Traveling to Auschwitz: Anthropoid and Oswiecim
Updated: May 6
Tuesday, April 4, 2023, 6:05 am
Radek and I started our journey to Oswiecim, Poland, around 6:05 am. The quiet streets of Prague’s Old Town and beyond were likely the result of the Czechs’ previous night of partying due to soccer celebrations.
We sipped coffee, fumbling our way through pleasantries between yawns. The rising sun painted Prague with watercolor strokes of pink and orange, and I roused quickly, not wanting to miss the chance to see Prague and the Czech Republic unfolding in the twilight.
Prague at Sunrise (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A Brief Word on Visiting Prague and the Czech Republic
Prague’s history spans a millennium and more. Personal and professional travel over the last twenty years has allowed me to visit numerous countries and cities. At this point in my life, I think Prague is my favorite city. It is largely untouched by two world wars, with a rich history, beautiful architecture, wonderful artists and artisans, great food, and plenty to see and do.
I loved the people and the culture and drank from a firehose of learning the week we were there. I will write more about Prague in future posts. If your future travels allow you to visit Prague, I recommend you visit Viator or GetYourGuide to research your tours and excursions.
Prague 8 - Intersection of Kirchmayerova and Holesovickach Avenues
Radek pointed out various places and sights as we drove out of Prague. I asked him about Operation Anthropoid and the crypt at Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, noting that I had watched the Operation Anthropoid movie a few weeks earlier and intended to visit there. Radek glanced over at me and smiled.
"We are coming up on the Operation Anthropoid Memorial soon," said Radek. "The exact spot is where Kubis threw the anti-tank grenade at Heydrich’s car. Since you were visiting Auschwitz today, I wanted you to see it."
Map to Operation Anthropoid Memorial (memorial is red center pin-drop;
click the image for directions using Google Maps)
Radek’s referencing Reinhard Heydrich’s role as the chief perpetrator of the Final Solution. Heydrich chaired the Wannsee Conference and fully supported expanding the Auschwitz concentration camp into a killing factory, widely regarded as the one of the most prominent sites of genocide in history.
To add context to this post, read the History Compass, or skip to the next section.
History Compass - Reinhard Heydrich and Operation Anthropoid
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.
Reinhard Heydrich architected the Final Solution with several other Nazi officials at a secret meeting in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. Known as the Wannsee Conference, this meeting detailed several “evacuation” sites as part of its plan to annihilate the Jews, focusing first on the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Reinhard Heidrich in 1941
In September 1941, Heydrich became Deputy Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Moravia and Bohemia (then Czechoslovakia) and resided in Prague. Unknown to Heydrich, the Allies targeted him as part of a broader Allied plan to assassinate key Nazi officials all over Europe.
The mission to assassinate Heydrich, codenamed Operation Anthropoid, began in October 1941 in Britain. In December 1941, the Allies night-dropped several Czech paratroopers outside of Prague to assassinate Heydrich, now nicknamed “The Butcher of Prague.” On May 27, 1941, at 10:35 am, two paratroopers, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik, attacked Heydrich’s car at the junction of Kirchmayerova and Holesovickach Avenues.
Heydrich later died of his wounds. Some scholars attribute his death to sepsis, while others speculate that the Czech Resistance modified the anti-tank grenade to contain a botulism bioagent. Following the assassination attempt, the Operation Anthropoid Paratroopers hid in the Crypt of Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral for three weeks until October 25, 1942.
A wounded Heydrich died from an infection eight days later, on June 4, 1942. On June 18, 1942, after several days of rounding up Czech Resistance members and torturing them, the Nazis found the Paratroopers at the church. They raided it, and after three hours of intense fighting, the paratroopers took their own lives as the Nazis closed in on them.
Operation Anthropoid Memorial
On April 14, 2008, the Czech Republic commissioned a design competition for a public artwork commemorating the sacrifices made by paratroopers Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik. The government required that the piece not only celebrate Kubis and Gabcik's sacrifices but also represent the virtues of the Czech military.
Those virtues include 1) a commitment to one's oath of duty and 2) to defend one's nation even at the cost of one's own life. The artists David Mojescik, Michal Smeral and architects Miroslava Tumova and Jiri Gulbis were selected. The memorial was placed on the assassination site and dedicated on May 27, 2009.
Operation Anthropoid Memorial
Radek drove past the memorial slowly. "Somebody in the resistance ratted them out," he said. "After Heydrich died, Hitler was pissed. He sent more boots and tanks. Once the soldiers found their hiding spot, they did not stand a chance." Radek looked over at me. "You should go and pay your respects. They took out the man who turned Auschwitz into a death factory."
Radek accelerated down the highway. I was disappointed my photos did not come out well, but the sun was not entirely up, and because of the low lighting, the windshield gave off a nasty glare in the images. I am linking to some shots from the Internet to show you the memorial. Click on the photo to go to the site.
Operation Anthropoid Memorial
Radek launched into tour guide mode about thirty minutes before we reached Auschwitz. It was a watershed moment; I did not write anything down; I just listened. What creeped me out a little bit was seeing the highway signs and exit signs with Oswiecim's name.
Signs to Oswiecim
When friends, neighbors, and family scroll through my Auschwitz trip photos, they ask me, "Why did you take so many pictures of signs?" As we got closer to Auschwitz, I kept thinking about several groups of people.
Oswiecim's Non-Jewish or Pro-Nazi Civilians
I thought about people who lived and worked in Oswiecim unaffected by the Nazis. I thought about their families, children, neighbors, and churches. What exactly was "normal" about it all to them?
I thought about the Nazis who traveled these roads on official Reich business. Did they ever consider what was happening here, was not one good, charitable thought among the lot of them, or were they too absorbed in their own ideologies, careers and lives?
How did civilian and military truck and transportation professionals regard their job of transporting building materials, prison uniforms, food and medical supplies, weapons, ammunition, prisoners, crematoria ovens, or Zyklon B chemicals?
The prisoners transported over these roads – fathers, mothers, grandparents, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors, clergy, and soldiers – had collections of feelings to unpack as they approached Oswiecim.
Tourists & Dignitaries
The one-to-two million people traversing these roads as tourists, foreign leaders, clergy, and former prisoners. How do they process the macabre place that lies ahead, and what good will come from their motivations?
"Lining Up in the High Street"
Oswiecim – Site of the World's Largest Genocide in History
Oswiecim, Poland, is across the street from the Auschwitz concentration camp. On my tour of Auschwitz, our guide, Lukas, related three points that I have not forgotten:
1) The Oswiecim Polish military barracks were renamed Auschwitz to Germanize
the name and place, 2) Poland's Jewish population represented 3,000,000 or more Jews; the largest concentration of Jews anywhere else in Europe, and 3) Oswiecim was not a destination for most, except those that lived and worked there.
"The Same High Street in the Sleepy Town Today"
Essentially, the Nazis temporarily erased Oswiecim's name from the maps, located their primary extermination facility in the region with the most Jews, and the Nazis dedicated a place to conduct their horrific crimes in relative secrecy.
"Before the war, Oswiecim had a population of 12,000, just over 8,000 of whom were Jewish.
By 1945, the entire Jewish population had gone and only 2,000 Poles remained." - Ed Wight, reporting for dailymail.com, January 27, 2015.
In a future posts, I will feature a summation of then-and-now articles about Oswiecim to explore its residents' hearts, thoughts, and minds then and now. In my next post I'll take readers to the banks of the Sola and Vistula Rivers, the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial, and details about the ticketing and check-in process.