Yesterday was the first of our sad outings. We went to the Stutthof death camp. Most people know little to nothing about Stutthof. Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, and opened Stutthof concentration camp on September 2.
We loaded into the bus at 8 am. It was an interesting air of anticipation on the bus. Everyone has been waiting for this for the past few months, and now it was happening. It felt wrong to say we were excited, but we all knew that where we were going would change us, and that is exciting.
Our tour guide Kate told us a lot about Gdansk as we traveled and about how the land is below sea level, making it a difficult but good place to farm. She told us that amber is all around but that it has a complicated history in the city. In medieval times, if anyone found amber, they had to give it to the royalty, who burned it to create incense. Later it was a law that a fistful of amber could buy you a slave. During communism the amber found was crushed and destroyed. Now it is a popular thing for jewelry and little boxes and carvings. It is quite pretty.
She later told us about the storks that live in this area and how one in four storks in the world are from Gdansk. They build incredible nests that weigh around 1 1/2 tons and are considered a symbol of hope. After the Germans evacuated the area, they burned all the dikes and the area flooded for years. When the water receded, the area was covered with rats. The storks were the first things to return and eat all the rats, allowing people to come back. Most homes in this area have a stork sculpture on their roof or in their yards because of this.
As we were getting closer to the camp, I noticed we were following along a railway line. It looked smaller, though, than the tracks used today, and I soon learned those were the tracks that brought the people to Stutthof. We were following the exact same route.
Soon we were pulling into the camp. Kate pointed out the commandant’s home, which is extremely well preserved. It is a lovely, large home at the top of the hill – able to look down and over what was going on. We drove in a bit more and came to a gate. It was there where most people would get off their train and enter. They were treated to a “Welcome Comedy,” where they were hit with batons and bitten by dogs. They then entered the “Death Gates.” One prisoner asked, “When can we leave?” and an officer replied, “Do you see that chimney? That is your only way out.”
Their clothes and shoes were removed, and they were given the infamous striped outfits and wooden clogs. We entered into the room where this happened, and there is a collection of some of the shoes found.
Walking through the gates was indescribable. The camp is perfectly preserved, and you see the barracks around you, the SS officers’ large brick home towering behind and, in plain sight, the gas chamber and crematorium. All of these are original except for the crematorium structure.
Walking through the barracks, you can feel the people who had been there. Up to 200 people were kept in one tiny room, three to a bunk on which I could barely fit. Before the bunk beds were introduced, they would sleep on the floor and have to rotate every hour so one side didn’t freeze. You couldn’t leave to use the restroom without permission. Imagine as a woman not being able to get up to use the restroom at certain times in the year. At one point I found myself leaning up against a wall, and it occurred to me that I was becoming a part of history by being there.
We walked through the barracks and then began walking to the gas chamber. The gas chamber and crematorium were right next to each other. It’s still hard for me to process that I saw the room where close to 85,000 people were murdered. There is a hole at the top of the roof where the gas was pumped in, and all around the hole it is still black. It is an experience that I couldn’t put together there, and honestly I am still having trouble comprehending. It’s just so huge.
We then went into the crematorium that held the original furnaces where the Nazis would burn the bodies. There are flags from the countries of people who died there, and it is very reverent. It is kept almost like a cemetery.
Near the crematorium is the memorial in honor of everyone who was a victim. This is something I still don’t know how I feel about. One side of the memorial has a glass strip where you can see all the ashes that were found upon liberation. There are chunks of bones all throughout. It was hard to see and hard for me to deal with. I don’t feel like the little that’s left of these people should be on display for the world to see. The camp then became for me more of a monument to the evil of the Nazis and less of a place to grieve for those who were lost and remember so that it will never happen again. I think this is ok, but I prefer the second message because we are never better because we feel hate.
It was a very powerful first day, and there is so much more to talk about involving Stutthof, but I must go to bed. I’m looking forward to writing about what we did today. It was extremely tough, but very rewarding.