; a third room entitled “Geography of Murder” shows the extermination camps as well as killing sites on a huge wall map; a fourth room in which one can listen to testimony of survivors; and a fifth room which has children’s drawings painted on the walls.  The final room is an exhibit called the Book of Names.  In a long room, a book as big as the room, fills two sides of thousands of pages, listing the names and some information such as place of birth and birthdate, place and date of death, if these were known, of more than four million documented Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  This was a powerful exhibit for many of our students who found their own last name or the name of a friend in the book; one student found names of her family members. 

Our last stop in Auschwitz I was the crematorium of the camp.  There we saw the home of the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss and the gallows where he was hanged for his war crimes in 1947.  The gallows was used once --- for his execution.  We then walked through the crematorium which was used to cremate the bodies of people who had perished in the camp and had been used as the prototype for the crematoria we would see this afternoon in Birkenau. 

After a brief bag lunch on the bus as it was still raining, we drove the short distance to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Shami spent three hours showing us the death camp.  He talked about how the camp had changed in the spring of 1944 when the Nazis expected one million Hungarian Jews to be transported here.  It was then that they added the rail spur coming into the camp, preparing for the influx of prisoners. 

We visited the quarantine barracks   Towards the end of the war, Germany needed more workers as they sent more men and young boys to the front.  Jewish workers were shipped into Germany to fulfill that need.  The problem was that these Jews coming from camps were poorly nourished and could have diseases and secondly, they were Jews:  according to Nazi racial ideology, by definition they were disease.  Germany by now was essentially ‘Judenrein’ [Jew-free] but they were essential to the war effort so they were brought here and housed [no sleeping area -  just an open space at one end and long rows of latrines at the other] for three days until they were declared disease-free and could continue their journey into Germany. 

We also saw the Czech family camp which Shalmi had spoken to us about in Terezin.  The Czech Jews had been transported to Auschwitz to reduce the overcrowding prior to the Red Cross visit as part of the beautification project.  Once the visit had occurred, however, the Czech camp was liquidated and all of its inmates sent to the gas chambers.  Again, Shalmi reminded us that the last thing the Czech Jews did before entering the gas chamber, was to sing the Czech national anthem.  “People’s attitudes can change.  Before the 20th century the Czechs were tremendously antisemitic.   Then came Masaryk who changed the attitudes of the Czechs towards the Jews and the Jews towards the Czechs.”  Positive change can happen with the right leadership.

We also learned of the existence of two other camps:  the Mengele Twin Camp and the Gypsy camp.  

Passing a large pool of water, Shalmi told us it was one of two such pools, required by the Swiss insurance company, Allianz, before it would agree to insurance Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Next Shalmi spoke of the importance of “The Ramp” where the selection process was made determining whether one was to live or die.  He told us several emotional stories shared with him as he chronicled their testimony, in which they described their experiences on The Ramp.  He told us many survivors often speak of their life “before the ramp” and their “life after the ramp.”

We saw the remains of the crematoria which had been destroyed by the Nazis before fleeing.  Shalmi drew our attention to one beam.  The Nazis hired professionals to do their construction. This architect knew he was creating a crematorium.  It wasn’t enough to make straight, simple lines -   he put moldings on the beam to make it more beautiful.  He was concerned with aesthetics as he was making a chamber of death. 

The 'sauna' served as the building where those who had been chosen to live were processed (uniforms, tattooed, shaved) and we walked through the processing rooms, and spent some time looking at the photographs displayed which had been found in peoples’ suitcases.  We also viewed the remains of the warehouses called Canada which were massive storage buildings which housed confiscated Jewish property taken at the ramp, before walking back to the bus.

On our way back to Krakow, we dropped Olaf off at the airport and then continued to our hotel where we had a little time to dry out and get ready for dinner tonight near the Market Square.

Student Refletions: