03 Nov 14 - Auschwitz, Birkenau Poland - Wieliczka Salt Mine

This day was a tough one in more ways than one. It was a day of discovery, of deep thought and contemplation as well as a day for reverence....today my first visit was to Auschwitz. 

There is nothing I could add that would enlighten anyone into the events that transpired here so many years ago. In my twenties I dated someone whose's parents had both been survivors of Auschwitz. I listened in awe with horrified interest to the many stories they told me about their day-to-day life here and their struggles to successfully survive the atrocities they experienced here. They lived in Krakow and were transferred to the Krakow Ghetto to eventually be taken to Auschwitz where they stayed for over two years. I vowed one day to visit Krakow and this site as an homage to their
strength and will to live. They were probably the two people I have respected the most in my life and although my visit here was painful, in my small way it was my symbolic nod to them for their courage.   

The site is now a preserved, authentic Memorial consisting of two parts of the former concentration camp: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. At first, the Germans held Polish political prisoners in the camp. From the spring of 1942 Auschwitz became the largest site for the murder of Jews brought here under the Nazi plan for their extermination. More than 1,100,000 men, women, and children lost their lives here.

From January 17 to 21, 1945, the Auschwitz administration evacuated about 58 thousand prisoners into the depths of the Reich. At the same time, the SS were burning the camp records. On January 20, they blew up crematoria and gas chambers II and III in Birkenau. Just after the end of the evacuation, on January 23, they set fire to Kanada II, the warehouse full of property plundered from the Jews. Three days later, they blew up gas chamber and crematorium V. When Red Army troops entered the grounds of the camp on the 27th, they found about 7 thousand prisoners there, most of them sick and at the limits of physical exhaustion. After liberation, the Red Army was in charge of the grounds. Soldiers of the Soviet medical corps and members of the Polish Red Cross with much help from the local population, set up hospitals that treated about 4,800 sick and physically exhausted prisoners.

In April 1946, the Ministry of Culture and Art sent a group of former prisoners, led by Tadeusz Wąsowicz, to Oświęcim to protect the site of the Auschwitz camp and set up a museum there. At the beginning of 1947, Ludwik Rajewski, the head of the Department of Museums and Monuments in the MKiS, presented an organizational plan according to which the Museum would be a “historical document.” It was planned to present the extermination of the peoples conquered by the Germans and to highlight the fact that the German atrocities were committed on a mass scale, while steering clear of “the macabre” and using only suitable visual elements. It stressed that the killing of the Jews should be presented in a special way, and that it was necessary to cooperate with the Central Committee of Jews in Poland to establish the number of Jewish victims, broken down by country.

The exhibition was planned to consist of three parts: a general section showing the story of prisoners in the camp, an international section devoted to the wartime situations of the countries whose citizens were deported to Auschwitz, and a third section presenting the other German concentration camps. The exhibition was to be located in 12 blocks at the site of the main camp, named here in the order suggested for visitors to follow: the history of Polish-German relations (block 15); the structure and nature of the SS origins of the concentration camps, categories of prisoners, and attitudes of the SS to the prisoners (16); life, labor and death inside and outside the camp (17 and 18); the Destruction of the Jews, officially named “The Extermination of Millions,” since it would also cover the extermination of people from other groups (4); property belonging to the Jewish victims (5 and 6); the history of the camp and the resistance movement in the camp (7); the state of a block in 1940 (8) and in 1944 (9); experiments on prisoners and the life of women in Auschwitz (10); and the interior of the “Death Block” (11). Block 11 and the adjacent courtyard were to be a mausoleum. The remaining blocks were to be placed under the protection of the countries whose citizens died in Auschwitz, or to be used to display information about other Nazi camps.

                              Here are some artifacts in the museum.

Block 11 of Auschwitz I was the prison within the prison, where violators of the numerous rules were punished. Some prisoners were made to spend the nights in standing cells. These cells were about 16 sq ft, and held four men; they could do nothing but stand, and were forced during the day to work with the other prisoners. Prisoners sentenced to death for attempting to escape were confined in a dark cell and given neither food nor water until they were dead.
In the basement were the "dark cells", which had only a very tiny window and a solid door. Prisoners placed in these cells gradually suffocated as they used up all the oxygen in the cell; sometimes the SS lit a candle in the cell to use up the oxygen more quickly. Many were subjected to hanging with their hands behind their backs for hours, even days, thus dislocating their shoulder joints.

Block 10 was a cellblock where women and men were used as experimental subjects for German doctors. The experiments ranged from skin testing for reaction to relatively gentle substances to giving phenol injections to the heart for immediate dissection. Although Block 10 was in the men's camps, the experiments conducted were mostly for women. To please the “elite” prisoners, the Germans would house prostitutes in Block 10. 

