What I Did on My Summer Vacation – Part 2

By John Conway | September 18, 2009 11:47 am

Travel is broadening, and in particle physics we get to do a lot of it. In July, having temporarily settled my father into a nursing home after being hospitalized (the subject of my last post, Part 1), I was able to meet my commitment to travel to Krakow, Poland, to give a plenary talk on the search for the Higgs boson at the annual Europhysics conferenceheld at the Jagiellonian University there (where Copernicus studied for four years, 1491-1495).

Central Krakow emerged from World War II, which began nearly exactly 70 years ago, nearly unscathed. The central square is one of the more beautiful in Europe, similar in a way to that of Prague. But it was hard to avoid waling there without imagining what it must have looked like during the war, occupied by German soldiers who had made Krakow the center of their regional government during the war.

From the square one can take tours in little golf-cart-like jitneys, and see some of the interesting historical sites, including the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) and Schindler’s famous enamelware factory. Some of the apartment buildings in Kazimierz are still in the state they were at the end of the war, a rather grim reminder of the central role Krakow played in the Holocaust.


From Krakow one can take day trips to a number of interesting places, and we visited the spectacular salt mines of Wielicka, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which have amazing, huge rooms carved out of the rock.

But there was another interesting place to tour that we were hesitant about – Auschwitz. Others who took the tour came back saying that it was well worth the journey, over an hour by bus each way, but tended not to say much more about it…hmmm.

So on our last free day we took the plunge, signed up for the tour, and went. The bus traveled through quite rural countryside on two-lane roads, past farms and villages, roughly following the Vistula river, until reaching the town of Oswiecim, which the Germans called Auschwitz.

There are in fact two concentration camps there, called Auschwitz and Birkenau, the latter actually being Auschwitz II. Birkenau is twenty times larger than the original camp, which was in fact a Polish army installation before the war. Auschwitz I was turned into a labor camp by the Germans shortly after the start of the war, and tens of thousands lost their lives there, working in nearby armaments factories, and on the construction of the Birkenau camp, starving to death on a 500-calorie-a day diet, or in the original gas chamber there.

The camps are still plainly visible from the air, as you can see in the photo. Auschwitz I is now a museum and living memorial to those who died there. Our tour of the museum included rooms filled with the personal effects taken from the prisoners: shoes, clothing, eyeglasses, and, perhaps most shockingly, human hair, which was used to make clothing for the German army. It’s actually hard to write about this, forcing myself to remember touring the housing blocks and the infamous Block 11, where, as an experiment, the SS first tested Cyclon B as a means of mass murder on 600 Soviet prisoners of war and 250 sick Poles.

After touring the museum, we went a few kilometers to Birkenau. The entry to the camp, along the rail line through the brick block house, is the same as the entry was for over a million people who were murdered there, predominantly Jews (most from Hungary), but also Gypsies. In late 1944 and early 1945, the fleeing Germans tried to destroy as much of the camp as they could, blowing up the crematoria and burning the wooden barracks, leaving only the brick chimneys standing behind the once-electrified barbed wire fences. The pictures we took say it all.

Throughout the tour of both places, everyone was hushed and, I think, awestruck by the sheer scale of the evil perpetrated there, and duplicated at so many other camps in eastern Europe and Germany. You can watch Sophie’s Choice or Schindler’s List, or read about the Holocaust, but until you stand there and see for yourself the actual crematoria and barracks, the mile-long rail line inside the camp, and the electrified fences with guard towers, you may not have truly appreciated what happened. AllI could think about was how anyone with an ounce of goodness in their hearts could have perpetrated this, but some 70,000 SS members did exactly that. Only 10,000 or so were ever brought to justice.

In an attempt to understand the mindset of the perpetrators, at the Auschwitz bookstore I bought a book called “KL Auschwitz seen by the SS” with the written reminiscences of the commandant of the camp, Rudolf Hoess, the diary of one of the camp doctors who participated in many of the “selections” of prisoners upon arrival. Hoess’ memoir was chilling, to say the least. It was written while he was in prison, before being hanged at Auschwitz in April, 1947. He describes the process of creating and operating the camp, and carrying out the Final Solution, in terms which are more reminiscent of large project management than mass murder. He had a very tight budget, and had to be ruthlessly efficient in meeting the SS quotas for labor production and human destruction. He was a problem solver at heart…that’s what made it so chilling. As for the diary of the doctor, Paul Kremer, it was particularly difficult to swallow his diatribes against the Allied bombing of Germany after his clinical discussion of his work at the camp.

How can people do this to other people?

We also bought the book “Hope is the Last to Die” by Halina Birenbaum, who describes her teen years spent in the Warsaw ghetto and then a series of concentration camps, somehow managing to survive through numerous near-death events. She is still alive, as far as I can tell, living in Israel. This book is a must-read.

