Where No Birds Sang

We were up fairly early this morning, about 6.45am, and I showered, blow-dried my hair and got dressed before going down to breakfast. The bus was coming to collect us at 8.00am for our excursion, which today was going to be to the most infamous Nazi concentration camp of them all – Auschwitz.

We enjoyed a substantial buffet breakfast once again and made our way outside to the side-entrance of the hotel to await the bus. It was a fine day, with a blue, cloudless sky and little wind and the sun shone down.

The bus arrived and we all boarded, and we were just about to set off when one lady realised she had forgotten something, so she ran back into the hotel and kept us all waiting for 10 minutes before she reappeared, smiling apologetically. We then set off for the hour-long journey to the town of Oświęcim, where the notorious death camp is situated. Auschwitz is the German name for it.

As ever, we enjoyed the coach journey, looking out of the windows at the sunlit Polish countryside and passing through interesting little villages and towns on the way. Soon we pulled up in the car/coach park at Auschwitz, and we saw that our bus was only one of two; our guide Mike told us that it was usually crowded here, but during this ongoing Covid-19 crisis, like everywhere else, crowds are a thing of the past; certainly not of 2020 anyway.

In keeping with the safety precautions we all had to sanitise our hands on entry and put our masks on. We then had our temperature taken at a gate, and the light had to turn green before we were allowed in. It was reassuring to see these safety precautions in place, and partly explained why Poland had only experienced low Covid numbers so far.

Once we were inside, we met our guide and began our tour in detail.

We saw some old brick buildings and the guide explained they were the prisoner reception buildings; they were adjacent to a long block of buildings with tall chimneys. These buildings served as the camp kitchens. Although we had never been here before, it all looked horribly familiar due to TV and media exposure, particularly when we came to the camp gates with the infamous ARBEIT MACHT FREI sign above them. This translates as “work sets you free” as the prisoners arriving at the camp believed they were being sent there to do hard labour. In fact, this part of the camp, called Auschwitz 1, did start off as the labour camp; it was when Birkenau (Auschwitz 2) was open that it turned into a mass extermination death camp.

We saw the various blocks, each of which had a horrific history if its own. Block 10 was where medical experiments were practised on women. German “doctors” (I use the term loosely) performed a variety of experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz. SS doctors tested the efficacy of X-rays as a sterilisation device by administering large doses to female prisoners. Carl Clauberg injected chemicals into women’s uteruses in an effort to glue them shut. The most infamous doctor at Auschwitz was, of course, Joseph Mengele who performed experiments on identical twins, dwarfs and those with hereditary diseases, particularly those of Gypsy or Romany descent.

Block 11 was the punishment block, where inmates would be flogged or beaten for the flimsiest of infractions of the rules. It also contained the standing cells where, as the name suggests, prisoners were interred into a cell so narrow they had to stand, sometimes for days at a time, without food.

The courtyard between blocks 10 and 11, known as the “death wall”, served as an execution area, including for Poles in the General Government area who had been sentenced to death by a criminal court. The first executions, by shooting inmates in the back of the head, took place at the death wall on 11 November 1941, Poland’s National Independence Day. An estimated 4,500 Polish political prisoners were executed at the death wall, including members of the camp resistance. The more we saw, the more appalled we became at man’s utter inhumanity to man.

But we were hardly prepared for what we were to see next. Our guide took us into a room where we saw a huge pile of empty Zyklon-B canisters. As you know, Zyklon-B was the infamous pesticide that contained cyanide pellets, and it was these that were administered through holes in the ceiling to the gas chambers below. On average it took each person 20 minutes to die, and the Nazi guards knew when everyone was dead because the screaming stopped.

Next, we saw a massive pile of suitcases and other luggage, all of which had their previous owners’ names painted on them. There was also a mountain of shoes and boots, crutches and artificial limbs, eye-glasses and, most horrific of all, over two tonnes of human hair. Actual, real human hair that had been cut and shaved from the women’s heads as they were being “processed” in the camp. It was utterly abominable, and I had to fight back tears at the sight.

During our visit our guide pointed out old photographs around the walls. One of them showed a new arrival of camp inmates standing in a long queue, some of them wearing the distinctive striped pyjamas, and a man in Nazi uniform standing by with a clipboard and one hand pointing to the right. He would assess each inmate’s capability for work, and those deemed to old or unfit or sick for work were sent straight to the gas chambers, i.e. to the right, where the guard was pointing. Each photograph and what it was portraying, frozen for an instant in time, seemed more horrific than the last.

