Waking up from the first sleep I’ve had in days and still ravaged by jet-lag and hunger, the complimentary breakfast is a god-send. Poland, a country where hearty cheese and bread, fresh fruit, and coffee that could wake Cthulhu, may be one after my own heart.
Road to Stutthoff
As we all climb into the van to begin to head toward our first stop at Stutthoff, Kate tells us more about Gdansk, pointing out landmarks along the way. The Solidarity workers’ movement started here, bringing hope to disillusioned workers and beginning the road that would eventually bring down the Berlin wall, headed by Nobel prize-winning and former Polish president Lech Walesa.
But, as the van gets farther from the city, so does the information. Apparently the German soldiers tried their own version of scorched earth as they fled the city, breaking the levees and waterways in the surrounding countryside and flooding the land with meters (we are in Europe) of water everywhere. After the water was eventually drained, though, in came the wave of mice and other vermin, thriving on the damp, molding land.
Life was still hard after the war, where farmers could barely grow in this land due to the difficult soil, let alone the footprint of the Germans’ mouse SS.
Then, in some weird twist of fate, Gdansk became home to a quarter of the world’s stork population, almost eradicating the problem. Like I said, Gdansk is all about progress.
There’s no real way of knowing how close the camp is besides listening to Kate. Off a highway, onto a paved road, onto a rocky road, and finally to a dirt road, Stutthoff isn’t exactly advertised. Weaving our way through those poorly kept roads and small villages, it begins to make sense that the camp would be out here, so secluded.
From the tree-lined roads, the swampy ground and constant drizzle look dismal from a van window holding 11 people, let alone a camp holding 110,000. If the work or the gas chambers didn’t kill you, the land would, and even locals today with modern medicine and shelter talk about how they suffer from arthritis and kidney problems due to the climate. This place was meant to breed death, evident from the terrible infestations of Typhoid that ran rampant through the camp. Kate later informs us that Arthur Shopenhauer was born here; that explains a lot.
The death camp
Turning down the entrance road to the camp, we pass the former commandant’s house, now a private villa, and roll down past the former dog kennels. I shouldn’t say kennels; they were brick.
As we walk in through the front gates and down past the red-bricked, copper-roofed headquarters, an unmistakable smoke stack can be seen at the end of the walkway. As we walk closer to the looming chimney and black gate lined with barbed wire, Kate goes on.
Originally built as a camp for Polish intellectuals and clergy, the camp started for almost purely political reasons in 1939, being the first camp outside of Germany and a training ground for the early SS soldiers. The death gate approaches, and we look at the same black wood and steel that the 85,000 thousand who died here saw, never seeing the other side of that gate again. A wolf starts howling, and it’s 10 AM – how’s that for ambiance?
We walk through the wooden plank barracks, still largely intact and preserved, and now converted to museums detailing not only the history of Gdansk’s role in the war, but also the history of the camp.
Starting in ’39, any Jew or political opponent need merely be labeled a “bandit” and was immediately declared an enemy of the state, subject to immediate expulsion to the camp along with the rest of his or her family. Professors, doctors, intellegentsia, all swept out.
The signs talk about how for years, the smell of a constant burning from the crematorium could be detected even in Gdansk. There are no birds in the sky here, none of the proud storks of the region, all having learned over half a century ago to stay clear of the air here. Fat cats waltz between the buildings, tending to the mice, happily picking up the slack where their winged counterparts left off.
Walking further, we enter one barrack with the fatigues and pajamas worn by the prisoners, and for the first time, I notice that they aren’t given normal shoes. Anything that was possibly valuable or reusable was kept and confiscated by the German army; thus the huge pile of shoe soles in the former political barracks the size of a semi-trailer, still untouched. Prisoners here wore rough wooden clogs, forced to work and push in the soft ground with splinters grinding against your skin. The chances of you cutting your feet and contracting a disease and dying were just as likely as any other dim fate here.
Moving further down, through rooms of bunk beds that chill you to the bone and medical equipment that looks more analagous to early farming supplies, you suddenly come to a room unlike the rest. Instead of the ghastly pictures of gaunt men and women, there are paintings and drawings hanging. Not of the dead and dying or decrepit and sickly, but smiling faces, Christmas cards, pictures of makeshift arts and crafts. Somehow, in spite of it all, this notion of hope manifested itself through these tiny drawings and pictures, some even politically satirical caricatures of those in charge. Accounts of how babies were born here in the camp in absolute silence so as to not alert the guards, even squeezed 3 people to a bunk the size of a cot. It’s just … unreal. Surreal, really.
Through the crematorium, looking at the brick stoves, past the preserved container of Zyklon B pellets, and then down the final walkway where you pass a huge stone monument filled with ashes, teeth, and bone, you never really feel alone. I’m not a spiritual person by any means, and I’m not going to use this as a forum for such discussion, but when you go to a place that was roughly 300 square acres where 85,000 people died, you feel pretty ghost-like yourself.
As we load back into the van, en route to a warm hotel, to drink beer that we can’t pronounce, sleep in a real bed, and listen to our roommates talk about how they’re convinced they actually took a picture of a ghost in the crematorium, it’s hard not to feel moved.