Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Visit to KL Auschwitz I

As this goes up, today is the very last day of my program which is very bittersweet. I am very excited to get home to see Luke and the doggies, but very sad to leave all of the new friends I've met behind. I will be driving from the Dunajec River to Krakow where I will spend a couple of days before going back to the UK and leaving Poland behind for now. What a wonderful trip it has been. 

However, there are a TON more posts about this trip to go, so don't you worry your pretty little head. 

In this post, I am going to discuss my trip to KL Auschwitz I. Auschwitz I is located in the town of Oświęcim, where we stayed for one week. Oświęcim (pronounced OS-ven-chim) is the name of the town in Polish, and it is referred to as Auschwitz in German. Residents, understandably, dislike having the town called Auschwitz. Oświęcim itself is a very nice little town surrounded by the Sola River and tons of birch trees. Oświęcim has a long and rich history, including a large population of Jews that were killed in the Holocaust. Contrary to population notions, you cannot see the concentration camp from the town, although it is just a short walk from the city centre. Birkenau, where most of the killing took place (and what I will write about in my next post regarding this trip) is further away from the town. During the war, those living near the camps were forcibly moved to make way for KL Auschwitz to be built. (FYI: KL stands for Konzentrationslager, which translates into English as "concentration camp").
If you cannot believe that a town near such a place of horror could possibly be beautiful, have a look at some of the pictures of the town here:

Market Square

Kids cooling off in the Market Square Fountains
You can read a little bit more about this town's rich history here.
Before we visited Auschwitz I, I was incredibly nervous. Auschwitz is the prevailing symbol of the Holocaust, for better or worse, and for me, is a very personal experience. When most people think of Auschwitz, they think of the killing centre, however Auschwitz was unique in that it was divided into three distinct camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Auschwitz III- Monowitz (Buna). Auschwitz III is still an operating factory (it was created by IG Farben to exploit slave labor and make very cheap synthetic rubber) and therefore cannot be visited. Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, is where most Jewish prisoners were sent and where the bulk of testimonies or anything you hear about Auschwitz takes place. In fact, the museum of Auschwitz I contained mostly information pertaining to Auschwitz II since there is no formal museum in Auschwitz II.
For those confused about the difference, Auschwitz-Birkenau's website says this about Auschwitz I:
"Auschwitz I, the main camp in Oświęcim. In August 1944, it held about 16 thousand prisoners (roughly 10 thousand Jews, 4 thousand Poles, and 3 thousand prisoners from other ethnic groups). This was the location of the SS garrison administration (SS Standortverwaltung), the commander of the local garrison, and the commandant of Auschwitz I, who enjoyed the formal prerogative of “senior” service status in relation to the other two commandants (“Der Lagerkommandant des KL Auschwitz I ist dienstältester Lagerkommandant und SS-Standortältester des SS-Standortes Auschwitz”). Auschwitz I was also the seat of the main offices of the political department and the prisoner labor department. Here, too, were the main supply stores, workshops, and SS companies (DAW, DEST, and Deutsche Lebensmittel GmbH). Work in these administrative and economic units and companies was the main labor assignment for the prisoners in this camp. 
In October 1944, a camp for several thousand women prisoners employed producing artillery-shell fuses in the Union-Werke factory opened in the new blocks in the so-called camp extension (Schutzhaftlagererweiterung)."
Citation: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Website 

The visit was not as emotional as I actually expected, or rather perhaps even needed it to be. When you are an academic, sometimes it is expected that you put your feelings on hold--or never even have them in order to keep it together. We were given a tour by a man who works at the camp and knows so much about it, yet the emotion was totally missing (and I don't blame him as it would have to be for him to be able to go to work everyday). However, I think I needed to feel something, as this was my first visit to Auschwitz, despite having studied it for most of my life. I will likely go back there on Saturday (our day off) in order to see some more of the exhibits in depth.

Here is a sample of what we saw in KL Auschwitz I

Artificial limbs and aids for disabled people taken to Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Confiscated luggage
Confiscated luggage

Even the shoes were confiscated

Quote at the beginning of a new exhibit co-designed by Yad Vashem

Picture drawn by a child during the Holocaust (not necessarily at Auschwitz, but possibly)

Drawing mockingly telling prisoners how not to wash

Drawing telling prisoners how to wash

Bunks in KL Auschwitz I. Each bunk was for two grown men or women (depending on the year they were used). These are different than the "classic" barracks you see in films because those mostly represent Birkenau.

View of the sheer number of people packed in at once.
Children's shoes

Heels women wore to Auschwitz
I hope you found this interesting, although a bit horrific. :( 

Until next time. x

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  1. Alexia MarianiJuly 22, 2014 at 2:33 PM

    good pictures ;) this is history of our world


    1. Definitely is. Thanks for taking the time to write in! x

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