Sunday 12th June 2011, Auschwitz, Poland
When Ian told me this morning that he thought we should visit the Jewish concentration camp at Auschwitz I knew it would be something he'd have to do alone. Museums I can cope with, there is a certain distance between the event and the visitor, but facing up directly to Man's inhumanity to Man, walking around within the death camp, looking at huge piles of people's personal belongings, gas chambers, cremation ovens, high wire fences, and appalling living conditions was way beyond me. In my younger days I had a Saturday job working for a delightful Jewish couple in London. He was German, she was Polish. Both ended up in concentration camps during Nazi occupation. Independently they had each survived, almost the only members of their families to do so. The lady and her sister had been forced to watch as their brothers were shot. The couple had to live the rest of their lives haunted by those awful memories. My memories of them however, are today still warm and affectionate. I could not go with Ian. So tonight is Ian's account of Auschwitz.....
Birds do sing in Auschwitz. The deathly hush reported by some visitors is not true. After all, why should the birds care that the most highly evolved species on the planet was also the only one whose superior intelligence devised the means of efficiently slaughtering millions of their fellow creatures and that this was one of the locations that they chose to demonstrate this skill - unique amongst all creation?
Vorsprung durch Technik - a clinically efficient machine. And nothing was wasted. While they were alive those who were capable were worked to death, living in overcrowded squalor on a starvation diet. The camp officers even organised an orchestra so that the work brigades could march more briskly to their duties in the quarries and for firms like IG Farben, who relocated there to benefit from the slave labour.
Those who were deemed unfit - about three in four according to the camp commandant Höss at his trial - were separated from any other members of their families and gassed in so-called shower blocks up to two thousand at a time. Even then nothing was wasted - they were ahead of their time when it came to recycling. Among the most moving exhibits are the heaps of items taken from the prisoners and corpses. Piles of suitcases, all clearly labelled, heaps of spectacles, stacks of corsets and artificial limbs and most chilling of all - and we were not allowed to photograph this - a massive mound of women’s hair, perhaps ten metres long by two metres high. It was used to stuff mattresses and to be woven into textiles. Even gold fillings were removed and human fat helped to fuel the cremation process.
The buildings in Auschwitz I, some thirty blocks in three rows surrounded by barbed wire fences with watchtowers, were more substantial than I had expected. Brick-built and two stories high, often with basements, they seem to have been previously used by the Polish army and as a camp for migrant workers.
The stairs of the main blocks have been worn by the many millions of visitors and many sections are closed for restoration. Entrance to the site is free and, although I paid to join a guided group, the site is well labelled and I chose to wander it alone. It was possible to lose the groups and it was a chilling experience to walk alone through the gloomy basement corridors where unspeakable cruelty had taken place, the so-called hospital block where experiments were undertaken by the notorious Josef Mengele, the block were prisoners were held for execution, the adjacent courtyard with the wall where they were shot and, outside the main barbed wire compound, the gas chamber and the ovens for cremating the corpses.
Auschwitz I was set up in 1940 and throughout its existence was mainly used for political prisoners. In 1941 Auschwitz II was set up at Birkenau for Soviet prisoners of war and it was to there that the Jewish prisoners were transported after the “final solution” was decided on in 1942. This was by far the larger site with over three hundred buildings, many built of wood without foundations directly onto the muddy ground. Linked by its own railway line, Birkenau was able to process up to 60,000 people a day. There were also many subsidiary camps where slave labourers were held.
Meticulous records were kept of all this carnage. The walls of corridors are lined in block after block with photographs of gaunt prisoners staring wide-eyed at the camera. Most have dates of birth and death affixed. Nor were the camp officials shy of photographing their activities. There are vivid illustrations drawn by the prisoners themselves and much documentation of all aspects of life and death in the camp. The exact numbers of those who died there are not known. In communist times figures as high as four million were alleged - all of them victims of fascism with little mention of the Jews. Figures accepted today range between 1.1 and 1.5 million, nine in ten of them Jews, but also including Soviet prisoners, Poles, gypsies, homosexuals and political dissidents.
Auschwitz was one of the first places to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, as early as 1979. Recently there have been discussions as to whether, once the last surviving inmate has died, the site should be allowed to return to nature. The response has been overwhelmingly against this idea, the general feeling concurring with the statement of George Santayana, which is displayed in the site, to the effect that those who do not know their history are destined to repeat it.
I had to steel myself to visit Auschwitz but I am pleased that I did. Our travels throughout Europe have brought us to places where the holocaust extended. Even in France people were deported. In Amsterdam we have visited the house of Anne Frank. More recently on this trip we were in Thessaloniki with its large Jewish population and yesterday we were in Krakow with its dreadful ghetto. It is only fitting to visit one of the largest concentration camps where so many of these people ended their lives.
