Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The portents were not good. Before the 0825 Easyjet flight to Krakow had closed its doors there was a queue of 8 young males to use the loo. Lager had clearly been the breakfast of choice. Before landing, the stags put on cockerel garb – at least it amused the small children on board.
I can’t say my traveling party had been deterred by the thought of beer prices much cheaper than Britain. Indeed a few glasses of Tyskie were taken as soon as we arrived in Stare Miasto – the centre of town. The central square, Rynek Glowny, was teeming with tourists and locals alike enjoying the sun after weeks of heavy rain. The views after an arduous climb up the bell tower confirmed that most of the city’s mediaeval architectural charm was still intact, even if some buildings were swathed in scaffolding.
But the main purpose of our weekend lay out of town. For Saturday morning we had hired a car to take us 70 kms West. Semi-derelict post-Communist urban sprawl made for a depressing landscape, until it eventually gave way to agricultural smallholdings. Under a greying sky we arrived at our destination - Oświęcim, better known by its Nazified name, Auschwitz.
A car park crowded with tour buses, and an entrance mobbed mainly by teenagers and Japanese, gave it a normal tourist veneer it did not deserve. We were met by our young guide, and soon ushered through the infamous “Arbeit Mach Frei” gates. The electrified barbed wire and watchtowers were sinister enough, but sunlight and ranks of poplars waving in the breeze made it less threatening. Formerly a Polish Army barracks, each block of the main camp is now used as a museum to explain one part of the Auschwitz Holocaust story. The most arresting was the room which contained mounds of human hair – shorn from female corpses, and just a portion of the 7 tonnes which the Russian Army found on the site at after its liberation. In the corner, a bolt of cloth from Berlin, made of such hair, underlined the Nazi regime’s profit from murder. Conversation became difficult.
Another building – cells for prisoners awaiting interrogation. Each with only one small window high up on the wall – but enough to hear the final moments of many of their kin shot in the execution yard outside
Silence fell on entering the final building on the site - the remaining gas chamber. One could feel the weight of history, and of hundreds of thousands of lost souls, on one’s shoulders. Just a couple of hundred meters away, the other side of another row of swaying poplars, the commandant’s house, its proximity another slap in the face of the condemned.
On to Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau. Here truly were the signs of racial extermination on an industrial scale. A camp of 40 sq kms, brick or wooden barracks, or their ruins, almost stretching to the horizon. Built between the confluence of two rivers, the foundations of the camp were gradually rotting and sinking into the swampy ground.
If the early Summer weather had until now been too benign for such a haunted place, God had been listening. A thunderstorm erupted. Looking from a distance like a flock of startled crows, a group of nuns hurried for shelter along the railway line where so many Europeans had been harried to their fate. Against a tapestry of lightening bolts, a choir started up underneath the iconic arch of the entrance gatehouse. Some beauty in a place of such horror. Difficult to inject more sobering memories into a single weekend….
© Paul Smiddy 2010
A Close Encounter with Death