Another heavy breakfast, this time by 6.30 am, and we were ready to leave the hotel for Auschwitz early. Manoj, who has been in Poland for close to three decades, was a wonderfully informative source of understanding of that country. The Polish economy has transformed dramatically in the past decade and more and in the past few years has withstood the European recession which speak well of a committed government and people. The infrastructure is adequate without being bombastic. The roads are in good condition and summers are when they get done up to withstand the winter; they have to take a variation of nearly 60 degrees from -30 to +30! I saw many portals spanning roads with cameras and communication equipment. Manoj explained that they are meant to track truckers, who are not supposed to drive for more than 4 or 5 hours at a stretch. There are many truck parking lots all over Europe where they are supposed to rest after the permitted time. In case the truck has to be driven continuously it is manned by an additional driver. They do not have cleaners. The trucks ply at speeds of 80 to 100 kmph. Only covered trucks are seen on the roads, except dumpers at project sites.
En route we stopped at a cafe for coffee; Manoj had light breakfast too. When we arrived at Auschwitz Manoj was taken up by the large number of visitors and the long queue. Organised tour groups were many. We had a snack and joined the long line of visitors waiting to buy tickets. Auschwitz is a symbol of terror and genocide all over the world. The German forces, during WWII, while occupying Poland established a concentration camp in 1940 in the outskirts of Osweicim and called it Auschwitz. The first camp was established at the site of an erstwhile Polish Garrison that had 20 single floor buildings – 8 were later built and a second floor was added to 14 of the existing ones. Hence, it was a ready to use facility. Later the Germans custom built the ones in Birkenau and Monowitz. There were more than 40 satellite camps too. The camps were built by the prisoners. First to be brought and exterminated here were prisoners and Poles followed by Soviet POWs and gypsies. By 1942 the camps were used to put in place the biggest genocide in history – that of eliminating the Jews of Europe. More than 1.1 million perished in these camps of which 0.9 million were Jews brought in from more than 40 locations in Europe. The guide told us that many governments and spies were paid to identify and deport Jews. Most of them were offloaded from trains, each bogie containing nearly 80 of them packed like sardines, travelling for as long as 7 days and separated on the platform by ‘the Doctor’ into those fit for work and others. The latter consisted of 75% of the total and were exterminated within 3 hours of arrival in the gas chambers by using Zyclon B. The corpses were removed in barrows to crematoria and disposed off. Many were shot or publicly hanged to ‘set examples’. The windows of the living quarter, where they were herded in bunk beds, were forded so that they would not see the atrocities committed in the courtyard. The isolation rooms were small and many in type such as starvation rooms, suffocation rooms and death rooms. When the SS realised in 1945 that the War is nearing its end they tried to destroy evidence – pulled down gas chambers, bunks and crematoria, destroyed documents and photos and tried to march left over people across into Germany. However, much of it has been reconstructed with a lot of photographic evidence. The Polish government converted the Camps into a Museum in 1947 and the site was declared as UNESCO Heritage in 1979.
Individuals who arrive to visit the Museum between 9 am and 3 pm are assigned in groups to guides. We chose an English guide. Head sets are provided so that information is clear. At the entrance to the Auschwitz Camp is a large sign saying ‘Work Sets You Free”, to welcome the deportees. People initially came there expecting work. The photos of people exterminated in the camps there are displayed in one of the buildings. It is not very difficult to imagine the horrors they went through when you are conducted through some parts of the Camp. The guide explained in detail the horrors inflicted; the hosing down, isolation, separation, hard work, developing spies amongst the detainees, plunder of personal effects, gas chambers, cyanide crystals used, crematoria, etc. The entire camp is surrounded by electrified barbed wire. People trying to escape would get electrocuted. The Germans didn’t like this for disentangling the bodies was a messy affair; instead they shot them before they reached the barbed wire! Some were even induced to get close to the fence so that they could be shot – sadism, if can be speciously explained. In case any one of them escaped their family would be arrested and sent to Auschwitz to remain there till the fugitive was found. The camp even had an orchestra that was supposed to be played to keep the prisoners in step. Particularly poignant is the room that houses shoes of children, ladies and adults, sunglasses, utensils, prayer clothes, suitcases with addresses of the detainees, children’s clothing and prosthetics. The only room where we were asked not to take photos is the room in which 2 tonnes of human hair is displayed. The detainees were shaved after extermination – traces of the gas were detected in the hair after many years to prove the process involved in the killing. Hair was woven into what came to be called ‘hairmats’. Most of the hair was taken to other parts of Europe to make wigs.
The tour was delayed in the Auschwitz Camp due to a heavy downpour and hence concluded late. Later we went to the second site of Birkenau, where the railway tracks with platforms stand mute today, but was witness to the most infamous transportation in history – that of people for extermination. The tracks are intact and so is a bogie that was used for the transportation. The bunk beds and disinfection chambers are available, largely reconstructed. The ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria can also be visited at this site which is only a short drive from the first site.
The tour had postponed our lunch to 5 pm. When I was munching wafers in Auschwitz I was told by a person, rather brusquely, not to eat there. Well, we were all hungry. I became hungrier in the café when I found a huge truck driver feasting on a large platter of goulash. I ordered one too. It did take some effort to ‘polish’ off, but succeeded in even wiping off traces of what the plate contained in the beginning! I dozed off for most part of the drive thereafter to Warsaw. I woke up in time to appreciate the airport, which was on the way to Manoj’s apartment. The gated complex was a beauty. The apartment itself is tastefully maintained with the balconies giving it a very commodious and luxurious look. Preetha had made a soup of broccoli, mashed potatoes and chicken roast. Even though lunch had been taken just a few hours back I could not resist multiple helpings, done shamelessly, of the roast and potatoes. After that we headed for the hotel where a small group had gathered at 10 pm to meet with us. I spent some time with them explaining the trip and showing them the car which had taken us to Warsaw. They were thrilled to see the Kerala registration car in their city. We were also thrilled to meet our fraternity that were doing so well in that country. We were touched by the memento they presented to us as a remembrance of our visit to Warsaw, Poland. Thus, the 11th country during the trip had been visited and close to 16500 kms had been logged.