The day after arriving in Krakow, Lisa and I took turns visiting the most infamous concentration camp in the world.
Unless you’ve been living on the moon or dropped out of high school, the name ‘Auschwitz‘ brings a chill because of the atrocities committed there. From 1941 to 1945, over one million Jews and political prisoners from all over Europe arrived with false hopes thinking they were coming to yet another ghetto or labor camp. When the cattle car doors clanged open, letting in the first sunshine and first fresh air people had seen in days, the ‘separation‘ commenced by SS soldiers and frothy-mouthed dogs on leashes. Crying, screaming, pleading families on one side imploring for compassion met only with shouts of ‘Shnell! Schnell!” and “Actung!” by the other.
The purpose of the separation was simple: identify laborers who could work and get rid of everyone else. In all, 80% of arrivals were marched into the gas chambers just moments after their long journey with false promises of a shower before being shown their new bunks. They shuffled into large rooms, docilly, after being stripped and having had their heads shaved. The rooms were sealed and instead of water coming from the shower heads, Zyklon B was poured in from above and the suffocating commenced. Those closest to the ducts died quickly, those in the corners lived 20 minutes more in agony.
If the staff of Auschwitz were going to hell, a special place was reserved there for Josef Mengele. I heard of Josef Mengele when I was younger, but the horrors he committed have cemented my view that he might just be the most vile human being ever to walk the planet. Mengele was so aptly called the ‘Angel of Death‘ and carried out numerous, sadistic experiments on the populace in the name of eugenics and finding out how to build a better ‘master race’. His experiments and lab (which we saw) involved castration, genital mutilation and gender reassignments surgeries. He had a soft spot for twin children as he could use one as the baseline and inject the other with debilitating diseases. Whereas Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz was found guilty at the Nuremberg trials and sentenced to hanging next to the crematorium of Auschwitz as retribution for his crimes, Mengele slunk out of Germany and died while swimming in the ocean in south America. A fascinating and horrific read from a first hand account is ‘Surviving the Angel of Death‘, by Eva Mozes who wrote about experiments done on her and her twin sister Miriam while imprisoned there.
Visiting the Park
Auschwitz Birkenau was just over an hour outside of Krakow. Although it’s possible to take a bus, I recommend an organized ‘skip the line’ tour from City pass which leaves from Krakow and cost 180 Polish Zloty. An organized tour also provided us with a guide and headset to listen to the extensive history of the site from local experts. When we got back to our apartment, we watched the six part, BBC documentary: “Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution” which combined historical archives, CGI and reenacted scenes leading up to its construction.
“What age is appropriate to visit?”
After much debate, we decided not to take our 9 year old daughter. After web searches and talking to people who had been there, we felt that she was just a ‘tad’ too young. That being said, there was a middle school group visiting in rapt attention and other parents who brought children as young as 5 to play outside the building’s exhibits while the parents visited inside. In Auschwitz 1, there are graphic pictures of naked, emaciated women and children which may be too much for young eyes.
The personal artifacts are what haunted me the most. At the park, entire rooms are used to house clothes, eye glasses, human hair and shoes from victims of all ages. As you visit, you can’t help but think- in every pair of shoes walked a different person. A different person with hopes and dreams. A different person from a loving family who was loved and who loved someone back. Different people from different backgrounds reduced to nothing. Just ash. Like that.
Enter NewsELA for Current Events
The bus ride back was somber for everyone. Looking out in the windows at the rolling countryside of green with cheerful looking towns, I asked what people have been asking about the genocide for decades: “How could this happen?” In the 1930’s, legions of European Jews were denied asylum in the United States and other places as many thought of these immigrants as vermin who would take their jobs, mooch off welfare –sound familiar?– so they got sent back to Europe and their eventual doom. ‘Not my problem’ was one refrain. “They’re Communists” was another.
Just recently, Poland has passed a new law making it a punishable offense to insinuate that Poland was somehow responsible or complicit for any part in the holocaust. During the war, Germans utilized Polish police forces for rounding up Jews and for logistical support and if they didn’t help, they would have most likely been killed themselves. All over Europe, the third reich bullied the local garrison into doing their bidding. During wartime, people will do anything to survive.
I found this new law fascinating and was excited to find it on NewsELA. As we have been reading more and more current events and informational texts, I have introduced Ava to “NewsELA” which curates popular articles into different reading levels for readers and can be assigned for reading and tracking.
In addition to being able to read articles of varying length, NewsELA also has post reading questionnaires that measure information text understanding of common core reading standards.
“Never again” I repeat to myself, knowing that the ‘Never again‘ mantra goes only as far as those who have seen it. ‘Never again‘ didn’t make it to the shores of Cambodia, the mountains of Yugoslavia, jungles of Rwanda, or Armenia, or Darfur and millions more died because of it.
“Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it”
After the visit and after all the books we read and documentaries we watched, two distinct moments hang with me. The first was a video interview of a prison guard at the camp who was asked: “Do you regret what you did?” “No.” he said. “I thought the Jews were terrible and we needed to get rid of them. It was my conviction that they were awful people and the cause of our problems.” The power of propaganda.
The other was from Eva Kor shortly before being liberated by the red army. While having freedom to explore the grounds for the first time, she came across a river and across it on the other bank was a young Polish girl her age. The young girl carried a backpack and was wearing her school clothes and was on her way to a lesson. The other girl had been carrying on with life as usual, inured to the horrors across the bank while Eva was covered in rags and recovering from torture. “How could you not have done something, anything?” She thought.
Combating Modern Day Fascism
One of the more interesting articles on social media use I read recently was ‘The spread of true and false news online” in Science 2018. The authors point out that fake news gets spread quicker than facts because it’s novel, and uses the availability heuristic combined with false consensus to make the sharers feel like they’re part of something; and their tribe is bigger than they think. People just don’t want to waste time checking their sources. Or be told that they’re wrong.
Anger and fear are seeds that germinate war. Forgiveness is a seed for peace.
-Eva Mozes Kor
Truth is discourse. In order for that discourse to develop we have a responsibility to share these truths with all the facts to back them up. We have a responsibility to stand up to newly emboldened white nationalist trolls, holocaust deniers and anti-immigrant populists who cajole fear. We have a responsibility to call out this ugly behavior and vote out of office politicians who either support it, ignore it or wield it themselves.
“Never again.” We’ll tell them.