In the course of the war, the camp was staffed by 6,500 to 7,000 members of the German Schutzstaffel (SS), approximately 15 percent of whom were later convicted of war crimes. Some, including camp commandant Rudolf Höss, were executed. The Allied Powers refused to believe early reports of the atrocities at the camp, and their failure to bomb the camp or its railways remains controversial. One hundred and forty-four prisoners are known to have escaped from Auschwitz successfully.

Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), intended the camp to house 50,000 prisoners of war, who would be interned as forced laborers. Plans called for the expansion of the camp first to house 150,000 and eventually as many as 200,000 inmates. An initial contingent of 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war arrived at Auschwitz I in October 1941, but by March 1942 only 945 were still alive, and these were transferred to Birkenau, where most of them died from disease or starvation by May. By this time Hitler had decided to annihilate the Jewish peole, so Birkenau was repurposed as a combination labor camp / extermination camp.

In early 1943, the Nazis decided to increase greatly the gassing capacity of Birkenau. Crematorium II, originally designed as a mortuary, with morgues in the basement and ground-level incinerators, was converted into a killing factory by installing gas-tight doors, vents for the Zyklon B (a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide) to be dropped into the chamber, and ventilation equipment to remove the gas thereafter. 

It went into operation in March. Crematorium III was built using the same design. Crematoria IV and V, designed from the start as gassing centers, were also constructed that spring. By June 1943, all four crematoria were operational. Most of the victims were killed using these four structures.

From the beginning, the Birkenau site became a Memorial (although the term was not used at the time). On the grounds there, visitors can see the interiors of the remaining wooden and brick blocks, and above all the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria, and the burning pits.

It is quite chilling to see the infamous train arrival gate from which the prisoners were classified and received their fate as to whether they would live to work or die immediately.

Let us never forget . . . . . . . .

After a quick lunch we continued to our next stop, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, located in the town of Wieliczka in southern Poland. The mine, built in the 13th century, produced table salt continuously until 2007, as one of the world's oldest salt mines still in operation. From its beginning and throughout its existence, the Royal mine was run by the Żupy krakowskie Salt Mines. Commercial mining was discontinued in 1996 due to low salt prices and mine flooding. The mine's attractions include dozens of statues, three chapels and an entire cathedral that has been carved out of the rock salt by the miners. The oldest sculptures are augmented by the new carvings by contemporary artists. About 1.2 million people visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine annually. The mine is one of Poland's official national Historic Monuments. Its listing is maintained by the National Heritage Board of Poland.

The Wieliczka salt mine reaches a depth of 1,073 ft and is over 178 miles long. The rock salt is naturally gray in various shades, resembling unpolished granite rather than the white or crystalline look that many visitors may expect. During World War II, the shafts were used by the occupying Germans as an ad-hoc facility for various war-related industries. The mine features an underground lake; and the new exhibits on the history of salt mining, as well as a 2.2 mile touring route (less than 2% of the length of the mine's passages) that includes historic statues and mythical figures carved out of rock salt in distant past. More recent sculptures have been fashioned by contemporary artists.

The Wieliczka mine is often referred to as "the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland." In 1978 it was placed on the original UNESCO list of the World Heritage Sites. Even the crystals of the chandeliers are made from rock salt that has been dissolved and reconstituted to achieve a clear, glass-like appearance. It also houses a private rehabilitation and wellness complex.

There is a legend about Princess Kinga, associated with the Wieliczka mine. The Hungarian noblewoman was about to be married to Bolesław V the Chaste, the Prince of Kraków. As part of her dowry, she asked her father for a lump of salt, since salt was prizeworthy in Poland. Her father King Béla took her to a salt mine in Máramaros. She threw her engagement ring from Bolesław in one of the shafts before leaving for Poland. On arriving in Kraków, she asked the miners to dig a deep pit until they come upon a rock. The people found a lump of salt in there and when they split it in two, discovered the princess's ring. Kinga had thus become the patron saint of salt miners in and around the Polish capital.

I was told the amount of stairs down to the first level was 125 but to my surprise it turned out to be 380!!!!  I thought I was going to have a panic attack going down around and around the same staircase over and over again and I was VERY happy when I reached the bottom landing and rejoined the group.

After several hundred more stairs my knee just gave out and my claustrophobia was began to kick in at the thought of my being so far underground. I asked the guide how many more stairs there were and to my astonishment she said 480 more!!! I asked if there was any way I could be taken back up (there is an elevator!) and she said she would ask for the elevator to come down for me. I was relieved to be leaving.

This was a full day filled with emotion and stress and I was so very tired when I finally got back to my hotel. I left off my souvenirs and books I had bought that day and went to have dinner at the hotel once again. It was cool tonight so I wanted that great chicken soup again and then I ordered a filet mignon with pepper sauce that was awesome! Later I had no problem getting a good night's sleep.

No comments:

Post a Comment