This one-day tour, and the books we read, had a profound affect on me this past summer. And there are two things that I really have to say at this juncture. Firstly, it has been tremendously disturbing to see Obama (or any US president) seriously compared to or equated with Hitler or the Nazi party. Anyone who does such a thing is, to my mind, a sick human being, and doing a terrible disservice to the memories of the victims of the Holocaust.

Secondly, earlier today in Iran the world was treated to the annual sight of Iranians marching in the street, chanting “Death to America! Death to Israel!”, with Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust, as we have come to expect. I guess it’s not realistic to ask them to do the reading on this one, much less visit a place like Auschwitz.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics, Travel, World
  • Jason Dick

    Well, if you’ve ever wondered how people could do this, I don’t think this answers that question. But it does indicate that chances are we probably would have done it too:

    The Milgram experiment basically had people think they were torturing and killing an actor (via electric shock). Most went all the way to the point of “death”. After this experiment was performed once, it was judged unethical, and has not been repeated since.

    I, for one, have a hard time wrapping my head around precisely what is unethical about this experiment. Presumably those that judged it so felt that it is unethical to show people just how capable of evil they can be. I can’t understand how that’s unethical: seems to me I’d rather be aware that I can be capable of evil, so as to better guard against it. According to the Wikipedia article above, the vast majority of the participants were glad to have done so.

    But in any case, I think this experiment says quite succinctly that chances are, we too could, given the right situation, be willing participants in mass execution. So be ever vigilant. Be vigilant against cultivating a culture that would encourage such evil, and be vigilant against blindly following authority. That’s my take on it, anyway.

  • hanmeng
  • John

    hanmeng: I absolutely agree…the comparison of Bush to Hitler was, and is, equally sick.

    Jason, the Milgram experiment shows that people will indeed follow orders, well beyond the point where you might expect them to refuse to do so. That, in fact, was the common excuse of the SS who carried out the crimes – obeying orders. And the same justification is now used for torturing prisoners at Guantanamo, Bagram, and elsewhere…

  • Brian

    I like to travel, but I’ve dreaded the “opportunity” to see the concentration camps. They are the site of so much sadness. Most likely I’d go, but I’d have to think about it first, just as you.

  • Christina Viering

    Interesting, but won’t go there.

  • Kaleberg

    I won’t be visiting either. I grew up knowing too many former guests. I won’t get a tatoo either. Everyone I knew with a tatoo got it Chez Hitler.

  • graviton383

    I think it is a MUST for everyone to see just how low an apparently enlightened culture can fall. I couldn’t eat for 2 days after seeing Dachau..but that was mild compare to Auschwitz.

  • http://johnkemeny.com/blog John K.

    Thank you for this piece. My parents survived work camps and many of my ancestors were murdered in the camps.

    How can I view your pictures link? All I get is a signup page to mobileme.

  • Pingback: johnkemeny.com » Blog Archive » Gut Yuntiff = Happy Holidays & Not Forgetting()

  • http://YadVashem steeleweed

    I suggest a visit to Yad Vashem – the Holocaust Memorial in Israel. If you can spend an hour slowly going through it and not come out feeling like some monsterous claw has ripped out your guts, I don’t want to know you, because you’re not human.

    I am not Jewish, but by the time I got out, the emotional ache had become a physical pain.

    Yad Vashem isn’t really about Jews, its about inhumanity. Strangely enough, the final room is almost healing. Almost.

  • John

    John K.: thanls for letting me know the link did not work. I am still learning MobileMe…it should be okay now. For your convenience here is the link:


  • http://cosmicvariance.com JoAnne

    I saw Auschwitz in September 1989 – exactly 20 yrs ago – and to this day I get shivers and that hard feeling in my gut, whenever I see or hear the name. It is a truly horrific site and I agree with graviton383 that everyone should see it. I’ve been to Yad Vashem as well and as moving as it was, it is Auschwitz that has had the lasting impact on me.

  • http://sarahaskew.net Sarah

    “Others who took the tour came back saying that it was well worth the journey, over an hour by bus each way, but tended not to say much more about it…hmmm.”

    I visited Auschwitz in 2001 and yes, that was pretty much my feeling. I’m glad I saw it but what can you say? What happened there – and all over Europe – is horrendous and there’s no way we can even remotely grasp what it was like.

    Incidentally, I read a fascinating book some years ago, called Humanity: A moral history of the 20th century (by Jonathan Glover), which looks at the Holocaust and other instances of war and genocide – Cambodia, the Balkans, Vietnam, Rwanda – and discusses the processes that occur to make these things possible both in individuals and in societies. It’s a fascinating book, I really recommend it.

  • Darrell E

    I experienced Dachau around 1975 – 1976. I can still recall in vivid detail images and smells from there and my feelings at the time. I am trying not to cry.

  • chris

    I’ve never heard about Rudolf Hoess before, but now i read up. and i have to say this is about the most scary thing i’ve ever read. a buerocrat of death, who administered the murder of over a milllion people. and tried to project the image of not feeling guilty in the slightest.


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