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The International Writers Magazine: Poland (From Our Archives)

Krakow to Auschwitz: A Fusion of History
• Valery Collins
How often do we use the phrase ‘it is against my principals’?  I remember using it the first time I visited Krakow and was given the opportunity to go to Auschwitz.  I said I preferred to remain in the city and concentrate on the here and now.  I was not sure which principal I was invoking I was just scared of what I would see.  There was plenty to do in this beautiful city anyway.

Wawel is the most impressive collection of buildings in Poland and includes a castle and cathedral in a beautiful setting beside the river on the outskirts of the city.  Kazimeirz, the old Jewish quarter, has come to life again thanks to Speilberg’s film Schindler’s List and is now a feast of shops, cafés and restaurants.  The Old Town Square drew us back again and again with its impressive buildings including the fabulous Basilica of St Mary.  Every evening we walked past this church to hear the bugler sound the hour for one last time that day.  Legend has it that in the thirteenth century a lone fireman on the tower spotted Tartar forces heading for the town and started playing his trumpet to warn the inhabitants.  His melody was cut short when he was shot with an arrow but it had been sufficient to raise the alarm and save the city.  Now seven local firemen sound the bugle every hour.

Watchtower The second time I visited Krakow the entire group clamoured to visit Auschwitz and my principals had to take second place to this wish.  Not only was Auschwitz on the itinerary but also the permanent exhibition in Schindler’s Factory entitled ‘Krakow under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945’.   This modern museum is devoted to the wartime experiences in Krakow during this period. 

In common with most factories it is in the middle of a drab industrial estate but it was worth visiting just to learn more about Schindler himself and to see his office that has been preserved within the museum.  Schindler was a real opportunist who suddenly developed a conscience and ultimately saved hundreds of his Jewish employees.  I found the museum very interesting and it achieved the desired effect of creating a full-immersion experience.  It was an interesting prelude to our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Our tour started at Auschwitz which was built in 1940 initially to house Polish political prisoners.  The camp was like a small town with a staff canteen, cinema, theatre and shop.  Before we began to explore the three-storey buildings Pavel told us that their aim was to preserve the site as a memorial to the people who had died there. When we arrived he had given us all earphones with a receiver which meant we did not have to cluster round him all the time. 

We were free to take our time examining the exhibits behind the large glass cases inside the buildings while listening to his commentary.

Auschwitz It was poignant seeing the piles of suitcases, the mounds of ordinary house utensils, heaps of spectacles and masses of shoes.  Pavel told us that all the people who were brought to the camp believed that they were being re-settled so they had packed some basic essentials.  It is thought that disabled people were gassed immediately they arrived and that children were also dispatched very quickly and any babies born in the camp were deprived of food.

 Our final visit on this site was the gas chamber itself.  The prisoners were led in there to be ‘bathed and disinfected’ and then they were gassed.  Doctors in uniforms were present to maintain the illusion until the end.

Pavel also covered the more gruesome details.  It took thirty minutes to kill the prisoners and then the rest of the day to dispose of the bodies once they had been stripped of anything that could be used, such as hair to weave material.  They had crematoriums but these could not cope so they had to burn the bodies in the open.  At the time very little was known about the activities at Auschwitz and the soldiers who liberated the camp were unprepared for the sights they had to witness.

Birkenau, a massive extension to Auschwitz, was built to house the slave labour for synthetic rubber production.  Over one hundred thousand people occupied the single storey buildings, built by the prisoners, which were massively over crowded.  None of these buildings were open to the public because the foundations are so shallow they are unstable and preservation is a now a problem.  We could only view them from the outside.

When we stopped by a large memorial banked with wreaths I huddled into my jacket, the top of four layers of clothing, but still I shivered.  The vast expanse of open ground around us was a brown and white patchwork of soil and snow.  The watch towers and spiked strands of barbed wire were stark and forbidding against a grey sky.  There was an audible gasp when Pavel announced that the prisoners had never had more to wear than a pair of striped pyjamas and a cap to cover their shaven heads whatever the season. We tramped alongside the railway line towards the memorial at the far end of this site passing one of the original railway trucks that had transported the prisoners to the camp. 

Auschwitz Conditions inside the truck had been so bad that some did not survive the journey.  Those that survived and were put to work had to contend with extremes of climate.  To cope the prisoners had developed a walk known as the Birkenau walk because from March, after the snow had melted and the ground had thawed out it became very boggy and the wooden clogs that most of them wore just sank into the ground.

 In the summer the heat was intense and the area was a barren expanse as any vegetation that did break the surface was trampled by thousands of feet.

There was no escape because at night the camp was guarded by four thousand soldiers and the fence was electrified.  If anyone did get out their shaven heads, striped prison suits and emaciated bodies made it obvious where they had come from.  But love can overcome everything and when it blossomed between Jerzy Bielecki, a Polish worker in the camp and Cyla Cybulska a Jewish prisoner he donned an SS uniform and marched his sweetheart out of the camp.  After walking for nine nights under cover of darkness they found refuge at his uncle’s village.  Cyla went into hiding at a local farm and Jerzy went into hiding in Krakow after promising to come back for her.  He returned to the farm four days after Cyla had departed for America convinced that he was either dead or had abandoned her.  Forty years later she discovered that he had not died and they were briefly re-united but were never destined to live together.

As we left Birkenau we passed the ruins of the gas chambers destroyed by the Germans when they abandoned the camp in 1944.  It reminded us of the terrible statistics relating to this camp.  1.1 million people died here and one million of them were Jewish men, women and children – the largest mass murder in the history of the world.  John Boyne concludes in his book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas “Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again.  Not in this day and age.”  Auschwitz-Birkenau should always be there to remind us of this.
© Valery Collins August 2013
 valery.collins at

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