A sojourn across Central Europe is a visual delight replete with wonderful castles, winding cobblestone paths; and cathedral spires. You can’t but help admire the easy blend of the past, present and a genuine push for the future. And then, all of a sudden you stumble upon memories of the Third Reich. They seep through, manifesting themselves in bombed ruins, surreal death camps and innocuous motifs on a ceiling.
The Holocaust is a chapter that invokes no dissent or argument in how it is viewed and perceived by the world – it was arguably the darkest period in modern history. And while time may have enfeebled its memory, a trip down its very origins invokes the deepest emotions still…
It is hard to describe the sentiments a person goes through; on one hand, you are shaken by the magnitude and ruthless brutality of the crimes, and on the other hand, you are reassured how these places have been reinvented, as memorials to make us understand the deepest recesses humans are capable of and thus, realize the importance of duty and conscientiousness towards one another.
This feature covers experiences in two cities – Munich and Krakow , both equally significant in Nazi history. The former was where the Nazi party was born and grew in significance, the latter, a place where Nazi persecution and crime was at its peak, eventually leading to the Second World War and end of the Third Reich.
The National Socialist German Workers’ Party was founded in 1920; its popularity soaring in a limping and unstable German economy post WW1. Proclaiming itself as a party devoted to social welfare of the superior Aryan race, the Nazi party propagated extermination and seclusion of Jews, Romanis, blacks amongst others.
Hofbrauhaus, in Munich, is a 400 year old beer hall owned by the Bavarian state government. It is here in 1920 that Adolf Hitler declared the twenty five theses of the National Socialist program, thus giving birth to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, better known as the Nazi Party. While this hall had little personal significance for Hitler given he did not drink alcohol, he did paint a watercolour of the Hofbrauhaus once.
If you look up the ceiling in Hofbrahaus, you will find fancy motifs, trying to best disguise the painted over Swastika symbol.
As Nazi party grew in power and significance, it began persecuting races and ethnicities it perceived as inferior. Jews were one of the most significant communities it targeted. The party thrived on the anti-Semitic prejudices and organized death camps and systematic murders of millions.
The Jewish districts across Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Netherlands amongst others were targeted and the residents rounded up and packed off to the ghettos or the concentration camps where they eventually were killed in gas chambers or made to live in abysmal conditions leading to their death.
One such significant district was Kazimierz in Krakow. Famous for being the location where much of Schinder’s List was shot, this district is now dotted with numerous Jewish shops, restaurants, you may almost forget its history if not for the odd traces here and there.
Away from the hustle and bustle, you must take time out to visit the Isaac synagogue and spend a quiet moment. On the bimah (raised wooden platform), you will see inscribed dedications in memory of the families which did not survive the Holocaust.
As you walk further down and cross the Vistula river, you reach the erstwhile ghetto of Podgorze. Its almost a different world, and a sense of melancholy prevails as you reach the Empty Chair Memorial at Zgody Square, where two thousand people were shot by Nazis post liquidation of the ghetto.
Limited portions of the ghetto walls (designed as tombstones) can still be seen. As you walk up the path along one such wall, you notice the area outside the ghetto wall is now a children’s park. One cannot help but smile and be glad that its a time long over.
Auschwitz death camp alone saw the persecution of more than a million people over the period of Holocaust. Hordes arrived day after day and were examined to be either sent straight to gas chambers or to live and work in abysmal conditions or subjected to medical experiments. Irrespective, there was only one eventuality for all who came to these camps. It is ironic that while the Nazis treated the camp residents as inferior and fit only for death, they had no qualms using their belongings and remains. All possessions of those who came to the death camps were collected for reuse – be it shoes, bags, spectacles… And it did not end there- even the dead bodies were recycles, human hair used to weave cloth, human skin used to make cigarette pouches and what not.
Today, the camps are world heritage sites and the surreal experience leaves an indelible impression on one’s memory.
While Auschwitz one has been converted into a museum with guided tours organized, Auschwitz II – Birkenau now hosts a memorial and seems unchanged from the time Nazis abandoned it. While fleeing, the Nazis tried to destroy as much evidence as they could, burning down as many of the wooden barracks as they could (leaving only the brick chimneys) and blowing up the gas chambers (one can still see the ruins though).
One gets a sense of the pitiable conditions the camp inmates lived in. Due to the infections, forced labor, medical experiments; people typically did not survive for more than three months. Prisoners were cramped into wooden bunkers, and did not even have running water for their mass bath and ablutions.
In 1939, a Nazi spy bought an enamelware factory in Krakow. He employed about a thousand Jews amongst others. While his primary interest was mercenary at first, he went great lengths to protect his workers, at the cost of spending his money on offering bribes and gifts to the Nazis. Today, the factory, Fabryka Oskara Schindlera – Emalia- has been converted into a modern looking museum which showcases the journey of the Nazi occupation. The highlight is definitely Schindler’s room itself that remains unfettered with the creaky wooden floor, the world map on the wall, the mahogany desk with pictures scattered over it…
During the second World War, the Allied forces bombed and wiped away most of the Third Reich cities. Only the most significant monuments remained, so that these could serve as landmarks to identify the city. The twin towers of Frauenkirche church in Munich are one such example and are regarded as the symbol of Munich. Today, these cities have rebuilt themselves, the new buildings designed around the old and more importantly, have succeeded in carving out a legacy completely devoid of any Third Reich trace.
In the end, it is not easy to define one’s experiences across these places. But if anything, they make one realize the strength of human spirit in all adversity. And appreciate the will, resilience and fortitude of the people to move on and change for the better.