Posts Tagged ‘Concentration Camp’

We’ve Got Hurt Feelings

Saturday, June 13th, 2009

Our second run-in with the law was much less pleasant than the first. We left Praha/Prague late Sunday afternoon, the seventh, and drove until 9 or so when we stopped and prepared a birthday feast. Daniel Shenk, 23 years and roughly 10 thousand miles away in Canada, began his preparations for this epic journey and we decided to celebrate. We found a truck stop and began a meal worthy of our birthday boy. Fusilli pasta covered with tomato sauce and fresh tomatoes, onions, and meat. We also enjoyed toast and popcorn and washed it all down with a “cappuccino.” We concluded the birthday festivities by lighting a birthday “candle,” a little excess camping gas. I took the wheel and drove on into the night, crossing into Austria around one. Only David and I were awake at the border where we drove through the dark customs and immigration checkpoint without a second thought. Just another border. I found a rest stop half an hour later and we fell asleep with the promise of showers (our first in a week) in the stop’s facilities the next morning.

Still partially asleep, I stumbles out of the driver’s door at 5:30 Monday morning. I had fallen asleep behind the wheel without reclining the seat and slept fitfully so it merely felt like a dream. I had to adjust my pants on the way out of the seat and I mumbled something incoherent about losing them. I thought the guys were messing around. It took a second before I realized I was standing before two Austrian police officers. I got back in the car. Shenk had also woken and believing he was still dreaming about rendezvousing with some friends, jumped out of the car as well. “Suddenly I realized I wasn’t dreaming and I had to pretend I was doing something intelligent,” he said later. After returning the officer’s curt “Morning,” he put on his jacket and made a show of stretching. I was in the driver’s seat, only awake enough to understand that we hadn’t bought a €1.25 ticket to travel the highway in Austria. I fumbled in the center console for some change. “It’s one-twenty,” intoned one officer, “you can pay by cash or card.” He had to repeat himself twice until I realized he referred to a fine and it was one-hundred and twenty Euro.

Bumbling, I tried to reason with the officer. We had entered the country late and had missed the signs he described that warned of the necessary highway ticket. Apparently you buy them at customs or the next petrol station. He wouldn’t buy my sleepy appeal for mercy. We payed by card. All of us awake now, there was a moment of panic when we realized it was 5:30 a.m. And we we’re sure to whom I had just groggily handed our debit card. Daniel confirmed seeing their cop car so the realization began to set in that we had just significantly contributed to Austria’s GNP. We returned to sleep less than pleased with the Austrian authorities. I’m not sure how this plays into Ephesians 4:26.

We slept in. I woke, admittedly still harboring some animosity toward Austria. We completely unpacked the car, determined to milk our time in the country. It didn’t help that another police car stopped and an officer demanded to see a highway ticket. He seemed a little too disappointed when I pointed to the dash and our €120 ticket. We reorganized the car for the first time since Shenk’s return and enjoyed a shower. Our tag-team approach proved effective and the four of us finished cleansing ourselves with four minutes to spare of the fifteen minutes allotted us. Shenk enjoyed a late birthday present. I enjoyed a shave.

We arrived at Salzburg around noon and set out to witness this city fit for a king (see film below). It was “a literal fountain of fountains.” We climbed to the impressive castle fortress’s walls and walked past Mozart’s home and the cathedral where he was the music director and choir master. There were even lady-folk. The town was nice but we still felt relieved to leave Austria. There were border signs regarding the highway tax, but they were small and in German. Back in Germany, we found Dachau and its concentration camp. The camp was closed so we walked around outside, enjoying the emptiness. I drove out into the countryside and down a little rural road that led to an ideal camping site in a stand of pine trees. I tried out the off-roading capabilities of our overloaded station wagon. We cleared a substantial tree stump and barely avoided two others. A hot meal and we split to the tent and the car to write blog posts and sleep off Austrian wake-up calls. So the next time you drive through Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia, Liechtenstein, or Hungary, may we suggest you buy a highway ticket.

Matt

South to Praha

Friday, June 12th, 2009

While the guys continued enjoying the view of the city from the Reichstag dome, I set off through the Brandenburg Gate and returned to the Bebelplatz square. Earlier that day I had stuck my head into an atrium-like room off the square, attracted to the techno beat and kaleidoscopic light show. I learned the university was hosting a benefit dance party that night. I arrived around eleven and persuaded my way inside for half price. The party was slow in starting so I chatted with the student manning the Macbook and the music until around midnight when the real DJ arrived. I hung off to the side until working up enough courage to join the growing crowd on the dance floor for a good passionate dance. The guys were expecting me back at the car before 12:30 so I could not stay as long as I would have wished. Instead, I tried to navigate the Berlin subway system. I arrived an hour and a half late to cold pasta and toast. At junctions, I had to ascend to the surface and walk a block or so past a few raving drunks to descend to the desired subway’s station, then wait for the next train traveling my intended direction. Interesting characters on the subway at 2 am in Berlin. We departed Berlin and Ziegler drove an hour south as we fell asleep.

