December 26, 2007

Guest Blog: Abby Spilka's Trip to Poland

My colleague, Abby Spilka, the director of communications for the Museum, recently went to Poland for a week. This was her first trip, and she made a point of sending e-mails almost daily to share her experiences with us in New York. I have asked her to “guest blog” about her trip and share her experiences with you.

Guest Blog
As David mentioned, I traveled to Poland earlier this month to help make a promotional film for the Auschwitz Jewish Center, a film that will inspire viewers to want to go themselves, or make it possible for others to visit.

My First View of the Gate at Auschwitz I

Although we had some logistical issues, we were able to start filming in Auschwitz –Birkenau beginning at 8 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9. Wladyslaw, our guide, drove us to meet the crew of 5 from Krakow, Tomasz, the photographer from Oswiecim; Robert, the guide from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum; and Artur, the historian from the Auschwitz Jewish Center. We had a list of shots to get before the sun went down, which begins at that time of year at 3:15.

The Arbeit Macht Frei gate was the first shot of the day. If ever there were an iconic image to represent the Holocaust, and the Nazi’s unbridled evil, it would be this sign. To see a representation of it so many times in books and films cannot compare to seeing it in person. The power of that sign and what it was meant to communicate to the prisoners, and what it means to us more than 60 years later is really quite terrifying.

For most of the day a combination of frost and mist remained on the grounds as we walked around, fixing a suitably ghostly atmosphere on the otherwise sunny day. From the gate we went to the crematorium, the one that remains standing in Auschwitz I. It ceased operation in 1943 when the gas chambers opened at Birkenau. When I entered and stood in what must have been a place to disrobe, I was overcome with a feeling I had once before: When I went into the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center soon after it re-opened after September 11, 2001, I could not help but think that this place was all but destroyed after 2 hours of man-made terror rained down upon it. And here it is, re-built, with shorter palm trees, giving the outward appearance that nothing untoward had happened, while remaining the site of such terror. The empty rooms in the gas chambers/crematorium contained nothing physical, but, years later, they could not be separated from their designed purpose.

The crew and I went to the river across from the commandant’s house, we drove to the Judenrampe, and then to the entrance at Birkenau. We filmed in the guard tower to illustrate the sheer expanse of this place. What look like cement foundations have been placed around the edges of buildings that are no longer there; they function as mini memorials. In some cases, all that exists are the chimneys from the barracks. The train tracks leading into the building that houses the guard tower is another one of those images that has been in my memory since I was in high school.

From the guard tower we walked to a women’s barracks to film what remained. The barracks were based on a design for stables to accommodate 55 horses; instead they held several hundred women.

We filmed in the pond and in the vestiges of crematoria 4 and 5. The eponymous birch trees behind the ruins of the crematoria in the winter light and the mist were appropriately eerie. The red brick, the green moss, and the white trees added unexpected touches of color. Considering it was December in Poland, it was surprising not to traipsing in snow.

Birch Trees

Literally, at the end of the day when we concluded filming, I looked up to see an orange reflection. The sky was full of orange striations and the sun was reflecting off a guard tower. I have never seen anything quite like it. Colleagues know that I seek out the sunsets over the Statue of Liberty in winter that we can see from our offices. When you see them, you wonder how such beauty can be created from air, water, and light. The sunset at Birkenau rivaled our west side sunsets. To see such beauty in such a place of darkness made me feel even more connected to the Museum.

Sunset at Birkenau

(Photos by Tomasz Mol)


Anonymous said...

Wow! What an amazing trip! When will we get to see the film?

sadowd said...

I take it by your reference to "eponymous birch trees" that the death camp was named for them. I will never look at a birch tree again without being touched by both beauty and sorrow. Thank you Abby for your personal account of wht must have been a bittersweet assignment.

Anonymous said...

A visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau should be required for anyone who ignorantly equates current events with the Holocaust and Hitler. I thought I was well-read about the Holocaust, but there was so much I did not know or understand until I saw Auschwitz I and II.
On a sunny day in April, it chilled us to walk through the gates of Aushcwitz and Birkenau and think of the millions of people who walked here who were brutally yet efficiently killed by the Nazis.
Maybe my reaction was atypical, but at the end of the visit I was angry, seethingly angry, at those who did this and those who knew but did nothing to stop it.

Anonymous said...

Your descriptions leave me without words, and I cannot imagine what it is like to walk the paths and feel the ghosts of all who passed through those gates.