We got up today and had to say goodbye to beautiful Warsaw. Once again I found myself upset that I had to leave such a city with such history. I vowed that I would return to both Warsaw and Berlin to spend more time there. Today was a day that I had been dreading. I wanted to see Auschwitz but yet, I knew that it would be something very emotional and hard. Also on the agenda for the day was Jasna Gora a monastery and home of the Black Madonna. I really had no idea what to expect and to be brutally honest, I wasn't all that excited about going. I don't know if it is that I'm not Catholic so the Madonna doesn't have as much meaning to us, or it it was just that I was churched out at this time.
I can see any number of castles or ruined cathedrals in a day, but my attention span with churches is about nil. Anyway, when we got to Jasna Gora it was PACKED! There were more people here than any place else we had been, I swear. We had a guide who was a monk??? and spoke so softly that I never did hear anything he said. He walked us around the different buildings within the complex and then into the church where we walked around the outside walls of the church and past the Black Madonna. Now the whole time we were doing this there was a church service going on and kids were getting their first communion. It felt really, really weird and disrespectful, but the folks inside paid us no mind. After seeing the Black Madonna for a second, we headed to the treasure room, which I have to say was pretty damn cool.
I never saw so much gold, silver, diamonds and other jewels all together before in my life. I finally understood why the Vikings and others used to plunder the monasteries, lol. There was even jewelry in there from modern times that people willed to the church.....maybe a last ditch effort to get into heaven, lol. Afterwards we went outside and had some ice cream; there were these flea market type stalls all around selling religious items, really, really sureal and tacky. All in all, I wasn't so impressed with Jasna Gora, maybe I had already decided I had no real interest in it before we got there, but it was by far the most commercial place I had been to on this whole vacation. It also probably didn't help that it was the one thing we had to get done before we headed to Auschwitz and I had spent the bulk of the day emotionally preparing myself for it.
After leaving Jasna Gora we were finally on our way to Auschwitz. We went to Birkenau first and had some time to walk around there. It felt so weird to be someplace that I had spent so much time learing about in the months leading up to this trip. I stood where the train tracks entered the camp and where people got off the train still with hope for the future only to find out they were going to die. I had read that people who had gone to Auschwitz said the it felt so heavy there and had an auror of sadness and it is absolutely true. It was so quiet there, no one was talking just walking around and taking everything in. There was so much to look at, the guard towers, the chimmneys that were the remains of the crematoriums, the isolation or sick buildings where they housed those to sick to work but not yet put to death.
our guide at Jasna Gora
After leaving Auschwitz II we headed over to main camp. We met our guide who told us that her uncle had been imprisoned and killed in Auschwitz for coming to the aide of a Jewish man. It wasn't that busy that day which I found really odd and once again it was so quiet there. Passing thru the gates with the infamous "work makes you free" sign was really freaky. The guide walked us all around and gave us tons of information about the camp. She told us about the neutral areas between the fences that would mean sudden death to any prisoner who attempted to enter it, we saw the electric fences where prisoners would throw themselves to commit suicide when it became too much, we saw the areas where the SS guards took roll call.
We also saw the killing wall or wall of death where prisoners were lined up and killed and the beams they would hang the prisoners on so they died a slow strangulation death. At one point she took us into Block 11 which in the basement had rooms such as the starvation rooms, the standing rooms and the suffocation rooms. It's hard for me to grasp how they sat around and thought up such vile ways to kill people. The standing rooms were these tiny little rooms that they would force 20 or so people into and close the door and leave them for days. There was no room for them to move at all they just had to stand there. The suffocation rooms were even worse, the same small rooms with a little tiny whole for fresh air to come in. They left them in there until they died.
Upstairs in Block 11 were rooms filled with the personal belongings of the prisoners. This was, for me, one of the hardest things to see in Auschwitz. There were rooms where the entire wall was filled with the shaved hair from prisoners before they were shipped to the gas chambers, hair from floor to ceiling. There was a room of people's prosthesetic legs and arms and crutches. That room was horrible because you knew those people died straight away because they couldn't work. The absolute worse room for me was the room with the suitcases. The other rooms were bad don't get me wrong, but to see these suitcases with peoples names and addresses on them because they truely believed they were going to be relocated just made it so much more personal for me.
The last part of the tour was the gas chamber. The building just down the street from the gas chamber was the home of Rudolf Hoess the Commandant of Auschwitz, where he lived with his wife and children while millions of people were killed just up the street. Ironically, the gallows where Rudlof Hoess was executed sits right next to the gas chambers, poetic I think. I'm not going to get into the gas chamber other than to say it was a horrible, horrible place.
Auzchwitz is a place I will never forget, I'm glad I got to go and see it, I think anyone who has the chance should see it, but it is a place I never want to see again. Once you see it, it stays with you forever, I think, at least for me it will.