The last few days have been amazing learning about the history of Poland. To my surprise (and probably most people’s) Poland was once a powerful empire that controlled most of Eastern Europe. Combined at its height, Poland and Lithuania formed the Commonwealth, a place filled with both tolerance and prosperity. All religions were welcome, which explains one of the reasons why Jews came to this place. After touring Wawel Castle and Cathedral, which is a huge complex/fort, it was clear to me just how powerful and successful Poland was at its height around the 16th century. The cathedral was filled with gold and marble. From statues, floors, walls and ornaments everything looked like there was no expense spared building it. The same can be said about the castle. Tapestries and paintings cover almost every wall showing scenes of creation and triumph. Even the chairs that the kings and nobles sat in were extravagant (although they looked very uncomfortable). I had no idea Poland had been this successful at any point in its history, but it didn’t last long.
An event in history which anyone could argue as the greatest crime in human existence happened less than an hour away from the castle I just talked about above. Seeing pictures in textbooks and on the Internet cannot prepare you for actually setting foot at this place. Mind altering. Disturbing. Psychotic. These are things that run through your head when you walk through the gates and read “Arbeit macht frei”(work will set you free). Although it hasn’t fully set in yet how many people actually met their end here, in the same place I just walked, the eerie feeling was still present throughout the entire tour. Hearing about the atrocities committed gave me chills. These weren’t acts of war against another warring people. This wasn’t soldiers shooting each other on the battle field. It was one groups (or more specifically one person’s) complete hatred of another. It made me think of what we do to insects. We don’t even think about it when we kill a fly. The nazis did the same thing, except to people exactly like us. Complete disregard for humanity. Experimenting on people like they were rats in a lab. Making people live in buildings not even fit for animals. Starving them. Beating them. And eventually killing them if they had not died already. Over one million people murdered. One million. Think of the greater Milwaukee area being completely wiped out. It blows my mind how many people were sadistically murdered by other human beings. It wasn’t just one crazy serial killer, it took thousands to carry out something on this large of scale. At what point did the nazis come together and think, hmm 4,000 people being killed per day wasn’t efficient enough. It’s almost ridiculous to think they were building on to Auschwitz-Birkenau with the plan to hold 700,000 people. What’s even more eye opening is who carried these acts out. Not only were the nazis the main perpetrators but I believe the fellow polish people’s involvement was considerable as well. They were neighbors to these people. They were their fellow countrymen. Could they have done something about it? We will never know. The most jolting fact to me was how incomprehensible it is to even think what was going through the minds of these innocent victims. For the men, women, and children, who’s lives were tortured and cut short and for the people that miraculously made it out alive and scarred forever, I hope a mistake as tragic as this never happens again.