Walking Among Ghosts: Nazi Concentration Camps

by Guest Blogger on December 7, 2009 · 11 comments

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 past 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” -Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945
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.
Yes.
***
In Lublin, I take the bus 156 4 km out of the city center to visit the Majdanek Muzeum. Concentration Camp. Prison. Death Camp. Unlike Birkenau hidden in a rural field, or Aushwitz tucked behind a small town, the barbed wire of Majdanek runs along the main road. I can see small clusters of homes less than 100 meters from camp buildings. Not to mention a panoramic view of downtown Lublin.
Majdanek was one of the largest prisons and is laid out in the eerie rows of rectangular wooden barracks. I start the tourist route entering the men’s bathhouse. A building where men were both cleansed and exterminated. I read the sign in the first room and gasp at the grid of shower heads above me. I quickly move on to the next room before being trampled by the horde of naked emancipated men feeling the concave where their stomachs used to be. Knowing exactly how many spoonfuls of soup is necessary for survival. A peek into the next room isn’t much better. Shelves of empty Zyklon B canisters. The poison of the masses. Saving the worst for last, is the room where people were locked and Zyklon B was dispensed. With an attached small closet with a square peephole to witness murder. “Sick…” I mutter aloud in disgust and rush to exit the building. After only these three rooms, I am unsure I want to visit the rest of the camp. I sigh and realize that I must not to overtaken by ignorance. I walk along the stone road into the camp. I remember reading in a museum back in Krakow that at some of the camps the gravel paths were crushed tombstones uprooted from Jewish cemeteries. I pick up several of the stones at my feet. A couple could be fragments from the granite grave markers I have seen. Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath and move to the grass.
One of the buildings has its door opened forebodingly. With hesitant steps I peek inside. Shoes. Hundreds. Perhaps thousands of shoes. Tall metal crates with men’s, women’s, and children’s footwear line the sides and run through the middle of the long building. I can’t bring myself to enter this building; to get lost in the infinity of history’s hostage remains.
I finally made it to the back of the prison, to the crematorium. The name gives a more positive connotation that should be allotted to a structure not of death but of annihilation. It was with great trepidation that I finally entered the open doorway, braving my imagination of being trapped in a horrific nightmare. My shadow followed me through two empty rooms until reaching the back room. Unlike the other prison buildings I entered, only my lone footsteps echoed on the cement floor. I didn’t hear despairing moans, cries of pain, or even soft sad sobbing. My own breathing seemed out of place in this black hole of existence. It wasn’t the brick ovens that arrested my attention. Red brick with iron castings, resembling an old-fashioned country home furnace or an 19th century bakery. It was the metal stretchers sticking out of the openings. The same likeness of hospital stretchers used to carry ill human beings down a infirmary corridor. This is not a cozy cottage, a bakery, or a hospital. The intersection of images suddenly shocked. My whole body started quivering as I read the short signposting to my left. The heat from these ovens was used to heat the water used in the prison showers. The ashes were mixed in with the fertilizer that prisoners used during their forced farm labor. I glanced back at exhibit 1. This is not a replica or a reconstruction. These bricks smeared with the black smoke of signed human flesh.
Next was the mausoleum. I walked up the steps, and peered under the large dome. I looked up and down the 5 m tall pile of grey ash. There was another visitor to my right. Human ash. Our eyes meet and shared a brief tight-lipped grimace. Any words would seem awkward or rude. The passing exchange was enough to communicate: This was real. This is real.
On my way out of the camp, I looked over at the black crows like vultures encircling and swooping through the expanse of field. “How do they know” I wondered, “that deaths oozes from this earth?” They must share my empty expired sensations. I wanted to tell them, “You are only looking for ghosts”.  Suffocating in the crowd of ghosts among us.

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.

Barbed wire at Muzeum Aushwitz

Barbed wire at Muzeum Aushwitz

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.

A memorial commemorates prisoner deaths at the Killing Wall

A memorial commemorates prisoner deaths at the "Killing Wall"

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”

-Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945

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.

Yes.

***

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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Categories: Features, Poland
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11 Comments

Gordie Rogers December 7, 2009 at 7:41 am

I really want to get to those camps one day to help let the reality set in of what we humans are capable of doing to one another. Thanks for this.

Reply

Aldik December 7, 2009 at 9:12 am

Not Polish Concentration Camps but Nazi concentration camps.

Reply

johny December 7, 2009 at 9:50 am

Please – do not use expression Polish concentration camps – they have never existed. Last time somebody made an apt comment about a similar mistake: “why you do not try to make one step forward, following your logic (..) you should call these camps “jewish”, because jewish people were close in.”

Reply

johny December 7, 2009 at 10:17 am

Please – do not use expression Polish concentration camps – they have never existed. Last time somebody made an apt comment about a similar mistake: “why you do not try to make one step forward, following your logic (..) you should call these camps “jewish”, because jewish people were close in.”

Reply

Dave December 7, 2009 at 11:33 am

Hey Gordie, I would like to visit them in Poland too some day. I had a very somber experience visiting the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, and as hard as it might be, I think it is a way we can all keep from forgetting such atrocities.

Reply

Dave December 7, 2009 at 11:34 am

Hi Aldik,

I appreciate the gentle correction, and have made the change to the title of the piece, and the permalink. I hope this did not overshadow the power of Emily's writing.

Reply

Dave December 7, 2009 at 11:35 am

Hi Johny,

That was my mistake with the title, and I've updated it to reflect the Nazi association.

I hope you found Emily's experiences as moving as I did.

Dave

Reply

emilyabaughman December 7, 2009 at 11:46 pm

@ Aldik, @ johny : Thank you for calling attention to my important oversight.

Emily Baughman

Reply

emilyabaughman December 8, 2009 at 5:46 am

@ Aldik, @ johny : Thank you for calling attention to my important oversight.

Emily Baughman

Reply

Jenna November 11, 2011 at 1:45 am

I have been to Auschwitz twice and Dachau once. They, especially Auschwitz, are incredibly moving. An experience one never forgets. Very nice piece, Emily.

Reply

Susan F January 25, 2013 at 10:14 pm

I believe you can balance the atmosphere of the concentration camps, by getting as many people as possible to feel and think and have happy experiences in those areas. Hopefully, the spirits will feel a sense of relief.

Reply

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