Mid-morning we woke and David drove to the Dresden Monarch American football team’s stadium where we celebrated with oatmeal. While Ziegler napped, the other three split up and explored Dresden’s Altstadt, the old city center. The area’s architecture is awe-inspiring, especially since it’s a recent recreation. The buildings all appear weatherworn and of ancient Baroque style, despite much of them are less than 20-years-old. It was hard to remember. In February 1945, Allied planes firebombed the city, laying waste to 75% of the city. Pictures portray Dresden as a wreckage where 40 thousand people died. During the Communists’ rule, the area was only partially rebuilt. Today, however, the skyline is adorned with majestic spires and cupolas. I admired the Semper-Oper, the opera house restored to its pre-war glory; the Frauenkirche, the impressively reconstructed 4-year-old cathedral; and what appeared to be the Dresden Schloß palace. Easily distracted, I crossed the Elbe River, drawn by cheering and music. I watched a few minutes of a beach volleyball tournament sponsored by Smart, the makers of those tiny cars only recently introduced in America. On my return through the Alstadt streets to the car I splurged on a German bratwurst, totally worth a Euro.

Reassembled, we left and headed into the Czech Republic. Shenk, my navigator, and I had some fun trying to find Terezin after signs stopped pointing the way and forced a little guesswork. We arrived too late to justify the several Euro for an hour in the small museum so we walked the town and two memorials. The town especially interested me for its history as a ghetto for Jewish artists; these internationally known fine artists and musicians would have been missed if killed by the Nazis. Portrayed as “Hitler’s gift to the Jews,” Terezin’s inhabitants were forced to act out a false cultural ideal for Nazi films and a Red Cross visit. Before that visit, the S.S. thinned the population by killing thousands in Auschwitz and threatened death on any who revealed Terezin’s true living conditions. The ghetto’s Nazi offices churned out propaganda from the Jewish painters. After hours, though, those same artists would use their propaganda materials to draw and paint the true nature of the camp, some of which were discovered later. They are powerful images, Holocaust art from the inside. I appreciate their deviousness: expose the Nazis with the tools intended to conceal.

We continued to Praha (Prague) that evening, doing some intense wardriving before we found free wi-fi (pronounced wif-fee). While we shared the access and opportunity for communication home, we followed the lead of two teens who passed and ate from a cherry tree across the neighborhood road. We ate our full until an old woman passed and scolded us in Czech. On-line, Ziegler and David looked up some Mennonite Your Way contacts along our route, whom they emailed regarding hosting four smelly young men. We also found n English-speaking church for the next morning, a change from the native services we had enjoyed until then. Satisfied, we headed out of the city for some food and shut-eye. A busy day.

Matt

Concentration

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

I [david] woke up Tuesday morning a bit before 6:00 in the morning and could not get back to sleep, so I decided to walk around the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in the early morning as a slight fog still shrouded the camp. On my walk I fully realized how immense the camp was and how many people would live here at one time…and most of those shipped here were sent straight to the gas chamber. Due to the early hour at which I was walking around the camp there was no one inside, allowing me to try to imagine what the camp looked like in 1944. I imagined smoke billowing out of the crematoriums and hanging over the entire camp and the stench of burning bodies that would accompany this sight. I saw another train that was being unloaded: families being separated, a three year-old girl being taken from her mother for a “shower” from which the young girl would never return… the husband and wife being put in separate lines, the man will work, the woman will be gassed like their daughter…their luggage that they packed for their journey is unloaded from the train, but they will not ever see it again; little do they know that their luggage will outlive them by many, many years. I imagine a young boy—one kept alive for medical experimentation—seeing his mother through a fence… their eyes meet and they take one step towards one another… and are both beaten severely for it. Everywhere there is hate. As I looked at the camp, I imagined I could hear the word “hate” audibly, very quietly at first, but it started to crescendo. It sounded like a ringing bell getting louder and louder, “hate, Hate, HATE, HATE, HATE” and soon it was so loud my ears were ringing. There was no escaping it. So much hate… so much pain. Then, all of a sudden, like a jet breaking the sound barrier, there was a loud bang and extreme calm. I realized the bang was when the Soviets captured the camp, stopping the mass murders, and now the camp is extremely calm. There was no one in the camp… it was completely quiet… it was even peaceful in an eerie way.

As I walked around the camp deep in thought I would suddenly be passed by a car. No one even glanced at the camp. It is just a normal part of life for them. They don’t even think about it or what went on there just sixty-five years ago. There was a farmer working in his field next to the camp. What does he think when he is sitting in his tractor driving slowly right toward the barbed wire? An old man glides by on a bicycle… that man was old enough to be alive during World War II but he did not even look at the camp. Have they become jaded to it? Do they try to block out the memory? I know that it was not the Polish people that set up the camp, but has it really become so much a part of daily life that it has lost all significance?
Then, later in my walk, I realized that my own mind had wondered and I was no longer thinking about Auschwitz or the Holocaust. I was walking right along the barbed wire, but I could not even keep my mind on the camp. I am just as bad as those who drive by without so much of a thought about the pain. No, I am worse. They see it every day; I have seen it once, and already my mind was thinking about other matters.

david miller

Visiting a Machine

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

One element that sobered me about Auschwitz was the mass production of death. This was a well-oiled factory that churned out 1.5 million corpses. We’re talking efficiency on an unthinkable level. A phrase that stood out for me was “human liquidation.” The final solution liquidized a huge human population like a commodity, partially for its assets in manpower but generally merely to seemingly streamline the German population but disposing of those thought unfit. The unfit were, of course, humans with eternal souls.

