Edinburgh, Krakova, Auschwitz-Birkenau: My Midterm Travels





This week was midterm travel week. I chose to go to Scotland & Poland. These were two very different experiences.

First, I went to Edinburgh. There isn’t a word grand enough to describe the beauty of this city. With its many emerald & gold hills and evergreen trees. The vistas are incredible. From certain angles, one might mistake themselves for being in the prettier parts of Western Oregon. My room was beautiful too, with the outside wall being comprised of large castle stone, the curtains being a plaid in the pattern of an ancient tartan, & the view through the windows of the Royal Mile with all its Georgian & medieval buildings. 

Having only two days, I could only explore the highlights. So I went through the Edinburgh castle built on top of an ancient hill fort of Dunn Eidin dating back several thousand years. Some of the castle itself dates to the 1200/1300s, though much of it was rebuilt or remodeled in the 1700/1800s. I also got to see the Stone of Destiny, made known to me from the actions of the brave republican (means something entirely different in an anti-imperialist context) lads who stole it back from underneath the English thrown in the 1950s. Upon seeing that the ocean was so close, I hopped on a bus to the nearest beach & collected rocks in jade & plum hues. They had a museum of working class experiences (The People’s Story) just down from where I was staying. The castle was neat, but it was more interesting to see the history of people I can actually relate to on display. Next, I couldn’t rightfully visit Scotland without at least a shot or two of Scottish Whiskey. The perfect place for this was the Rabbie Burns, a pub devoted to the world famous poet & Scottish republican. Their selection was 6 pages long & prices ranged from £4-700 per shot. Being a Monday night, it was not very busy so I got to make conversation with the owner. He said that, in January, every night is Burns Night & the 25th is a huge celebration. Knowing what a big deal it is to Scottish-Americans back home, I can only imagine what it’s like in Edinburgh. Of course, like all Scottish-American tourists, I went searching for the family tartan. It was tricky to find, but I found it. I bought an arisaid (traditional Scottish women’s garment, similar to a cloak) in the family tartan. Normally, souvenir shops make me laugh & I have no interest in them. But Edinburgh had me all figured out. I could have spent a fortune, if I had a fortune to spend. Everywhere I went people were so friendly, just like home. In London, when I casually talk to a stranger they a) think I just want something b) think I’m flirting c) ask me if I’m Irish. 

Scotland was so lovely & dreamy. I fell head over heels in love with it instantly. I found myself crying on the bus on the way to the airport, as if I was leaving someone very dear to me. One way or another, I will make it back to Scotland someday.

Next stop was Krakova (Krakow). This is my first time being in a city where I don’t speak the language. I’ve had to learn fast to understand tone & body language as the primary form of communication. With other languages, I know at least some useful words. But I have never had Polish neighbors, so the only words I understand are the parts of Polish that are the same or similar to Spanish. Being vegan has been tricky. All the vegan restaurants & other cool aspects of the city are 30min walking or 15min bus south of my hotel, in the Jewish district. So planning a trip out of my way for food has been tricky. 

I spent a day walking around exploring. It’s an interesting place. Folks seem to be more relaxed about everything & people are not treated as children. You are presumed to be responsible, capable. Grass in the parks doesn’t get mowed often. The buses & trains sometimes stop out in the middle of traffic & the people run out into the street to jump up into them. The cars just know to watch for that without needing signs or signals. Street art is everywhere. There’s some pretty good original stencil art around. The city is very pretty, with lots of parks, & also has a very natural lived-in grit to it. The kind of place where true artists can thrive.

But the real reason I came here was to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. Ever since I first heard about the Holocaust as a child, I have needed to come here. I have tried many times to explain why, but nothing captures it. I didn’t know what to expect or what I was searching for. I just had to come.

First, I went through with a guide. It was useful to have things explained (some things didn’t have a sign or were not translated), but it went way too fast. We were hit with heavy information & given no time to process or reflect, just quickly ushered to the next scene. So my emotions were wound up & up & up until I couldn’t handle it & my emotions went numb. I really wish that hadn’t happened. As an abuse survivor, this is how my PTSD protected me through overwhelmingly emotionally upsetting circumstances. The unfortunate side effect being that I don’t know when or where that emotional response that was quieted will come out. It is not really ever stopped, just postponed & then pops up out of context later. I needed to be connected. So I went through again later without the guide, after everyone had left & the visitor center was closed.

