"A feeling of discomfort when visiting Auschwitz and the worst was to see all the hair and shoes!"
The visit was planned in early January 2017. Leon was asked by an old work colleague who made several group trips and whom he and his wife Marie followed several times. Pretty soon, Leon wanted to go on this trip but uncertain how he would solve it economically. When it was resolved economically, there was only one long wait for the trip. The trip was going to Poland Krakow as the main destination. Once in Krakow, a guided tour would go by bus in the city, a guided trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau and a trip to the Salt Mine.
About four months before the trip, Leon got an idea that some kind of memorial plaque would be left in Auschwitz-Birkenau in memory of Lemel Fuks, who died there mid August 1944. After a comprehensive search on the internet, the selection fell on Skövde Gravyr, they gave me a quote and it was not that expensive. On the plaque I got back there was "Lemel Fuks perished here August 1944 R.I.P." engraved. It was completely in brass. As I mentioned in the chapter on the Fuks family in the Lodz ghetto, the ghetto was closed after a decision of the German armed forces in mid August 1944. The last 3 surviving members of the Fuks family were transported in cattle carriages to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was Lemel, Ester Malka and Ber. Lemel was murdered near the barrack in Birkenau where he and Ber were accommodated in.
When the trip went down to Poland and upon arrival in Krakow, Leon was anticipating the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He began to prepare himself as he knew that the visit would be emotional. He has visited another memorial site for the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel in May 1993. There was a newly opened part with a building dedicated to the Jewish children who were killed during World War II. Inside this building there were pictures and objects, but that was not what affected Leon the most .It was all the names of victims that were read out from the speakers. It would take several months to call out all names and then start over again. It was hard to hear all these names while he was there and it was hard to not start crying. Now that the worst extermination camp would soon be visited, it was difficult for Leon several days in advance.
On the first morning in Krakow it was a guided tour of the city on the schedule and it was interesting. What was visited was, among other things, The Jewish Quarter, which had several Jewish restaurants and two old synagogues (Ramuh from the 16th century and Stara from the 14th century). The synagogues remain today because the city was named the capital of the General Government and the Governor Hans Frank made sure that the synagogues were not destroyed. A memorial monument was also visited in the Jewish quarter that represented more than 70,000 Jewish residents from Krakow who were killed in various extermination camps. Leon left a stone on this monument as he always do when visiting such places. Then the trip went to Wawel Hill to see the royal castle and the cathedral were beautiful. Last, the trip went to a market on the big old square where you could buy souvenirs and food. On this square there was also the Hard Rock Café that Leon usually visits in the cities he goes to. To buy snaps glass for his collection.
On the afternoon, still the first day in Krakow Leon went for a guided trip out to Auschwitz-Birkenau and the pictures below are from that guided tour. It became an emotional roller coaster, it is hard to understand how this could happen. It becomes real when you see all the piles of shoes, bags, glasses, all female hair and other presses that once belonged to someone. It was hardest to see these piles while at the same time knowing that the owners were most likely murdered here. 1.3 million people arrived here, of whom 1.1 million were murdered. The majority were poles. Not only Jews were murdered here but also Russian and Polish prisoners of war, LGBT people, Polish political prisoners and Romans. The scale of the number of people the Nazis managed to fool into the gas chambers are astonishing. There are many photographs of newly arrived people heading towards the gas chambers. On this photos Leon didn’t see any signs at all of panic. An example of how they were tricked was that they told people before they were put on the trains that they should write their names on the bags so they could get these bags back. The names remain on the bags of the exhibition at the death camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Another example was when people got off the trains they were told that they would have a shower. The long journey in the train they became very dirty and smelled bad. There were no toilets on the train so it must have been nice to know that they could be clean again. We know how it ended. There were also executions, tortures and experiments done there. Almost all tortures and experiments ended with death. The way this large-scale murdering occurred was methodical and bestial. Towards the end of the war when the Red Army approached, they did what they could to hide what was going on there. Several of the gas chambers were destroyed and mass graves were dug up and the bodies burned. After the war, the Poles returned to their homes who lived around Auschwitz-Birkenau, but their homes were destroyed. The barracks were made of wood in the camp. So, the poles used the barracks wood to build new houses. That is why many of the barracks are just the foundation left with the heating stove. All the barb wired fences around both camps also reminiscent of how insane and how powerless the inhabitant must have felt. To see all this death so close up, children, women, the elderly and the sick must have been extremely stressful and horrible. It is no wonder why all survivors felt so terrible.