The Third Reich assembled these people from across its occupied territory and generally funneled them through various concentration camps until their final destination behind gates of one of the three Auschwitz camps. Of the two standing camps, both have on their gates the sick slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work [Will Set You] Free). That this last false promise of hope, the factory began disassembling its victims with assembly line precision and heartlessness.

First, it stripped them of their possessions. At the smaller of the two camps, Konzentrationslager Auschwitz I, we walked past huge displays of suitcases, crutches, shoes, glasses, razors for shaving, shawls, pounds upon pounds of women’s hair, and even a few dolls, all meticulously confiscated in the camp’s machine. Personally, I struggled to remember that these were personal belongs of one living, breathing humans. They looked alien, even synthetic, behind their glass cases in the halogen lighting. Yet they were once owned by very real people, most of whom had no idea what the deportations would involve, many packed for normal life. There were preserved ticket stubs purchased by Italian Jews told Auschwitz was a Jewish settlement safe from the escalating tensions. They even bought tracts of nonexistent land to begin a new life. Instead, it have them either a single prison uniform, inadequate rations, and backbreaking labor, or the last “shower” of their lives. Between 70 and 75% of all those deposited at Auschwitz received the latter.

The Auschwitz machine also methodically stripped its prisoners of their rights and their human dignity. The reconstructed cabins at the larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp were not there to house the prisoners but merely to collect them. When we parked outside the camp’s main gate and slept there that night I tried to imagine the feelings of despair once felt by those on the other side of the electrified barbed wire. I failed miserably. If they were not sent directly to the gas chambers after exiting the trains, a small minority spent their days in inhuman conditions. Occasionally SS officers would have them transport huge piles of sand back and forth just for spite. They were programmed to view the prisoners as animals deserving this treatment. A pockmarked wall marked the many of these lives were ended if they refused to forfeit their humanity. Perhaps my life would have ended there if I had been born a European Jew in 1920.

When we toured the Birkenau barracks, I was struck by how barbaric the buildings would have been, especially after a new shipment of detainees arrived, cramming up to 3,000 people into buildings built for 500 max. One barrack housed young women, stuffing up to seventeen into each six foot wide bunk. They would have been piled on top of each other. Not that the camp was intended to collect people; it was intended as the final stop for the influx of Jews and the socially unacceptable into the Nazi industrial system. Train arrives full of cold, freightened people. Train departs empty. Workers mechanically separate the cargo, only 20-25%, the most healthy and fit, are allowed to live. The others, deemed unfit, were disposed of. Merely disposed of. The only biproducts were smoke from the crematoriums’ chimneys and ashes that still grey a pool near the Birkenau memorial. The efficiency of murdering an estimated 1.5 million was sickening; the last stop in Hitler’s diabolical machine to dehumanize and eliminate.

Matt

Light in the Darkness

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Just the name of Auschwitz can silence a pleasant conversation, especially among people who have visited it. The place has an aura of darkness and walking through it we were exposed time after time to stories of the absolute horrors humans beings visited on other human beings. To experience a place like this–especially as we did for an entire night outside Auschwitz-Birkenau then a full day in Auschwitz I and II–can block from your mind any glimmer of good.

But there was good in Auschwitz. From the very start of the camp as a containment facility for Polish dissidents, the local Poles from the town of Oświęcim–where Konzentrationslager Auschwitz was located–risked their lives for the sake of the prisioners. The only successful escapes were executed with the help of locals who risked death or, worse, becoming Auschwitz inmates themselves. As the camp grew and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and III (Monowitz) were founded, the entire Polish population of Oświęcim was relocated to an area not far away and their homes were used as the barracks and houses of the SS and Gestapo who ran the camps.

Gestapo and SS could not stop the Poles from giving what assistance they could to the prisoners. Prisoners would arrive at their work stations to find bread and fruit hidden amongst the rocks. Poles dropped packages of food and medicine just in front of columns of marching inmates for them to use. It’s impossible to estimate how many lives were saved thanks to Polish assistance, but simply the fact that word got out to the Polish government-in-exile in London about the camps and, through them, to the world meant that the Allies were that much quicker in their liberation of the camp.

Even though fewer than 200 inmates escaped, the lives of those inside were made ever so slightly more bearable by the assistance of the good people on the outside. These heroes aren’t often talked about–the sheer scale of the operation in Auschwitz overshadows their meager victories–but the fact that there were some, even just a few, who cared enough to risk their lives for good means that, in the eternal sense, the accomplishments of the Polish citizens of Oświęcim far eclipses the numerically larger accomplishments of the Auschwitz camps. The story of their fight against insurmountable darkness deserves to be told every time the name “Auschwitz” is mentioned.

Daniel R Ziegler