Later: Jill writing again
During the afternoon we drove northwards through pleasant, grassy countryside where Ian was intrigued to see the fields are still cultivated in places using the old strip system. How was that achieved under Communist collectivisation – or had it reverted to the old system since the change? We noted a massive improvement in road conditions since we were last in Poland. Whatever money it may be receiving from the EU is obviously being well spent on upgrading roads and pavements. This is not the case in Romania where we'd be hard put to name anything that was an obvious improvement since they joined the EU. Of course there is still a very great deal of work to be carried out on Polish roads, particularly in rural areas, but they are making rapid, well organised progress without totally disrupting the entire transport system in the process as happens in Romania.
Around 6pm we reached Częstochowa where we have camped for the night. It is one of Europe's ecclesiastical hotspots. They've been thin on the ground in our recent travels. Here though, we are back in the religious heartland of Europe and the monastery of Jasna Gora is the most important place of pilgrimage in all of Poland, famed for the miracles said to have been performed by the Black Madonna who "lives" here. The site was regularly visited and publicised by Pope John Paul II, anxious to bring the plight of Polish Catholics to the attention of the world. Passing the church and monastery on our way here we noted the car park overflowing and coaches crowding the streets as they disgorged pilgrims onto the church steps.
Monday 13th June 2011, Wroclaw, Poland
This morning we visited the religious complex of Jasna Gora. Already at 9.30am the car park was full of coaches and the basilica crowded with the faithful attending mass. There were also a number of little girls and boys dressed in white waiting to take their first communion. Services take place throughout the day and there are round the clock confessionals for those needing penance and absolution.
The focus of Jasna Gora as a site of religious pilgrimage for over 600 years is a painting of the Madonna and Child on the altar in a side chapel of the main basilica. Known as the "Black Madonna" copies can be seen in churches throughout Poland. She is not actually black but has discoloured with time and exposure to candles and incense. The style of the icon too, with its heavy shading, causes it to seem darker. Legend has it that an attempt was made to steal the painting in 1430 but it became so heavy it was impossible to lift it. In frustration the thieves slashed the canvas with a knife making two cuts on the virgin's face which oozed blood. The marks are still visible today.
Certain other miracles have been recorded mainly concerned with preserving the city in times of peril but also curing illness and enabling the lame to walk again. As we joined the congregation to gaze at the virgin, we could not fail to be impressed by the fervour of those around us. At least two young women walked on their knees right around the altar while the air hummed with the murmur of prayer. Very elderly people would kneel for ages praying in the aisles when it was an obvious struggle for them even to walk. Whole classes of schoolchildren entered, knelt down and crossed themselves.
For the Polish nation the Madonna symbolises the very existence of Poland. Over the years the country has been cut about and divided between different nations. At one time it was actually partitioned out of existence! During its turbulent history Swedes, Germans, and Russians have all overpowered the Polish nation but throughout, their faith has remained strong and the Virgin has always been there for them.
The complex is huge, entered by four successive gateways, and we wandered from chapel to basilica to Knight's Hall and to many side chapels including one with very powerful paintings of the Stations of the Cross reflecting the many tragedies in the history of Poland as a background and parallel to the sufferings of Christ.
There were many nuns and priests on pilgrimages and the entire complex was buzzing with activity. Outside, on the wide grassy area surrounding the complex, a huge altar has been built from where open air masses are celebrated to the crowds gathered there on certain festival days. Everywhere too we saw posters of the late pope, John Paul II. He is already a saint in the eyes of the Polish people. One entire wall in the religious complex was devoted to photos of all the members of the Polish government killed in an air crash while on an official visit in 2010 to Russia.
Around the basilica lies the town of Częstochowa. Many pilgrims stay in the hotels here so there are plenty of restaurants and coffee shops along the wide shady boulevard leading up to the basilica. There are pleasant parks too, where once iron ore was mined.
Mid morning we left the town and made our way to Wroclaw, Poland's fourth city with a population of around 650,000. The roads are so much better than we'd dared to hope but there were many delays because of road construction. The weather has been close and driving very tiring. It has taken us far longer than we expected to reach here. Amusingly, once we'd settled on the campsite here we discovered that our immediate neighbours are the French couple we first met in Hungary, then Krakow and now here! They are ahead of us and move on tomorrow but have assured us Wroclaw is a delightful city.
Prior to 1945 Wroclaw was part of Germany and known as Breslau. At that time Poland did not actually exist, having been overrun by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. After World War Two Poland emerged again as a nation in its own right. Its borders though were changed and it actually moved about 100 kilometres to the west, Breslau being given to Poland as part of Germany's recompense for its wartime actions! Thus there was a mass exodus of Germans from the city as they moved westwards. At the same time areas to the East of Poland were annexed by Russia and the Ukraine. The Polish population of Lwow in the Polish Ukraine were then moved westwards to fill the void left by the departing Germans.
Tuesday 14th June 2011, Wroclaw, Poland
There is a lovely rattling tram that stops just outside the campsite before trundling off through the woods to eventually emerge in the centre of Wroclaw, a short walk from the old town. It could not be more convenient
As we travel we often receive messages from friends with suggestions of places in the vicinity we should not miss. The suggestion from our friend Ralph concerning Wroclaw was more of an order really. He is a complete panoramaniac, meaning that for years he has collected information on panoramas and has published several works on the subject. In the late 18th and 19th centuries panoramas enjoyed great popularity, until overtaken by the advent of the cinema. Basically they are elongated vistas of cities, landscapes, historical events or battles. Sometimes they are printed or painted in the round covering 360 degrees as with the one here in Wroclaw.
