Sunday, July 3, 2011

Auschwitz and Birkenau: the Krakow Diaries, Part II

The entrance to Auschwitz
The entrance to Birkenau

Rick and I felt a little guilty about not going to Dachau when we were in Munich in the 1990’s.We were having too good a time enjoying the museums, the restaurants, the opera in Munich and we just didn’t want to spoil the fun.

We decided that we could not do that twice and this time we would go to Auschwitz/ Birkenau. I was dreading it. I was afraid that what had never seemed quite real to me would become all too real. But instead of initially being overwhelmed by the horror, Rick and I experienced a strange distancing effect. It was a gorgeous sunny day. On the ride from Krakow to Auschwitz when the tour bus showed a horribly grim film, we found our eyes wandering to the lush green countryside and the iris and peony filled gardens in the houses by the road.

The cognitive dissonance continued at Auschwitz. The entrance was filled with tour buses and cheerful looking tourists strolling in the park-like area in front of Auschwitz. The groups of teenagers who looked very bored when inside the museum immediately started chatting merrily with each other as soon as they got outside.

We did have a greater sense of the reality of the Holocaust at Birkenau. No doubt because of Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, Birkenau looked much more like what I expected—the ramshackle buildings constructed to hold those bound for the gas chambers—in contrast to the sturdily built brick buildings at Auschwitz, built originally to house Polish soldiers.

The barracks at Auschwitz
The barracks at Birkenau

Every once in a while something broke through that strange sense of distance. When we passed by a hall of photographs of those murdered at Auschwitz/Birkenau, Rick pointed to a photo of a man with the same surname as his grandmother. He was identified as a merchant from Poland. Her family members were merchants from Poland so a connection was possible. Nothing like personal connection to pierce through the sense of unreality.

The contrast between the beauty of the day, the holiday atmosphere in the parking lot and the horror of Auschwitz/Birkenau was not the only surreal aspect of the day. The museum at Auschwitz demonstrated the extent to which the Nazis ran their camps like a business with carefully recorded inventories of possessions confiscated and detailed records of all prisoners. I had known about this grisly combination of cold-blooded efficiency and unimaginable horror, but seeing the actual records on the spot where it actually happened had an impact. Although I felt this strange distance while on the actual site, the experience stayed with me and I expect will remain a part of me forever.

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