I decided to share a few of my personal travel experiences on Facebook, with the idea that if I share them inside and outside of my circle, they will go farther, and maybe provide some sense. I feel strongly that in our education system, we have had limited exposure to horrific truths. Yesterday I experienced one walking the grounds of both Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland (and I didn’t know that these towns had different original names of Oświęcim and Brzezinka), during a vacation heritage trip. My family has roots in Poland not too far back, and I’m not sure if we still possibly had relatives living here during this time, as I’ve only been able to directly trace and confirm up to my great grandparents births in Poland as they entered American in 1909-1910. I know their parents lived in Poland, so it is likely they could have been victims in this massive extermination or possibly even my great grandparents’ brothers and sisters, cousins, or their offspring. I am not sure if I will ever know. Auschwitz was first constructed to hold Polish political prisoners, who began to arrive in May 1940 and then grew on from there (starting with extermination of the most educated Poles that proposed a threat intellectually), a plan seeded by the Nazis since the 1930’s. These Polish cities were annexed to the Third Reich by the Nazis. There is much more information on this history as told by the truths of the national museum recognized by UNESCO. Perhaps better and well said by this article, “This place is impossible to ignore.”
Here are my thoughts before after my experience yesterday. The most compelling quote upon entering the “blocks” was this quote that can summarize why I share:
“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” – George Santayana
Before my trip anticipating what I would learn:
By Jennifer Cook
As I learn and experience the history of Poland, there is also a part of history that happened here that is a somber, devastating tragedy. I decided when I booked this trip it was important to go and see this side of the country and respect those that lost everything fighting for their lives. I am going on a bus of strangers to Auschwitz as a full day trip. I already know I am unprepared for what I will see. I am nervous to go but I can’t imagine coming all the way here and not going. The polish people I’ve met have very sad and strong reactions to me going. Some of them have never gone. It is a history too close to home that they are reminded of daily. As I walked yesterday on my own in the city I walked into an area that I knew I should not be in- there was graffiti and homes that I knew faced some difficult times. I hope and pray for peace in our world. But I feel strongly we must face the past to fight to never let these horrors happen again- anywhere.
And after my trip sharing what I did learn. Just a fraction.
By Jennifer Cook
I took many photos today (this is allowed except in certain areas) with the intent to only share with my family as I feel if you have not been able to experience this you can never understand what this place is or was. I feel history has done us no service in truly understanding the mass extermination. Harrowing. Bone chilling. Nauseating. And horribly beyond any comprehension that something of this scale happened. And did. I am polish. I don’t know all the depths of my ancestry but I also learned that 90% of the millions killed were Jews but the first to go to the camps were the most educated successful Poles. They evacuated the vicinity around the camps to deflect attention or awareness. Anyone who helped died. Gypsys, Catholics, others were targeted. Group punishment for 10-12 for one person doing the simplest of things out of line. Prisons in prison camp with beyond deplorable circumstances and punishments. Starvation. Poisoning. All routes in to Auschwitz. A map of planning. Documentation. Organization. Segregation. It goes on. The Germans renamed the city to Auschwitz and Birkenau- taking the polish names away. After 2 hours in Auschwitz in the rain and touring the area listening to all the details and seeing the evidence of horror, we still could not e prepared for Birkenau – where the scale and vastness of the devastation was beyond anything you could ever imagine. It was pouring rain and cold. Imagine having no coat. Snow. Heat. Sharing a wood double bed with 8 people. Urinals. Rows of them. Where all the train tracks ended. I held on to my rosary a lot today and didn’t care to not cry. The movie we saw on the way over was one I have never experienced before. When the Russians came to free the camps- one man was responsible to film and detail what they found. In a few instances tried to recreate it with the remaining prisoners. The details of the experimentation, torture and disease infliction shook me to the core. Photos depicting decision left you die- decision right you work, but eventually die. Too many to have to work so then arrive then die. 800-1000 people at a time. When they were liberated only 7000 were alive. Most of them would die. Children, babies killed and shot. Twins experimented on. These are the things we did not learn in school and these are the very truths we should be taught. I will not try to understand this. But I will forever honor it and share what I learned. Even the German companies that now exist today whom profited from this. Our guide was amazing. My eyes are open. They will never be shut or deaf to wrong of any kind. 10% of actual SS and families were ever caught and punished. 1,100,000 Jews,140,000-150,000 Poles, 23,000 Gypsies, 15,000 POW soviets, 25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups. 10% for 1,300,000 people.
Geopolitical unrest is an ongoing casualty of the complex world we live in. However, each person makes a difference in the world every day. I am reminded to pay attention to that and share this message in hope that we will not allow horrific histories to repeat because of indifference or fear. Pokój i miłość (peace and love).