This is almost certainly one of the best panoramas ever. At first I was only mildly curious and accompanied Ian to see it because we always obey orders if we can! I was however, completely bowled over by it! Depicting the 1794 battle of Racławice in which the Polish army, aided by local peasants, completely routed the Russian army, the canvas is 120 metres long and 15 metres high. What impressed in particular was that the artist had to illustrate in the same canvas events that were happening in different places and at different times yet bring everything together into the same picture.
It was commissioned in 1894 to commemorate the centenary of the battle and was completed by Wojiech Kossak, a leading historical painter, and his assistants. It was eventually placed on display in Lwow, then part of Austria where it remained until damaged by bombing in 1944. Allocated to Wroclaw as the place where Lwow was relocated after the war, it was kept in storage during Socialist times because it was not politically correct for the Poles to glorify a victory over Russia. It was finally properly housed and displayed after the Polish Solidarity movement in the 1980s persuaded the Polish authorities to place more emphasis on Polish patriotic traditions.
The painting is now housed in a specially built gallery and so popular is it, particularly with Poles of all ages, that visitors are given a 30 minute time slot to view it and headphones in selected languages for an explanatory commentary. The colour, display and lighting are extraordinary and the 3D effect of a real foreground of sand, birch trees, trenches, banks and abandoned weapons really do put the viewer at the very centre of the battle. It is really difficult to tell where the real foreground ends and the actual painting begins. We were completely bowled over by it and our visit here was worth it for that alone.
Wroclaw though has much more to offer. First we made our way to the river Odra where a series of attractive foot bridges link several sandy islands together. These lead to the ecclesiastical heart of the city with several major churches and the cathedral of St John.
The majority of the massive churches are brick gothic, a style and material prevalent throughout the countries surrounding the southern Baltic. To be honest, we have entered so many that I've lost track of which was which, each vying with the next for the highest tower, the longest nave, the most beautiful vaulting etc. Basically they were all lovely, deliciously cool on a hot day and they used an awful lot of bricks! Most had been badly damaged during the war and the interior restoration was often clinical with the walls whitewashed and the bricks picked out in red paint. Surviving monuments, which had often been removed to a place of safety before the bombardments were fixed to the walls rather than being set into them, giving the impression of a museum rather than a church.
(I've often wished I'd collected different styles of confessionals in the way Ian collects manhole covers. This is the first art deco one I've encountered. It reminds me of my father's old gramophone!)
On the banks of the river stands an impressively ornate building housing the Ossolinski library and museum. The collections were transferred to Wroclaw from Lwow in the Polish Ukraine after the war when Poland's boundaries were redefined and the population there was encouraged to move to Wroclaw to fill the void created by displaced Germans. Unfortunately the collections can only be viewed by appointment but from what we saw at the entrance they looked to be very significant indeed.
Eventually we found ourselves in the main square of the city. Personally I'd not call it a square as the centre houses the gothic town hall and a several old streets of shops and houses. Around the edge however are well restored, brightly painted and decorated baroque houses. An equally attractive neighbouring square, Plac Solny, was occupied by a busy flower market and there were cafe terraces shaded by bright umbrellas where visitors sat eating at all hours, or drinking beers and eating ices.
Also today we have discovered the Synagogue with a fascinating exhibition in the excellently restored interior. Called "Reclaiming our History" it traces the life of the Polish Jews from Wroclaw before and after the Second World War. One imagines that once the war had ended surviving Jews would gradually return and life would slowly return to normal. This was far from the case. Very few Jews returned to their Silesian homeland and those that did found their property was now in the hands of the Polish people who had no wish to relinquish it. The expression of Jewish identity was not encouraged by the communist authorities and it was not until after the Change in the 1990s that the official support was given for communities to celebrate their heritage. This is true both of Krakow and Wroclaw.
By this time we were fading fast. In the courtyard of the synagogue was a cool, shady corner with tables and chairs where we could sit with a cold beer to recover sufficiently to make our way past several of the major museums – closed on Tuesdays – to the tram stop for our ride back through the woods. Really this is not the best time of year for sight-seeing in major cities. We can achieve twice as much in early spring or late autumn when the weather is cooler and the tourists are no longer around in such numbers.
Wroclaw is an interesting city with a tortured history. It may not boast major national sites like the Wawel in Krakow but it makes more of its river with many shaded walks along its banks and round the defensive moat. Nor is it as continuously picturesque as Krakow and the historic parts are more widely scattered but there are many areas where the damage of war has been lovingly restored and, above all, there are fewer tourists than in Krakow and one is not continually pestered by touts wanting to sell guided tours. As an important university town it is lively and there is an active cultural life – the opera House was showing Boris Godunov. All in all we preferred it to Krakow as a real city.