Yesterday (Sunday) morning I was invited to go on a day-trip to Auschwitz and Krakow with our building manager and a group of pastors from Korea who are visiting this area for 10 days. I got invited because the building manager speaks no English or Korean, and because the pastors speak no Czech or Polish, and because none of the bi-lingual members of our church were available. Basically I was the "translator." Bizarre. I've been here for 5 months and my ability to express myself in Czech is half that of my pastor's toddler daughter's ability. But she still doesn't speak English ;)
So we left on our trip around noon. It took us about two and a half or three hours to get to Auschwitz because we stopped for lunch in Bielsko-Biala at McDonald's (only the third Mickey D's I've even SEEN since I've been here... nice that it's so rare).
My impressions of Auschwitz I: Horrible. There were many barracks there, which had been "home" to the thousands of prisoners, and while some of them were under renovation or reconstruction, the majority of them were dedicated to housing a display about different aspects of the camp and the history of the war. One was for the confiscated possessions of the prisoners (mountains of shoes, suitcases, brushes, combs, wash basins and pitchers, eyeglasses, and implements such as crutches, back braces, and wooden legs; Jewish prayer shawls displayed hanging from rods, rather than in a heap like the aforementioned items; a few items of children's belongings including a doll and shoes for a toddler). This one, and the one depicting the physical toll that the camp took on the prisoners (photos of nude, skeleton women at the time of the liberation of the camp, listing that they had shriveled from around 165 lbs at internment to 55 lbs at the time of the taking of the photograph), are the two that had the heaviest impact on me. The Jewish barracks also had a huge emotional impact. We walked through the gas chamber and the crematorium, where they incinerated thousands upon thousands of people PER DAY.
My impressions of Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau, a mere 2 miles from A. I): Huge. I'm afraid it will seem irreverent or ghastly for me to admit, but Birkenau seemed almost elegant, giving me the same sensation as when something rancid also has a sweet tinge to it's odor. Not that there is ANYTHING sweet about what happened in Birkenau, but it's physical appearance now, 63 years after it closed has a ghastly beauty to it. It was so symmetrical. So meticulous. And that's a part of the horror of it. The Nazis were so meticulous in their extermination of people: Jews, the sick, homosexuals, the weak, children, criminals-- guilty or innocent of real or imagined crimes... From the entrance building to the camp to the back of the camp where the incinerator was located (it was about 95% demolished... the destruction that remains is a powerful tribute to the destruction that occurred when it was in use) was at the very least half a mile, maybe even a mile (I'm not great at estimating these distances). I have no idea how far it was from side to side, but it was wider than it was long, and filled with these barracks designed to house 52 horses. When the camp was occupied, each barracks housed 400 people.
Auschwitz I overwhelms with words and images and the presence of a plaza of execution and a prison basement in one building where many prisoners were sentenced to death by starvation or to pass nights in a row in "standing cells" where they would wait out the night only to work 11 or 12 hours the next day.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau overwhelms with it's sheer size. There are very few placards with words or images on them. It's just a huge, empty, outdoor prison, where the Nazis had dismantled many of the buildings in an effort to cover up what had happened there. Of those buildings, the wood was taken away, but the two chimneys from each of the barracks stands as a silent monument to history.
A final thought: As I wandered through these two death camps, I was thinking that no matter how horrible and awful the atrocities committed in Auschwitz were, no matter the evil that the Nazis did there, there is something that I've done that's worse.
I am guilty of killing the Author of Life and nailing Him to a tree just outside the city walls of Jerusalem.
Auschwitz was not the most horrible thing to ever occur in human history.
The Cross of Calvary was.