January 27 marks the 66th anniversary of the liberation of the most notorious Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, by the Russians in 1945. Auschwitz has been in the news lately. Last month, people involved in the theft of a famous sign from Auschwitz were sentenced to prison. The sign, which was stolen in December 2009 and recovered later, read “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Sets You Free”). When thieves stole the sign, they cut it into three pieces to make it fit in their getaway car. Two men from Poland received prison time of up to 2 ½ years for stealing the sign and a Swedish man received nearly 3 years in prison for being the crime’s “mastermind.” Three other Polish men were convicted last March for their lesser roles in the crime. The original (and repaired) sign now hangs in the Auschwitz Museum and a replica has taken its place. I consider myself fortunate to have visited Auschwitz when the original sign was still hanging intact over the entrance to the camp.
On my April 2009 tour, “Berlin, Krakow and Prague,” my group signed up for an optional excursion to Auschwitz that made for one of the most unforgettable days in our lives. Our day in Krakow, Poland, began with a visit to the entrance of Oskar Schindler’s factory. The story of how Schindler saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jewish workers has been made famous by Thomas Keneally’s book, Schindler’s Ark (original title), and Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List.
We saw the Krakow Ghetto and Deportation Monument located in Zgody Square where thousands of Jewish people were rounded up. The huge bronze “empty” chairs provide a stark memorial to the victims of the Krakow Ghetto who had no place to sit while they stood for hours to be deported and while they endured inhumane treatment at the hands of the Nazis.
The Eagle Pharmacy is also located in Zgody Square, run by a non-Jewish Pole named Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who has been honored as a “Righteous Gentile,” along with Oskar Schindler. Bestowed by Israel, this title of honor is given to non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust. The penalty for helping a Jew in occupied Poland was death. Pankiewicz allowed his pharmacy to be used as a refuge for Jews who tried to escape the deportations and as a base for the Polish resistance. On a future tour of Krakow, I hope to visit both the museums in Schindler’s factory and the Eagle Pharmacy.
To teach the Holocaust in my classes, I have at my disposal a wealth of materials and a multitude of primary and secondary sources. They all pale in comparison to a “site visitation,” a trip to the place where over a million people died in Hitler’s “Final Solution.” My group traveled in the afternoon from Krakow to Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is located. We were met at this infamous concentration camp by a soft-spoken young Polish woman who would be our tour guide. We put on our Whisper headsets, a sort of tour guide radio system, and began our journey through a place like no other in the world. During the tour, I paid attention to my students and saw how subdued and solemn they seemed to be. Our tour guide’s delivery and tone was almost reverential as she rattled off so many facts and figures about Auschwitz and explained what actually took place here. The day was warm and sunny, but the weather was in stark contrast to what we were hearing and seeing during our tour.
As we toured various rooms in the barracks, we saw the “archives” of Auschwitz, piles of prisoners’ “belongings,” including human hair of all colors that was used to make cloth, eyeglasses, crutches, prosthetic arms and legs, shoes, and suitcases. I was especially moved by a pile of personal items such as combs, hairbrushes, mirrors, and cosmetics, even a blue tin of Nivea skin cream. We also saw empty Zyklon B canisters, the poison gas used in the gas chambers. We paid our respects at the execution area between two buildings where thousands of people died by a firing squad.
After viewing the gas chamber and crematorium, we went to the nearby Birkenau camp (also called Auschwitz II) where we saw some of the most depressing sights on the entire tour—the railroad tracks reminding us of the cattle cars that brought so many people to this place, the huge watchtower, and the wooden barracks where the prisoners lived as they waited for their time to die. We were horrified to see the stone bunks and concrete latrines. Auschwitz was not a place where work would set you free. It was a place to die.
After the tour, we removed our headsets and just looked and sighed at each other. What could you say after a tour like that? I thanked our guide and told her how much we appreciated the tour. She wanted to know what I thought of her English. I told her she did an excellent job (and gave her a very nice tip) and I also told her I was sure her parents must be very proud of her work bringing the past back to life for visitors. While we were waiting for our tour director, I told my group that as soon as we returned to Krakow, we would have some free time in the main market square where an Easter Market was being held. I also told them I would buy ice cream for everyone before they set off to look at the souvenirs and foods. We all needed the ice cream and free time. One of the students in my group is Jewish and I could just tell by his demeanor and actions about how the visit affected him. I took a photo of some of our group members and nearly everyone has a sad or pained expression on their faces.
I know a tour to Auschwitz has been described by some people as “dark” or “grief” tourism. I did not think twice about signing up for the optional excursion to Auschwitz. All of the students in my group, with the exception of an 8th grader, who is now in one of my classes, studied the Holocaust with me and I provided reading assignments for my entire tour group at one of the pre-departure meetings. Having some background information about what you are going to see on tour is essential. In June 2004, when I helped my local library organize a program to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day, I met a Holocaust survivor. She was part of our program and she survived two years in Auschwitz. She still had the numbers the Nazis tattooed on her left arm. She shared her perspective of D-Day as a Holocaust survivor and she urged our audience to remember the past and to never forget what happened. I doubt my students and I will ever forget our tour to Auschwitz. I hope they will be able to preface many a future conversation with “I remember when my teacher took me to Auschwitz…”