I have personally been studying the Bloodlands over the past semester. The Bloodlands, written by Timothy Snyder, refers to the regions of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic Republics during World War II. In these regions, between 1933 and 1945, fourteen million noncombatants were murdered. In places like Poland, Hitler and Stalin engaged in interactions that led to more mass killing than either side could have carried out alone. This was the context that framed my thinking as I traveled into Krakow.
Poland, except for the Soviet Union, suffered more casualties than any other country during the war. In fact, Poland lost 16% of its total population by the end of 1945, due to murderous policies imposed by Hitler and Stalin. Walking through Krakow reminded me of something Professor Mansoor, who taught World War II, stated about Poland losing its culture due to triple occupation. Unlike France, which was occupied for a short time, Poland suffered tremendously not only during the war but for about fifty years after under the Iron Curtain. Cities, like Warsaw, were virtually razed to the ground. Meanwhile, Krakow, the capital of the German General Government, remained almost untouched. Despite the mass repressions of the Polish inhabitants, the city itself never suffered as a result of warfare. When the Red Army approached Krakow, in 1945, the German’s blew up the bridges on the river Dunajec and retreated rather than defending the city – so little destructive street fighting occurred. This allowed my group and I to experience one of the very few Polish cities whose history remains intact.
The Schindler Museum really highlighted the vast sufferings that occurred in this blood-soaked region. The museum is laid out in a way that makes you feel like you are walking through the history of Polish occupation and oppression from 1939 onward. The museum is constructed inside the remains of the Schindler Factory – made world renown in the film “Schindler’s List.” The wealth of information, partnered by the dark and unsettling architecture, really made this museum stick out in my memory.
The museum honors Oskar Schindler – who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories. One of my favorite quotes is by Edmund Burke, who states, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This exhibit highlighted that Schindler did not arrive to Krakow as a hero, but as a entrepreneur. He was a common man who was able to achieve incredible deeds just by going against the norm. He was a good man who did something.
The Nazis aimed to destroy, not only people, but a culture. They tried to achieve this by destroying monuments and statues, prosecuting intellectuals, and banning languages. Yiddish and Hebrew were prohibited in public. As I learned in my Eastern European Immigration course, a language is the backbone of culture and national identity. To deny a language, is to deny a person right to their heritage. Polish works of art were also confiscated and Poland ceased to exist as of 1939. The timeline of the museum did not have a happy ending. While America was celebrating its “Good War” and Britain its “People’s War” in the end of 1945, Poland fell under the power of the Soviet Union. It was now under the leadership of a man who killed his own civilians no less efficiently than Hitler killed civilians of other countries. Poland would be force to compare the rulership of both murderous occupiers.
During our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau there was a 60% chance of rain. These storm clouds, partnered with the small evening crowds, really produced an ominous and intimate visit. All over the world, Auschwitz has become the symbol of the Holocaust and the Holocaust as the evil of the century. While my research on the Bloodlands was centered on expanding this context, the camp really put these murderous policies into perspective.
Our visit began at Auschwitz I, which is the site of the original concentration camp. This part of Auschwitz was the work camp, where prisoners would be forced into harsh labor that would inevitably lead to death. Being placed in the work camp meant to prolong the inevitable. As people were forced to work in unsanitary and cruel conditions, they would become sick and fatigued. The prisoners, who did not die directly on the job, would later become unfit for work and be sent to the gas chambers.
Walking through these grounds was moving. We walked through Block 11, also called the death block. This was the camp jail. We saw the starvation cells, the standing cells, and isolation cells that were used to punish any camp resistance. We also saw the death wall, where the SS would carry out executions by firing squad. We saw where prisoners would be forced to do roll call twice a day, regardless of harsh elements, and where escapees were hung. During roll call the same number of people had to be present before and after a shift of hard labor, which meant that the prisoners would have to carry the dead to be counted before being sent off to the crematorium.
The displays of the prisoner’s possessions were the most affective parts of the exhibition. In these exhibitions the scale of the killings was really transformed into individuals. Many of these people, in the beginning of the Holocaust, believed they were being relocated and brought with them everything necessary to begin a new life. These rooms were filled with cooking supplies, combs, and other personal possessions. The rooms of human hair also brought the atrocities to life – here the dehumanization of the Nazi party was particularly evident. Nothing was put to waste in the camps – from using human hair for Nazi shoes to spreading the ashes of the Jews as fertilizer.
I was unsure of what my emotions would be while traveling through Auschwitz. I knew that this would be a somber site, but I wasn’t fully aware of the extent of the emotional impact it would cause. I broke down in the room of shoes. When the Soviet Union liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, on January 1945, there were 43,000 pairs of shoes in the camp. This room, now, is piled floor to celling on both side with only a portion of that number. Looking around I saw shoes from all levels of society and all ages – even slippers of a toddler. I could no longer hold back my emotions and silently cried as I imagined not only the individuals in the shoes that suffered, but also the individuals whose shoes were not found. Unlike Auschwitz, the other death camps were completely destroyed and all evidence turned to ash. In the killing fields in the east and other areas of the bloodlands, the individuals is even farther from coming to life. As I looked at these mountains of shoes, I imagined what fourteen million shoes would look like. Each shoes held a life and a story that was carried to its death in similar areas for similar reasons. This room and memorial really brought to life the immense dehumanization of both the Nazi and Stalinist Regimes.
We also visited Auschwitz II, the death camp. Unlike Auschwitz I, the death camp only served one purpose – mass extermination. Here Jews, Gypsies, Soviet POWs, and many more were brought by cattle cars to make the long walk to the gassing facilities. Our guide told us, as we walked down death road, that many of these individuals were clueless of their fate. While this may have been true in the beginning of the final solutions, soon rumors had spread to many of the ghettos and by the end, I would argue, that many of these individuals were not ignorant. I imagined myself walking toward the funnel of smoke, looking at an old man struggling to walk beside me, and being herded like cattle to slaughter. There were little theatrics, unlike Treblinka, and as I was forced to undress to “shower” and herded into an underground block, my fate would have seemed clear. How terrible it must have been to stand in one of the four gas rooms, which were probably covered with claw marks from past exterminations, alone and cold with little to no lights.
Now only ruins of these four gassing facilities are left after the Germans destroyed them during their retreat. In fact, all of Auschwitz II is left in its original condition. This side of the camp has no exhibits – only a memorial to the Hungarian Jews and a large international memorial to all the prisoners who perished in these camps. The horrors of this camp and its people were real. This visit really brought to life the individuality and fate of each of the prisoners. This hollowing experience, I believe, was the most beneficial of the trip. Often historians become detached from the numbers – sites like Auschwitz really turn statistics into people.
On toward Germany.