During the trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was visited with the intention of leaving this plaque at this barrack where Lemel was murdered. One question was asked to the guide if it was common for interns to kill each other. The answer was that it was common and there could be many different reasons. More than that, he did not specify. If you think about it, it's not so strange that if you're hungry enough, your survival instincts take over. You'll do anything to survive. The question why Ber did not receive a tattoo number on the inside of the forearm was that this was not done when the Germans intended to send some working people to work elsewhere. Those who arrived in Lodz in mid-August 1944 and was strong enough to work, said that they were accommodated in one of the barracks that were furthest along the fence beyond the arrival plate at Birkenau. Of these barracks, only the foundation and the stove remain for keeping the heat and a chimney. The guided tour did not go into these barracks, which was a shame because Leon wanted to leave the memorial plaque there or nearby. The question was also given if it was possible to leave such a plaque that I had with me. He replied that it was ok but the usual thing was to leave a rock, which was correct because we do it ourselves at Bers grave when it was visited. Even at the end of the film Schindler's List, the survivors from the war leave stones on Schindler's tombstone in Jerusalem. The question was if Leon could leave the plaque near the barracks but the guide gave the suggestion on the track at the ramp. That was not a good suggestion because visitors could stamp on it and it would fade. So Leon placed it on the ramp on the authentic donated freight train from the war in Birkenau. It was photographed and the guided tour ended. When the plaque was left several other visitors went forward to see what it was and even photographed it. It was a great relief and an overwhelming feeling to leave this memorial plaque on such a place in Birkenau. The main reason for being left there as a memory and to honor of a survivor in the Fuks family (Fuchs / Apelewitch family). But when one of Leon's work colleagues visited Auschwitz about 6 months after Leon's visit the plaque was sadly removed.
Leon was at a lecture with an Auschwitz survivor from the Holocaust in Oxie School auditorium (Oxie is about 5 km south of Malmö) a few years ago. Mietek Grocher who held the lecture, thought it was important to go around Swedish schools and speak about the Holocaust and what he experienced. There were some things that got stuck in Mieteks memory that was really horrible ones. One of this memory happening in the square of the Warsaw ghetto, where Jews were gathered for deportation. There a soldier from the SS took a child from a young Jewish mother and killed it in front of all the people there. Another thing that got stuck in his memory was the death march that was a nightmare in the nightmare. The death marches were long and hard and if they didn't make the pace they were shot or left in the cold. Mietek didn’t make the pace but the soldier did not shoot for an unknown reason. The others went on and one day later he was rescued where he had stoped the death march. While Mietek told about all these horrors, he cried. Basically everyone who was at this lecture cried because it was really unbelievably and awful things he told. He has also written a book "I Survived" (ISBN 91-85996-41-6) that Leon bought directly after the lecture and also gave him a hug. The reason we include this is that these horrors have a link to Auschwitz and the Holocaust. Mietek is another one who survived and that is his life's concern to ensure that as many people as possible find out what happened during World War II and Auschwitz.
The second day of the afternoon in Krakow went to the Salt Mine which was beautiful but not for those who suffer from claustrophobia. Down in the mine almost everything was made of salt, sculptures, floors, crystal chandeliers, stairs and whole churches underground. Beautiful and clearly worth visiting.
The trip ended with a half day in Berlin. Time was maximized with visits to the Kurfürstendamm church, Jewish memorial monument World War II and Hitler's bunker.