This is a guest post by Emily Baughman. If you want to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read more here.
Poland is full of ghosts. Everywhere. Some invoking the warmth of a true compliment, others bearing the weight of a lie everyone seems to believe. All mysterious.
Past the trendy cafes, beyond the Catholic church spires, Poland has a history that begs to be revisited. This is a recollection of my experiences among the tragic chilling whispers of those who once inhabited the land that is now Poland; drawing on visits to three different concentration camps, one former Jewish ghetto, one overgrown Jewish cemetery and one former forced labor factory.
Unlike some experiences where a body can develop numbness to repeated pain for survival reasons; each visit to the locales of these ghosts elicits physical reactions which don’t callous. The rapid heart rate. A sinking stomach. Clammy palms. Woozy light-headedness. Every time.
Unlike the other Polish cemeteries I have seen around town; each grave site shrouded in fresh flowers and candle lanterns, this one is different. No one comes here to visit their deceased family relatives or friends. No one is around to sweep the autumn leaves blanketing the walkways. No one to pull the moss from and level the tombstones leaning at 20 degrees. No one can trace their family line back to Samuel Stein who died in 1923. No one remembers who he is. History lost, unable to be retrieved.
Against stereotypes, Hollywood can nobly raise a true story to a popular consciousness that is important to be remembered by millions. Walking amid the remains of Schindler’s Factory, the afternoon rain can’t wash away disillusionment. Pastel colors can’t hide the grey facades of the communist buildings in the background. Misery atop misery. The small adjoining museum traces Adolf Hitler’s rise to political power and Oskar Schindler’s rise to human compassion.
I’m not sure how locals can live in this scarred neighborhood. Walking past the remains of the Jewish ghetto wall everyday; can they begin to imagine their life under a Jewish visage? I feel rather uneasy taking a photo of the crumbling height of brick. Is this a photograph of a historical site or of someone’s misery?
After an hour and a half on a train, I arrive in the Polish town of Oswiecim. I walk to the end of town past gilded Communist apartment complexes, canary yellow forcing a smile. I reach the Museum of Aushwitz. The name is unfitting. Museums aren’t associated with death. I shouldn’t feel like this when I visit a museum. All the Holocaust media I have previously ingested rushes to me. The personal accounts. The textbook facts. The archived photographs. All come from this place.
It seems redundant to hire a tour guide to tell me all the textbook facts I’ve already read, and stories that seem an insult to atrocity if not described in a survivors own words. The scenery tells it’s own story. A story that alarms me with its unabashed nakedness. The double barbed wire still encloses stark two-story brick buildings, and signs still hang in German. I hold my breath and tears to pass under the iron entrance arch branded with “Arbeit macht frei.” “Work brings freedom.” Perhaps I feel ashamed to enter this place as a tourist, free from the despondency that it brought to thousands of people. Immediately after, a grim silence takes over.
Several of the buildings of the former prison were transferred into exhibits with informational displays and plaques written in Polish, English, and Hebrew. Basic descriptional captions become morbid.
One photo enlarged shows two young children walking merrily, hand in hand along a railway platform with the caption: “On the way to death.” I shuddered at the unexaggerated truth.
“In this cell a Polish priest pledged to starve to death in order to save another prisoner”
“In this building several German scientists conducted human experimentation on women prisoners some who died or were maimed for life”
“Cement roller that was utilized with human power”
Others didn’t need any caption at all. Behind a large glass window there was a 10 x 5 m area of: human hair. Sold to German textile factories.
Veiled by a new reality swinging back and forth on the hinges of death, I take the shuttle bus to Birkenau, another camp 20 minutes away.
Looking at the railway tracks running through the middle of the vast field, this is raw. Walking along the train tracks, along the platform, it’s easy to imagine the death march taken by thousands.
I enter a wooden barrack; a place that is properly suited to house horses or cows or goats. Three-tiered bunks line the walls.
I catch snippets from a group tour in English. “What you can’t experience today is the smell,” the guide is saying, “If you can imagine all the bodies packed into this small area it gives you a sense of how strong the odor was. An odor that could be smelled 5 km away.”
If I don’t already feel inundated by the sounds of my imagination, the gustatory sense completes the terrific nightmare.
At the end of the train tracks I stand at the memorial, read the inscription, and look back on the horrific mess.
“Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe”
It’s hard to imagine about one and a half million people in one place. Harder still to imagine human beings in the shape of herded goats.
Afterwards, I discovered a poem by Nobel Laureate Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, which fit my feelings:
Starvation Camp at Jaslo
Write this down. Write it. In ordinary ink
on ordinary paper: they were given no food,
all died of hunger. All. How many?
It’s a large meadow. How much grass
was there per person? Write it down: I don’t know.
History rounds off skeletons to the nearest zero.
A thousand and one is still a thousand.
As if that one weren’t there at all:
an imaginary embryo, empty cradle,
a primer opened for no one,
air that laughs and screams and grows,
stairs for the void running down to the garden,
nobody’s place in the ranks.
This is the meadow where it became flesh.
But the meadow is silent as a bribed witness.
In the sunlight. Green. Over there is a forest
for chewing wood, for drinking from under bark–
a daily helping of landscape,
until one goes blind. Up there is a bird,
that moved across lips as a shadow
of its nutritious wings. Jaws opened,
teeth would chomp.
At night a sickle would flash in the sky,
reaping dreamt-up grain for dreamt-up loaves.
Hands of blackened icons would fly in,
bearing empty goblets.
On a spit of barbed wire
a man was swaying.
They were singing with soil in their mouths. A lovely song
about the way war hits you right in the heart.
Write about the silence here.
Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of Emily’s experiences visiting the concentration camps of Poland.
Emily Baughman has a big appetite for unconventional adventures. She also enjoys sticky rice. Contact her at emilyabaughman(at)gmail.com
Photos courtesy of Emily Baughman.
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