Living in the Shadows of Auschwitz: the Sola & Vistula Rivers, Oswiecim, Local Conversations
Updated: May 29
Tuesday, April 4, 2023, 11:45 am
To save time, Radek skirted around Oswiecim so I could make my 12:30 pm Auschwitz tour appointment. As we approached Oswiecim, I first saw the Vistula River; and, later, the Sola River, a tributary of the Vistula, next to Auschwitz. Oswiecim sits where these two rivers join.
Vistula River, Oswiecim, Poland
The countryside around Oswiecim is a beautiful and tranquil region with rolling hills, lush forests, and picturesque farmland. As we traveled the countryside, Radek would point out where we were in relation to the Auschwitz concentration camp. I took a picture when we came to an area just past the Vistula.
Radek asked, "Why did you take a picture of that?" I replied, "It might be an area where escaped prisoners tried to hide. I imagine where they might have run, walked, hid and slept. Radek replied, "Just not here, but all over. It depended on where in the camp they chose to escape." He smiled and exhaled. "You are a deep thinker. I like that."
The human ashes dumped in these two rivers are all but one with them now. It is as if the whole countryside, in any direction, is nothing more than an invisible yet massive graveyard. From the time we entered the Oswiecim area until we left, I felt like I was walking on the graves of millions of innocent people, haphazardly laid to rest by evil, twisted ideology and pursuit for power.
Survivor accounts, especially those linked to the Sonderkommando, describe in grotesque detail two things: 1) bones that did not burn were hammered into dust by the Sonderkommando, and 2) much of the human remains, in the form of ash, were dumped in the Vistula and Sola Rivers.
Vistula and Sola Rivers in Relation to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp Complex
“The bodies were cremated in twenty minutes. Each crematorium worked with fifteen ovens, and there were four crematoriums. This meant that several thousand people could be cremated in a single day. Thus for weeks and months—even years—several thousand people passed each day through the gas chambers and from there to the incineration ovens.
Nothing but a pile of ashes remained in the crematory ovens. Trucks took the ashes to the Vistula, a mile away, and dumped them into the raging waters of the river. After so much suffering and horror there was still no peace, even for the dead.”
To add context to this post, read the History Compass, or skip to the next section.
History Compass - The Auschwitz Sonderkommando
History Compass is a sidebar, an entry where I share a backstory containing short snippets of history to further the story in the current post.
The Sonderkommando were Jewish prisoners forced to work in the gas chambers and crematoria of Nazi concentration and extermination camps during the Holocaust. Their primary duty was to dispose of the bodies of fellow Jewish prisoners murdered in the gas chambers and to burn them in the crematoria. They were also responsible for sorting through the victims' belongings and removing valuables.
The Sonderkommando were isolated from the other prisoners and treated ruthlessly by the Nazi guards. They were aware that they, too, would eventually be killed and replaced by new arrivals, and many of them attempted to resist or rebel against their captors. Despite the risks, some members of the Sonderkommando were able to document the atrocities they witnessed and participated in, providing invaluable evidence of the Holocaust and its perpetrators.
Sonderkommando Identity Card
(Google Arts & Culture)
It is important to note that the Sonderkommando were forced laborers under constant threat of violence and death from their Nazi captors, and they had no choice but to carry out the grisly tasks they were assigned. It is also important to remember that the Nazi regime and its collaborators committed the atrocities during the Holocaust, not the Jewish prisoners forced to participate.
Arriving at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Radek parked behind a strip of restaurants and stores across the street from Auschwitz, gave me walking directions to the entrance and set a time for us to meet so I could get a ride for the second part of the tour at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In the image below, I only capture part of the strip mall that sits across from Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial entrance. We parked behind this pizzeria, in an ordinary Polish community, on an ordinary day in 2023.
Pizzeria in a Strip Mall Across from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial
I crossed a set of train tracks as I walked from our parking spot to the strip mall. Radek said that if I followed the train tracks, they would lead to Auschwitz.
Defunct Train Tracks Leading to Auschwitz Concentration Camp
It is 2023, seventy-eight years since the Russian liberation of Auschwitz. I found myself juxtaposing the rhythm of ordinary life with the sight of the world's largest killing factory in humanity's history. I stopped in a store to get some water and spoke briefly with a young clerk who looked to be in her twenties.
She asked where I was from and what brought me to Auschwitz; I asked permission to ask her questions. She smiled pleasantly and nodded. "I don't speak English good, but ask all you want."
Conversing about Auschwitz with an Oswiecim Local
Among many other things, I wanted to know what it is like to live this everyday life across the street from such an infamous and evil place. I wanted to know how she dealt with it and if seeing Auschwitz bothered her.
She spoke softly and matter of fact. After we spoke, I crossed the street, stood on the sidewalk, and scribbled some of her words in my travel journal. I did not capture everything she said, nor did I capture the flow of the conversations.
Street Between Oswiecim and Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial
These quotes are from notes I scribbled in staccato phrases. I tried to capture her sentiment to the best of my ability.
Living in Oswiecim in the Shadows of Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Words from a Young Store Clerk
"I did not choose where I was born. Nobody does. Oswiecim is my home, where my family lives, and this is what I know."
"Horrible things happened here. Horrible things happened to people who did not deserve it. These things should never happen again."
"My grandparents told stories of losing some of our family to the chimneys because we were Polish. We were not Jews."
"Some people visit the graves of loved ones every day. This does not bother them after a while. I look across the street at a grave every day."
"Life does not stop for evil or death or war. We go to bed at night, and the stars are there. We wake up in the morning, and the sun is there. What are we to do? We have to live, no?"
In a future posts, we will explore the first half of the tour, the tour of Auschwitz I (the site of the original camp) and the features of the museum. There will be a series of posts focused on Auschwitz I, the camp layout, and what you will see as part of the tour and museum.
On a personal note - I'm going to break up regularly posting to these sections with others about people, places, and history. It can be difficult to specifically write about Auschwitz day after day.