After the war, a memorial was built on the land that had formally housed the town of Lidice. Moreover, just outside of the memorial, a new town was built. The town itself is beautiful and quaint. Every building there along with its streets has such an unassuming nature. Coming from the city feeling of Prague (which is magnificent in its own right) it was a welcome and much needed change. I had not realized how much I had been craving quiet. But alas, this post is not about the town but about the memorial that now remembers its horrific past. Continue reading
First, I’d like to start off with an apology. I had written my last blog post in a journal that I carried with me and then typed it up and posted it while I was on my plane ride home. Unfortunately, the blog post never made it. I was unaware of that until very recently and so I will try to post it again now.
I was able to visit a town called Lidice that rests just outside of Prague. Before I tell you about what it was like, I must first tell you its story. The short version is that after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, Hitler was incensed and demanded retaliation. Due to a suspicious note that was found in the aftermath containing the name Lidice, the revenge would be taken out on that town. Soon afterwards German troops invaded the small town and rounded up all of the villagers. They were separated into two groups: men and boys over the age of 15 and women with all remaining children. All 173 men were lined up against a wall ten at a time and shot. The 19 men that had been gone at work the day the town had been invaded were gathered later and also shot. The women, who numbered 198, were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. There were 98 children and of those a handpicked number was selected for “Germanisation.” The majority and rest of the children were gassed. Moreover, the village of Lidice was utterly and completely destroyed. Even after being burned to the ground, it was bombed. Hitler’s goal had been to literally clear Lidice off of the map and annihilate it. This was one of Hitler’s acts of revenge and example to all others of what he was capable of; decimating an entire town.
The third and concluding piece on my time in Poland that I want to talk about is walking through Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau. Actually, that’s a lie. I don’t want to talk about Birkenau at all. I don’t even want to think about it. I’ve avoided writing this blog since I went there about a week ago. Auschwitz I was originally built as Polish Army barracks. Birkenau is different because it was built specifically to hold and kill human beings. It’s 20 times vaster than Auschwitz I. The death camp, Birkenau, seems to go on for miles with no end in sight. The stretch of the landscape appears to suggest that even if one would contemplate escape from this place, it would be futile because first one would have to find where the camp ends.
I was uneasy about going through the gates of Birkenau. After passing through the entrance (nicknamed Gate of Death) a foreboding shadow swept across my mind. It was at first what I expected: destroyed buildings marked only by its outer frame or a post bearing a number to let passerby know that one once stood there, train tracks that make one feel sick knowing the numbers of souls it carried, fences embossed with barb wire daring someone to embrace it, watch towers that loom and cast fear with its shadow and bright lights every several feet that give off no warmth and like the insect that gets too close ends up lifeless underneath it.
I was completely unprepared and caught off guard as to what the camp looked like. Birkenau was beautiful. There was grass growing everywhere and scattered here and there were pretty little wildflowers along with dog roses springing from the ground. The trees within Birkenau provided a tranquil forest that made one feel welcome to sit and read below its fresh branches. As strange as it might sound, I was genuinely angry that the camp was pretty. It was because I felt that from all the horrors that had taken place there, the land should honor that by staying ugly. It felt like the ground was in collaboration with the Nazis; trying to cover what had happened there so that no one who came back to that decrepit place would be able to find it. All they would see is the beauty there and continue their search for the barren ground that was so many peoples hell.
Later that week we read a poem in class that changed my perspective. It was a poem about the Holocaust and at the end of each stanza there was a line that spoke of the earth healing itself by growing grass where there was once nothing but mud. It made me rethink how I felt and instead be grateful knowing that even the land is trying to heal. For all those who had once been kept there and for all those who died there, Birkenau is mending.
“Nothing gold can stay.” These were the words that first entered my mind as I walked up the path leading to the infamous gate of Auschwitz. This may seem odd but it truly is what I thought of. The camp was built as Polish Army barracks and was never intended to be used as a concentration camp. In 1940 when the Nazis invaded Poland and began taking mass numbers of Poles prisoner they ran out of prisons to put them. The Nazis solution was to take over the camp we know now as Auschwitz and turn it into a prison for the Polish soldiers. It wasn’t until about the year 1942 that the camp began to hold Soviet prisoners, Roma (the correct term for Gypsies) and Jews. So although the camp was built for a good purpose it was twisted and was not allowed to be kept that way by the Nazis.
The second thing to cross my mind was the size of the place. I had been told beforehand that the camp wasn’t that big but for some reason (perhaps the images Hollywood and other movies have presented) I still had this picture in my head of an overly large and threatening prison. However, Auschwitz is rather small. Instead of a vast land the feel was that of buildings that stood tall and loomed over you. Knowing what happened there made me feel like the buildings would grow taller and taller until they would meld into each other and block the sky from view taking all hope away with it. Even the ground was uneven and rocky. I had expected that for tourists they would have smoothed out the walking paths. I’m not sure why I expected that but I did (maybe it’s some American standard way of thinking). It was necessary to constantly be watching where you put your feet. It made it all the more hard to imagine what it must have been like for all those who were held there.
The last part of my time at Auschwitz that I want to tell you about is the gas chamber. I don’t have much to say about it. It was the first gas chamber and hundreds of people could be killed at a time there. It was used for a relatively short period of time due to the fact that it was too small for the Nazis and their purpose. The feeling of being in the gas chamber was one that I’ll never forget. It was cold and dark and the walls look like they’re rotting. The floor, walls and ceiling all look stained and foreboding. The outside of the building is no better, having a large single brick chimney erupting from this small cement barrack. The only word that I can think of is: Why?
This past weekend my classmates and I went to Auschwitz. We boarded a train on Thursday and 11 hours later we were in Poland. It felt like the hours that I’d spent reading on various topics concerning the Holocaust this past month was all leading up to this point. As if to say that I would soon be reaching the climax in the story that was my time in Prague. I was nervous and anxious about what awaited me there.
Our first day we went to the Schindler Museum in Krakow, Poland. It was amazing (please excuse my use of an overly common word). The way the museum was set-up is optimal for educational purposes. It takes you through the years of 1939-1945 (the start and end of the Nazi invasion). It’s a little hard to explain the actual set-up of the place but I’ll try. It is a multi-level building that forces visitors to go a certain way to get to the end. Along the way are four cards that you can stamp as sort of signatures of where you’re at in the war.
The entire museum is interactive. You can watch videos of testimonies from those who were there and the maps are touch-screen and you can read about what was happening at different locations. Moreover, even the walls and floors are designed to mimic how the people felt at specific times. For example, the second to last room you enter is a dark tunnel that has a huge picture of Stalin to signify the start of the communist regime and the floor consists of uneven and bumpy mats. The message is that even after the war no one could find solid ground to walk on.
The entire experience was impacting and well orchestrated. I would highly recommend it to anyone who might find themselves in Poland. I very much hope to find myself there again.