My train window from Wroclaw to Krakow framed a five-hour expanse of white ground like untouched paper. Entranced by the icy flatlands, I imagined their frozen histories of plowing, harvest, starvation and bloodshed under Soviet, Austrian and German rule, the winter returning after each to lay a fresh layer of immaculate snow over the country.
An occasional ten minutes of town would be followed by more stillness, more fields that faded into a dream of fog, with silhouettes of trees like hands reaching up from the blurred horizon. Finally a grove of trees appeared as thick as grass, a needle of sunlight piercing through them. Krakow was near, and near it was Auschwitz.
The Auschwitz camp consists of two sites: Auschwitz I and Birkenau (Auschwitz II). Together they were the biggest Nazi concentration camp, and the world’s largest cemetery. Built in a ransacked small town west of Krakow — chosen for its location in the center of Jewish Europe — this was where poison gas chambers were first developed and used as an efficient method for mass murder.
Entering the Auschwitz I camp, I saw fellow tourists posing under its black gate, strangely smiling for photos under the infamous message “work sets you free.” As I slowly walked under the gate, a guard brushed past me and began checking for bombs under the ledge of a nearby brick building.
Dozens of the buildings within Auschwitz I are open as exhibits detailing different aspects of the concentration camp, the Holocaust, and World War II. I walked through the barnlike living quarters of the prison, stood in the torture stalls, went inside the gas chambers and the crematoria.
The rooms of one building are lined with glass cases which are filled with the sorted possessions of murdered prisoners: thousands of shoes, glasses, combs, crutches and prosthetic legs. One case houses a massive pile of suitcases with their owners’ names clearly marked, a tactic to prevent panic by convincing prisoners that they would eventually be reunited with their belongings. In many cases, these empty leather shells are the only record of what happened to their owners. The smallest display case in one room contains a porcelain doll with a shattered face, laid across a little girl’s toddler shoes and clothing.
The more I saw, the more I understood why some people believe that the Holocaust is a hoax. To believe the truth about what happened is to think the unthinkable, to take something dark and horrible and let it inside you.
Auschwitz I had a cremation capacity of 700 bodies at once. Birkenau is much larger, and was built when this number was no longer enough. At Birkenau they could cremate 16,000 people per day. Though parts of it were destroyed by the Nazis in a last-ditch effort to remove evidence, the death camp’s design is obvious, precise and terrifying.
Unlike Auschwitz I, Birkenau is not filled with formal exhibitions to explore, and so arriving there without a guide is a disorienting experience. Dark wooden prison buildings reach out on all sides in staggering scale, with a forest of chimneys crowding the sky. Surrounded by farmland once fertilized with human ashes, Birkenau took the magnitude of Nazi brutality out of my thoughts and pulled it into feeling, like an earthquake tearing stone walls to the ground
I felt history crashing into me as I stumbled over the camp’s train tracks and walked dumbly through its snowy grid of ruined structures. I was looking for an answer. I didn’t find one.
Things in Poland that were not horrifying:
– Helping a Mongolian waiter write a song in English for his wife.
– Trading English vulgarities for Polish ones with a couple in canal-perforated Wroclaw; trying four different types of Polish vodka with them; playing with their baby.
– Spending over a week in beautiful Krakow with my American host; playing poker; finding hidden cemeteries; drinking yerba maté.