We’d never been to Central Europe. That is most of us in my family, except for my daughter-in-law Renata who hails from a village in Czech Republic, and my son, Ravi, who visited her there. Therefore, we decided to explore that part of the world that gave us one whom we call our own.
We signed up with the Globus Tour Company, which took us to Budapest (Hungary), Bratislava (Slovakia), Cesky Krumlov and Vienna (Austria), finally ending up in Prague (Czech Republic). From there we extended our tour to the village of Dobre to visit Renata’s family, where she, Ravi and my three-year-old granddaughter Zoya Nayani joined us. Our very memorable last stop was Krakow in Poland.
Yes, Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp, located an hour and half drive from Krakow, was a place we wanted to visit. We knew full well that it would be a difficult experience.
I had spent my pre-teen years contentedly in South India, somewhat oblivious of what was happening so far away in a cruel war. Occasionally, I would hear of reports of war in our newspapers. Radios were very rare and needed a government permit to operate one. My own experience of war was not too harsh.
There was food rationing, which also meant shortage of food and other necessities. There were days when we had to be content with one meal a day, and we’d have to assure our- selves that others were in the same state that we were.
There were some days of terror when Japan, which had entered the war, bombed parts of northeast India and I remember that there was general confusion in the country as to which side we were on. Re- ports of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s meeting with Adolf Hitler vaguely meant that we would be free of the British rule with Hitler’s help.
Of course, Mahatma Gandhi decided, rightly so, to temporarily suspend the independence movement against the British, a cohesive amalgamate of activity of open air eateries, street vendors, sculptures, horse drawn coaches and international tourists. A beautiful church in one corner along with high end shops, chic hotels and restaurants surrounding the square make it delightful.
Open air gymnasts, musicians, vendors of every sort make up for a passing show that entertain the visitors during the day and late into the night with a rock concert finale.
A saffron-clothed yogini (female yogi) sits smilingly in front of the church in an ascetic posture. She has a stick in front of her which she holds with her one arm.
Suddenly you realize that she is sitting about two feet in the air above the side walk. We don’t know how she got herself elevated-we did not see her doing that. She sits unmoving, like a statue, and children check to see if there is any invisible support by wav- ing their hands underneath her. People drop coins on the ground in front of her. It is perhaps some kind of illusion that appears as a genuine yogic position. It seems incongruous. She does not belong to the passing show.
Not far from the city square is the Wawel Royal Castle which sits on a picturesque hill with a large spectacular vista of beautiful gardens and palaces. Currently, added to its charm is the exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “Lady with an Ermine.” After waiting for a short time, we A saffron-clothed yogini (female yogi) sits smilingly in front of the church in an ascetic posture. She has a stick in front of her which she holds with her one arm. Suddenly you realize that she is sitting about two feet in the air above the side walk.
A typical passage between rows of inmate dormitories
One of the gas chambers Also near the square is the city’s Jew-recognizing that the demonic Nazi war was really against all humanity. With these recollections, I set foot in Krakow, Poland.
The main square is a wonderfully busy place with several streets converging into
enter a darkened room and see the lighted painting on the wall. It is a small, but splendid portrait painted around the year 1490. For those of us who are not art critics, it is just magical.
ish quarter where once about 30,000 Jews lived their vibrant lives, now decimated to 700 or so. You cannot but feel the scope of tragedy that engulfed them. Our guide takes us to a small square, which is a remainder of their rich heritage. A little Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “Lady with an Ermine” Schindler’s desk at the Schindler Museum garden, a synagogue and old row houses make up the scene.
We are told that some of the scenes from the movie Schindler’s List were shot here. On one side of the square are a row of present day restaurants.
We are taken to see the larger part of the quarter starting with an exhibit on an open ground with a lot of metal chairs placed in disarray. This reminded us acute- ly, if symbolically, how the Nazis rounded up the Jewish tenants of the apartment houses and hurled their furniture out onto the streets.
We saw the locations of the entrance gates for the then walled-in Jewish Quar- ter. An exhibit of a small stretch of the wall is a stark reminder of what a horrific turn of events it must have been to this proud and gentle people.
It was a relief to visit Schindler’s factory with exhibits displaying how, in the middle of the horrible Nazi enterprise, a self professed member of the Nazi party came to rescue hundreds of Jews from the cruel life of concentration camps. This building also serves as a World War II exhibition.
The visit to Schindler’s factory was a somber foreboding of what was to come the next day on our visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The camp site is about an hour and a half drive from Krakow. Soon after our arrival at Camp A, we formed a line to enter the site and after security check we got our headphones and set out with guides taking groups of about 15 people each. Our English speaking guide led us through the entrance gate for what was a heartrending experience. We had seen movies and documentaries before, but this was different. The physicality of it, the mere scale of it, created an overwhelming feeling of horror. Building after building and room after room spoke of endless unimaginable cruelty imposed by one human being on another. The collection of old aluminum plates and bowls seemed painfully representative of the hunger that the inmates were subjected to. Large heaps of children’s glasses and shoes in an exhibit bore silent testimony to the atrocities inflicted on those innocent little lives.
The horror was somewhat softened because of the sanitization of the site. All the human elements, such as skeletons, bones, etc., have been deliberately removed. But, still, the torturous intention of the Nazi regime is unbearably clear. The acute closeness of human beings packed together on tiered bunks; stalls with just enough space for a standing person; a total absence of washing and bathing facilities; exposure to cold in the non-heated rooms; and finally the cruelly designed gas chambers required little imagination to realize what had taken place.
One cannot even imagine the bitterly cold mornings when roll call took place out in the yard. The inmates who were able to stand, dragged themselves out in their insufficient clothing and torn shoes–they were allowed to keep their shoes on for the ease of being herded here and there and lined up while the Nazi officer conducting the roll call stood within a shelter. The camp commandant’s family including his children lived in his quarters just outside the gate!
At Camp B, we see huge open railway platforms for unloading the unsuspecting human wave. Here, on a hot day, the area appeared infinitely endless, cleared of all vegetation, at the end of which were the now collapsed crematoriums. In the middle of the railway lines and platforms, a lonely wagon stands representing all those spaceless, airless vehicles that came in, packed with countless human beings. There were more buildings in this area, perhaps for the newly incoming unfortunate victims.
At the end of it all we were so exhaust- ed by the experience that we had become totally numb, feeling rather guilty even to belong to the human species.
On our flight from Krakow back to United States I visualized the main square. It seemed that Krakow has moved on, as though untouched by the the Holocaust, by brutal events of human history, oddly like the levitating yogini detached from the ground.
However, the presence of the Auschwitz Camp in the vicinity remains a reminder of the cruel slaughter of innocent citizens, not just for Krakow but for entire human race.
Nagaraja Rao is a retired engineer and lives in Fremont, California with his wife Chandra.