To get to Auschwitz, you take a 90-minute bus ride west of Krakow, through suburbs, exurbs and, finally, the Polish countryside. The camp, officially called the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, is on the outskirts of a town called O?wi?cim. Your first hint that you’re getting close are the train tracks, overgrown with grass and disused by the side of the road. For anyone who knows the history of Hitler’s Final Solution, they are ominous.
The site itself is enormous, nearly 200 hectares spread over two separate camps–Auschwitz and Birkenau. Auschwitz looks as I expected–barbed wire fences, red brick barracks separated by muddy roads. Once you pass through the famous gatehouse building, though, the site is mostly an enormous, swampy field dotted with brick chimneys and foundations. Almost all of the buildings at Birkenau were of simple wood construction, and were burned, plundered or otherwise destroyed after the war.
The whole museum is so sprawling that we felt we made the right choice in booking an English-language, three-and-a-half hour tour. While you can explore the site on your own, the guide enriched our understanding of the camp’s grisly mechanics.
The museum takes a very particular perspective on the tragedy its buildings witnessed. Its exhibits seek to convey the scale of the Nazis’ horrible crimes. You enter a room and gasp at an enormous pile of hair–two tons of it–cut from their victims. Another room houses a mountain of suitcases, many with their owners’ names painted on them. Another features eyeglasses, another crockery and so forth. There are also maps and diagrams illustrating the Germans’ reach across Europe, and statistics cataloging their ghoulish efficiency.
Oddly, the museum doesn’t tell any individual human stories. There are few, if any, quotes from guards or survivors. In fact, there are hardly any subjective reports at all–it’s a museum exclusively comprised of facts. In this way, it seems like a collectivist rendering of history, a very Soviet approach to a memorial. I can also imagine that every decision around the site is fraught, and party to many deeply-invested stakeholders. As such, change is probably hard to make.
Despite being at, literally, one of the saddest places on Earth, I shed no tears. Nor did I see any tears among the hundreds of other visitors I saw.
From a Mausoleum to a Ghetto
The next day, we visited Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, which has been converted into a museum about Krakow under the Nazi occupation.
Stylistically, it stood in total opposition to Auschwitz. The museum guides you through a series of immersive, specific experiences. Some were very naturalistic–you might stand in a replica of a Krakow train car or a period barber shop, listening to the distant gunfire. At other times, the experiences were more abstract, as in the moving circular chamber in Schindler’s office. Its walls were filled with pots and pans manufactured at the factory, and the inner walls were lined with the names of the people he saved.
The section on the liquidation of the Jewish ghettos were particularly effective, as you walked through (or under, it almost seemed) through a narrow, labyrinthine corridor to visit a typical Jewish apartment.
The museum is overflowing with objects–guns and uniforms as well as razors, pens and a thousand other everyday items. There were photos, diary entries and letters everywhere–it is a factory that makes stories.
The two museums confounded my expectations. I assumed that Auschwitz would be a profoundly moving experience, and yet it was more of a mausoleum than a monument. The Schindler factory, on the other hand, felt alive and overflowing with history.