As we spend a couple of months or more each year in Greece, we have made it a point to take tours to various destinations in Europe. The tour guide will normally be Greek speaking, a disadvantage for me. On the other hand, it allows me to wander a bit and see what we are visiting instead of having my foot nailed to the floor while the guide drones on about whatever. This year, our tour choice was Poland.
Day 1: Getting there.
Our Greek home is in Peraia, a suburb of Thessaloniki. The tours originate from Athens so we have an extra leg. Athens is not my favorite airport. It is crowded, cluttered, clumsy and chaotic. It is certainly not what one would expect of a capitol city.
The tours have been using Aegean Airlines, a company that effectively replaced Olympic. They have a fleet of 60 Airbus A320’s, a crowded model with really tight seat spacing. I endured. I did not enjoy.
Our first destination was Krakow, wherein we found a very hospitable city centered around a plaza filled with restaurants, souvenir vendors and people. This, we found, is characteristic of every Polish city and impresses with the tidiness of streets and everything.
Day 2: The salt mine and the city.
On display in the mine are reminders of what such work meant in the time before mechanization. Some of the wooden machinery is very impressive.
In the morning, we began a descent into the Wielezka salt mine which, though now not operational, must have produced a few cubic miles of rock salt over the course of its more than 600 years of operation. More than just a mine, it contains a variety of sculpture, all in rock salt done by miners, that commemorate saints and kings and more. In all, the mine reaches depths over 1000 ft., and includes 178 miles of shafts and passages. In the course of the tour, you descend hundreds of steps. Wobbly legs are to be expected. The ascent is by elevator,
In the afternoon, we took a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter and the Wawel Castle and Cathedral. The cathedral is typical of the major churches throughout Poland, immense and magnificent.
The Jewish Quarter, by contrast, is very subdued. Prior to World War II, there were an estimated 80,000 Jews in the city. At the end of the war, a mere 7,000 had survived. Since then the Jewish population has virtually vanished. There are a few synagogues and no more than 200 Jews remaining.
This is characteristic of the entire tour. The simplest way to say it is that the Nazis thoroughly trashed Poland, and the Russians were none too careful in their reconquest. At the end of the war with the country mostly in ruins, Poland began a decades long reconstruction that continues to this day. There was more to come.
Day 3: Into the Heart of Darkness
As it is told, the Nazis originally only intended to force the Jews out of Europe. They considered sending them first to Siberia, but the invasion of Russia ended that. Then Zanzibar was considered. When they realized that it would be too expensive and probably not possible, the most expedient alternative was extermination, something they set about doing with typically Teutonic efficicency. The Jews were rounded up and shipped to a number of concentration and extermination camps. The best known of these was near the Polish town of Oswciem, called by the Germans, Auschwitz.
Much of this camp remains and is now maintained as a tourist destination. It was situated around a set of brick barracks built for the Polish Army. To these were added additional crude wooden barracks to house the thousands of prisoners. The brick barracks and some of the wooden barracks still stand. The Nazis destroyed most of the extermination facilities when they realized that they were about to loose the war and the Russians were approaching. The gas chambers and crematoriums are mostly gone. A sobering display is housed in several of the brick barracks.
It is impossible to comprehend the magnitude of all of this. Auschwitz alone accounted for some 1,500,000 Jews and others. The exhibits recount the treatment of prioners and the processing that sorted the capable from the less so. The latter went directly to the chambers. Those remaining were simply worked to death.
The most harrowing part of the exhibits are all the possesions conficated from prisoners as they arrived. There are piles of luggage, shoes, brushes, eyglasses and more. A large room is filled with human hair shaved from the corpses and sold to the textile industries. All this is only a fraction of what was taken, and that only at Auschwitz.
From the brick barracks, you are lead to the arrival tracks where the selections were made, and then into some of the wooden barracks. On display is a boxcar of the type in which prisoners were shipped to the camps. They would have little or no food or water. With as many as 80 people crammed into one boxcar, a trip that might last as long as ten days resulted in the deaths of many before they ever reached a camp.
These barracks were a minimal consruction that provided only shelter and no comfort at all. Imagine a half dozen people all crammed onto that shelf without mattress or blankets.
Once you have experienced this place, your perspective must change. Talking of the Holocaust without it is to deal with the abstract. Here at this place is the concrete and undeniable evidence and in overwhelming volume.
Is there a lesson for us here? Of course there is. There are many lessons. First and foremost is that in the political discourse of the day, to liken anyone to the monsters who perpetrated the holocaust is reprehensible. To do so trivializes what was done and diminishes the memory of all those vicitms. We would do well to rethink our poisonous politics and begin to restore some to civility to it. I do not say that we would or could repeat that history but the less we appreciate the enormity of it and honor the dead whose ashes are scattered there, the more likely we are to visit our own heart of darkness.