As we emerged from the building into the bright sunshine and cloudless skies, it seemed somehow wrong that the day should be so clear and bright over a place that should be forever shrouded in clouds and darkness. The next part of our tour would take us to Birkenau, which was built purely as a large-scale murder factory.

As we approached the buildings we saw the notorious stretch of railway track leading to the infamous archway of Birkenau, through which the trains carrying their human cargo would pass, directly to the gas chambers. At intervals along the barbed wire fences we could see the lookout towers. as well as some of the buildings where the inmates would sleep, three or four to a bunk, on three levels. Some of the previous occupants of the bunks had scratched their names and details in the concrete walls; one that was still discernible read:

1943-1944
MARIJA LET
JUGOSLAVIJA
49841

Those on the bottom level were actually just on the floor, which during wet weather would become a quagmire of mud, among which people were expected to sleep. Very often, those who were not put to death died anyway, of typhoid or starvation; we were told that the average weight the each adult man who survived was 30 kilogrammes. Unbelievable.

Our guide led us into another intensely depressing building with bare brick walls and iron oven doors; these were the remains of the crematoria where thousands of bodies were incinerated. No matter what you might read about the Holocaust, nothing can really prepare you for going to Auschwitz and seeing where it all really happened, and it still has the power to shock and repulse even after all these decades. And so it should; no-one should ever be allowed to forget.

Out in the sunshine once again, we saw a large plaque which read:

FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE
A CRY OF DESPAIR
AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY
WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED
ABOUT ONE AND A HALF MILLION
MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN
MAINLY JEWS
FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU
1940-1945

The last place we visited before we had to be back on the coach was the gallows where the Auschwitz camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, was executed.

It had been an interesting and educational, but harrowing and sobering, visit, but one which we were pleased we had done nonetheless.

Once we arrived back in Kraków about 3.00pm, the bus dropped us off in the centre square where we decided to go and have something to eat, as we hadn’t had any lunch. We had a look around and spotted a bar/café that didn’t look too busy and was serving food, so we went in and ordered a pint of Tyskie each as well as a plate of one of the local dishes, that was pork escalopes fried in a sort of batter with onions and a savoury sauce, served with fried potatoes. Like a lot of the food we’d tried so far, it was a simple dish but a tasty one, and was very cheap.

We then walked around for a bit and decided to go and sit at a pavement café for another beer; a busker was singing and playing some lively music nearby as we sat drinking our beers with the sun on our backs. We felt our mood slowly lifting as we looked forward to whatever the rest of the day would bring. 🙂

Later on, back in our hotel room, we rested and relaxed for a while before getting washed and changed and venturing out once again. We decided we’d take a slow stroll back to the park where the dragon statue was, as we wanted to see it “breathing” fire (and hopefully photograph it!) in the gathering darkness. The evening air was pleasantly warm and there were quite a lot of people about, some walking, some on bicycles and some whizzing along on the ubiqutious scooters. When we reached the dragon we had it timed just perfectly; with a hiss and whoosh of gas the flames emerged from his mouth; we got some great photos! 🙂

We then walked over the bridge where we could see the balloon in the sky again as well as the lights reflecting on the calm waters of the Vistula. We had a wander around the streets and came to a corner which had a lively pub on it called “Time for Tea”. It was an English-style pub, with posters of the Beatles and an “Abbey Road” sign; it had an extensive drinks menu featuring British beers and ales as well as cocktails and wines. The pub was packed out with customers; even though some tables were marked out with black-and-yellow tape indicating that they were not to be used, in order to maintain social distancing, people were taking no notice and sitting at the tables anyway. Everyone was laughing, drinking, shouting – the noise was tremendous.

Trevor ordered a pint of beer and I had a large glass of wine; the drinks came with a dish of salted peanuts. Next to our tables was a group of eight blokes; although they were not British they were all speaking in English to each other. It turned out they were from about five different countries and English was the only common language. One of them handed me his phone and asked if I would kindly take a photo of them; I happily obliged.

After our drinks we returned to the hotel just after 9.30pm; we’d packed a lot into today and we were now pleasantly tired. On the way, we called into the Spar and bought some more beer and snacks to enjoy in our room.

We watched the limited TV programmes and I read my Kindle for a while before settling down the for the night. It had certainly been a day with a difference.

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