I went to the Wieliczka Salt Mine which was first built in the 13th century. Legend says the mine was founded when Hungarian Princess Kinga was to be married to the Prince of Krakow. She asked her father for a salt mine and he gave her one. She threw her engagement ring in the Hungarian salt mine and when she arrived in Poland she instructed miners to start digging. They came upon a lump of salt and in it was her engagement ring. Kinga is now a saint and also patroness of Poland. The most spectacular thing in the mine was the Chapel of St. Kinga which is a huge chapel carved entirely out of salt (including the chandeliers!).
|It was a long way down!|
|Chapel of St. Kinga|
|Altar in the chapel|
|Relief carving of "The Last Supper"|
But this was also the most somber trip I've taken. My trip included a visit to Auschwitz which was an emotionally draining day. Having read so many memoirs and historical accounts about Jews in Auschwitz, their stories just kept coming back to me. I also kept thinking about a scene from one of my favorite movies "The History Boys". In the scene the students and teachers are discussing the Holocaust and have the following conversation:
Teacher:"They go on school trips there nowadays don’t they? Auschwitz, Dachau. What’s always concerned me is where do they have their sandwiches, drink their cokes."
Student:"The visitors center. It’s like anywhere else."
Teacher:"Yes, but do they take pictures of each other there? Are they smiling? Do they hold hands? Nothing is appropriate."
Student:"What if you were to write that this was so far beyond ones experience, silence is the only proper response."
That's exactly how I felt: nothing was appropriate. How are you supposed to act when you're in a place where over one million people were murdered? When you're looking at a pond where the ashes of thousands of people were dumped? When you see the gas chambers that killed hundreds of thousands and the crematoriums that turned them into smoke? When you see 2,000 kilograms of human hair taken from murdered women? Is it even appropriate to be there?
I still don't know my answer to that last question. I understand the reasoning behind preserving Auschwitz and other camps but is making them into a museum the best way to remember the victims? I'm not sure. Walking through the various exhibits I noticed so many people taking photos of everything, including the piles of hair. Is photographing hair that belonged to thousands of murdered victims (and then presumably uploading them on facebook or somewhere else) really the way to show your respect? Is it right of the museum to display the objects (shoes, artificial limbs, suitcases, etc...) of the victims. This is an interesting article that deals a bit with how to preserve Auschwitz. Here's an excerpt from it relating the opinions of an expert on the construction of Auschwitz:
He supports the preservation of the Auschwitz main camp, although he acknowledges it is a 'kind of theme park, cleaned up for tourists'...letting Birkenau disintegrate completely would be a more fitting memorial than constantly repairing the scant remains. Birkenau is the 'ultimate nihilistic place. A million people literally disappeared. Shouldn't we confront people with the nothing of the place? Seal it up. Don't give people a sense that they can imitate the experience and walk in the steps of the people who were there.'I'm inclined to agree with that. I think the exhibits and buildings at Auschwitz I (the smaller site) can tell you so much about the victims and the Holocaust. I'm not sure Auschwitz II-Birkenau needs (or should) be constantly repaired just for people to walk through it and walk where one million people were murdered. I think there are better ways to memorialize the victims and remember the horrors that were inflicted. But on the other hand, walking through Auschwitz II-Birkenau is the only way to get a sense of the sheer size of the camp. It's such a difficult topic and I'm not sure I'll ever have a satisfactory answer.