Aside from that, the guide was helpful in connecting what allowed this to happen with relatable conditions today. “You might say, ‘I have no problem with Polish people or Roma, I have a neighbor that is _____. But I just think there is too many of them here.’ This is what they thought too. When they realized that there was no where to send them home to & no one would take them, they decided to kill them at once. What would happen today, if fascists takeover & 10 million Roma need new home? Would your country take them? Your country closed its borders before & they knew what was happening. Would you do anything to help? What if fascists takeover & they do DNA test or genealogy on you & discover you have Roma grandfather? What happen to you then?” She asked these types of questions throughout. There was a lot that, despite having studied the Holocaust for years, I still didn’t know. We were taken through the barracks of the political prisoners (Communists, Anarchists, Polish Catholic leadership, homosexuals, etc.). They were given less than 1min sham trials where their death certificates were pre-filled. Then they were lead either to gallows, firing squad, suffocation cells, starvation cells, or standing cells. The cells were basement rooms painted charcoal. The suffocation cells were also the first place they used the pellet gas for experimenting which methods to use for their mass murder scheme. The standing cells had a tiny door at the bottom where 5 people climbed through & stood in a very tiny space cut off from most of their senses except being squished together in this horrible confined closet. It wasn’t enough to simply kill them. They imagined up many creative ways to torment these people to death & for what? It wasn’t even useful as a scare tactic since who would know? The exploitation of the dead was far more intense than I knew. I knew they made lamp shades & journal cover with the tattoos/skin of the dead & took the precious metals from their teeth. But also the reason that they shaved their hair was to sell it as well. There is a room, a massive room, which represents a fraction of the dead. A sickening mountain of women’s hair. On the other side there are pictures of the bags of hair clearly marked Auschwitz heading out to the market. They knew. Behind glass is hair pieces, mats, hairnets all made from their human hair. The hair tests positive for the Zyclon gas used at Auschwitz.

In other rooms of this building are piles of luggage (marked with names & birth dates of each of the dead), shoes (massive piles of shoes), children’s shoes, children’s clothes (I imagined a mother dressing her infant as they packed up to leave the ghetto), glasses, prosthetics, prayer shawls, & other personal items. These only represent a fraction of the dead. The freshly murdered around the time of the camp’s liberation. All previous items were sold or donated to charity shops. So many, many coconspirators snatching up their piece of this exploitation & creating a demand for it.

Living conditions were even worse than the photos make them appear. Their are large gaps between the boards they were expected to sleep on. They were not allowed to use the toilet at night. I thought back to when my father told me that he wet the bed so that he could get out of the draft in WWII. In the navy, men sleep in bunks & a man who wets the bed will get killed/badly injured by his bunk mates. No doubt people would have been soiled by their bunk mates shitting themselves (is it appropriate to use a nonvulgar term for such vulgar conditions?) from starvation diarrhea. 

Although they are empty, the concrete toilets still give off a horrible stench beginning from several feet outside the doors. It must be permanently absorbed into the wood of the walls or something. I can only imagine what it must have been like when the open concrete basins contained sewage. The guards did not enter or go near the toilets. So for many, this was the only place they could hold Jewish religious ceremonies or distribute smuggled food. 

There is only one gas chamber that was not dynamited at this camp. The hundreds of scratch marks are visible on the wall & concentrated by the vents where people instinctively tried to climb the walls & each other to find fresh air, away from the pellets on the ground that were dropped inside. On the other side of the building is the first crematoria on site. Here prisoners would be forced to search the private parts of all of the bodies & shave the heads of the women before putting their bodies into the ovens. Some of the prisoners forced to do this wrote secret diaries & took photos that they buried in the ashes, hoping this truth could some day be told. 7 of these have been discovered & they expect to find more.

The other, more efficient & elaborate gas chambers had been dynamited. But their purpose is visible. As I approached these structures, I focused hard to regain connection to my feelings. I walked over to the pit of ashes, which has since become a shallow frog pond. I knelt down on the bank & touched the earth. The texture was strange. Then I realized it was ashes. The ashes were not just in the pit, but of course blown or spilt all around the edges. Instantly the connection was made. I was so struck with a deep, desperate, helpless, angry sadness. I wished I could reach through the pond scum, reach through the years, reach back to the dead, change the course of history, undo what can’t be undone. I broke my contact with the earth. I looked out across the rubble, their pathetic attempt to hide these crimes. I was furious. ‘A terrible thing happened here. You can’t hide this. You can’t just blast it away & run. I can see what you’ve done here. I SEE WHAT YOU DID HERE!’ I was enraged, hysterically shouting over & over in my mind like a mantra or an incantation, ‘I SEE WHAT YOU DID HERE!’, as I walked around the two massive gas chambers. 

I can’t change what happened. I can’t find & punish those responsible who still live. But I can remember & I can teach & I can learn to recognize fascism in real time (before it’s too late) & I can fight fascism in all its manifestations. We all can. Never forget. Never again.