The Hike from the Train Station
We arrived at Oswiecim, Poland at around suppertime on Wednesday the 13th of September. In the interest of total disclosure, we never did see the town proper, just the camps and the walk from the station. Since my despondent epiphany in Vienna, a fundamental change had taken place in my approach to things that annoyed, or scared me, or provoked stress. I decided to meet challenges which might normally annoy me with an assured equanimity and attempt to snuff the initial spark of anger. It’s difficult to stay consistent, but I try. I choose to do this because nothing I endure in my life can compare to be packed in a cattle car, shipped to a concentration camp and seeing my family killed before my eyes.
There were no cabs waiting at this train station once we arrived. Indeed, the place seemed deserted. We shouldered our backpacks and began the mile long trek to Hotel Olecki, which I had booked about two hours prior through Trivago. Jo is in much better physical shape than I am, so we had to stop every quarter mile or so to drop the duffle bag we were carrying between us so I could catch my breath, check our position on GPS and to just check out surroundings which were surprisingly similar to home in respect to climate and natural environment.
There was a tall, weather beaten fence that hid what was on our side of the road from view (with the exception of the source of stretches of lush tree canopy above) and I had to wonder if that was part of the camp. It wasn’t, but that line of thought was ever present during this trek. While this area felt very much like home in the Maritime provinces in respect to climate and vegetation, the topography was completely flat, which was fortunate for us as we made our way to the hotel. Once we arrived, the situation deteriorated. No reservation and the hotel was full, despite the fact we had a confirmation. We tried our luck at the Hotel Imperiale next door and were fortunate enough to find a room.
There’s a reason I mention the mix-up, which seems minor now, but making a run from Florence, Italy to Ozweicim, Poland in a 28 hours is taxing despite the sleeper berth. In my inexperience I had stretched us pretty thin and that’s on me. I mention it because human nature being what it is I was immediately incensed. I then did the opposite of what human nature dictated and immediately doused the anger. I stayed polite and a solution was found. Why did I stay so polite?
Because it’s really hard to get angry and yell at someone over something like this when Auschwitz I is staring you directly in the face from across the road, as we discovered in our walk up to the hotel. It was a moment of enforced enlightenment as to what really matters in life. There would be many more such moments to come. We had arrived at Auschwitz.
We ended up staying at the hotel across the street.
The Town of Oswiecim: Historic Context
Osweicim is a small town in southern Poland just across the border from the Czech Republic. Historically, it appears shortly after Poland became an independent sovereignty around the 11th century and the local Jewish populace called it Oshpitzin. Looking at events through the lens of a North American, its arc looks typically European. Indeed, it was an independent Duchy from 1315 until 1445 when it was sold to the Kingdom of Poland. There’s a strong Germanic influence in the region and it was German trade merchants who dubbed it “Auschwitz” in the 14th century.By the mid-18th century the town had become an important railway hub and by 1938, one year before the Nazi blitzkrieg rolled across Poland, the town had a population of 13,000 souls of which 8,000 were Jewish,
Shortly after the Nazis had occupied Poland the persecution of Jews and other ethnic groups began. Eventually six million poles or 21.4% of the country’s population half of whom were Jewish would die at Nazi hands, more than a million in Auschwitz alone.
A Google Earth Satellite map of the town today. Auschwitz and Birkenau are on the west
side of the town. Wikipedia lists the population as of 2017 at 40,979
Nazi Racial Policies
Hitler had outlined the fate of those in the east fifteen years prior to the war in Mein Kampf, the manifesto he penned in 1923 while imprisoned for an attempted coup that came to be known as the Beer Hall Putsch. The book was published in 1925 and essentially outlined a philosophy of Aryan superiority and racial cleansing. This foundation was the justification for the removal of inferior eastern races from territory in the east. According to Hitler, fate dictated that the Aryan race would rise to its historic glory by subjugating the countries to the east in order to gain the German people Lebensraum, or “living space.” The policy for all occupied territory to the east would eventually become Generalplan Ost and its essence was related by Hitler to his Wehrmacht commanders a month prior to the invasion of Poland in September 1939 in his Obersalzburg speech.
“And so for the present only in the East I have put my death-head formations’ in place with the command relentlessly and without compassion to send into death many women and children of Polish origin and language. Only thus we can gain the living space [lebensraum] that we need.”
These words are chilling to read on the page and represent the antithesis of the word “civilization.” Through official policy and statutory engagement, the evolution of what would eventually become the most horrific and inhuman regime in history marched through time for all to see. I find it especially chilling because it strikes me that the flow chart of current event feels like it’s unfolding in similar ways to the nazi narrative. At least in respect to the marginalization of people based on the assumption that they are not worthy of dignity or consideration of their basic humanity driven by racial, political and religious bias and driven in a large measure by fear. In my experience, this deterioration of human value has been ongoing for 30 years and isn’t heading in a hopeful direction.
Nazi Occupation of Poland
In September 1939 the Germans ripped through Western Poland while the Soviets tore through Eastern Poland in three weeks. The Nuremberg Laws were extended through German occupied territories and the grim work of subjugating the Polish people began in earnest. The list of war crimes committed by the Nazis is extensive and a horrifying read. It’s impossible to overstate the sheer brutality of the nazi occupation of Poland. Nazi death squads called Einsatzgruppen were dispatched immediately under Operation Tannenberg with the express goal of finding and eradicating 61,000 people comprised of political activists, intelligencia, scholars, clergy and others. When the operation finally concluded in January 1940 more than 22,000 people had been murdered and this isn’t taking into account thousands of murdered psychiatric patients killed in hospitals.
As to the Jews, there were other plans in the works and while 5,000 were murdered in the first month, by and large they were deported to ghettos and camps. It feels obscene to just be typing this, but despite the nazi’s relentless racial obsession and obsessive mechanical efficiency they couldn’t kill their victims fast enough, hence the need for camps. In the end, They did more than raze family trees, they clear cut entire geneological forests.
By April 1940 the decision was made to take an existing, dilapidated Polish army barracks as the foundation for the concentration camp which would become “Auschwitz” and 1,200 houses were demolished and their owners deported. A work crew of inmates from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and 300 local Jews were used as slave labor for the construction. The rest of of the Jews comprising 60% of Osweicim’s population were deported to ghettos.
Auschwitz I was finished in a month and was ready for the first inmates in June 1940.
It was 78 years later we were checking in to a hotel across the street and my brain was on fire despite the fact I was pegging the exhaustion meter. As it would turn out, this was the nicest hotel we stayed in during our entire trip. We showered and went down to the restaurant to eat what was possibly the finest meal of the trip. It was ridiculous. The salad had edible flowers as garnish. Across the street from Auschwitz I. I realize it was due to the ADHD mode of travel I seemed to have us embarked upon, but staying in those posh conditions bothers me still today. It certainly would offer immense contrast the next day and drive home more deeply questions to ponder on this European trip which was also something of a spiritual journey.