STUDY trip to poland “searching for traces of Gurs”

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Arrival in Oświęcim for all participants

One group flew directly from Basel to Kraków and drove to Oświęcim by taxi. A couple with an infant had set off in their car days before. Five participants came by train from different directions.

We stayed at the International Youth Meeting Center Oświęcim/ Auschwitz MDSM. It was the first time we had met in person; due to the pandemic, we had only met online since October 2020.

After dinner, we went on a brief tour of the city and gained a first impression of how people live there today.


Sunday, September 12, 2021

Guided tour of Oświęcim and visit to the Jewish Center

Tour of the museum Concentration Camp Auschwitz I – Main Camp

We learned about the town and its history on an hours-long tour with local resident Gabriela Nikliborc, who grew up there. The town’s history goes back to 1217; the castle and the “Rynek” –marketplace – provide an impression of past and present. On a wooden wall near the marketplace we saw a poster with German text: It was the backdrop for a film currently being made, set at the time of the German occupation.

Oświęcim has a long Jewish history: Before the Second World War, more than half of its citizens were Jews. Only one of its numerous synagogues survived destruction by the Germans. Carefully restored, it has been open to visitors from around the world for 20 years as a “Jewish Center.” In the synagogue, we learned about Jewish religious traditions; in the adjoining museum, we learned about the economic life of Jewish families and about their history before, during and after the Shoah.

We returned to the International Youth Meeting Center for meals and in the afternoon set off for our first tour of the former concentration camp’s memorial site. Its official title is “Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.”

On this first day of our trip together, Božena Kramarczyk led us on a three-hour walk through Auschwitz I, the so-called main camp.


“I was especially shocked by the things that the people had brought with them…. The dimensions are unimaginable, but their valuables, all their shoes and suitcases showed me that behind every number, behind all the shorn hair there was a person with their own interests, beliefs, taste in clothes, origin, age and gender. I think that was one of the most important insights for me – that the task of remembering and visiting these memorial sites, among many other things, ensures that we remember individual people by their names and that they don’t get dissolved into a huge, depressing mass because of the unimaginably large number of victims.”

Monday, September 13, 2021

Guided tour through the former concentration camp Auschwitz II Birkenau, to the “White House,” the sauna and the children’s barracks

Individual visit to the “national exhibitions” at the main camp, Auschwitz I

We began our visit to the former Birkenau concentration camp at the site where, in the summer of 1942, the transports from France arrived carrying the Breisach Jews: the so-called “Jewish ramp” or “old ramp.”  (Beginning in May 1944, the trains carrying deported people entered the camp through the gate and stopped at the “new ramp” between camp sections BI and BII.)

Božena Kramarczyk met us at the small “old ramp” memorial by the tracks, which consists of a cattle car and several commemorative plaques. Božena read from the memoirs of Polish survivor Tadeusz Borowski, in which he described a deported mother who, at the selection process on the ramp, abandons her child in order to try to save her own life (Borowski, , pp. 124f).

The trucks are back as well; here, too, comes the young, quiet man with his little notebook; SS men saunter out of the canteen with their satchels for gold and money. We open the wagon doors.
No, you can no longer control yourself. The luggage is ripped brutally from people’s hands; one yank, and the coat is taken off. Faster! Faster! Get going! Move along quickly, get going! They move, they go faster, they hurry along. Men, women, children. Some of them know…. There, a woman. She’s moving very fast, hurries without being noticeable but at a fever pitch. A child is running after her; it has a face like a cherub, with rosy, chubby cheeks; its little legs can’t keep up with the hasty, light feet of the woman.

With outstretched arms, it runs after her. 
“Mama… Mama…”
“You bitch, pick up the child!”
“It’s not my child!” screams the woman, wild and hysterical; she covers her face with both hands and starts to run. She wants to disappear among those who don’t have to get on the trucks, wants to go on foot with those who will live. She is young, healthy and beautiful. She wants to live.
“Mama… Mam … Don’t run away… Wait… Mama!”
“That is not my child!”
Andrej, the sailor from Sevastopol, has caught up with her. His eyes are veiled, clouded by the heat and by liquor. He has caught up with her, one single shove of his broad shoulders throws the woman towards the ground. As she falls, he pulls her up again by the hair. His face is distorted with rage.
“You bitch! Jewish whore! You’re running away from your child? I’ll show you, you whore!” He grabs her by the waist; with one hand, he squeezes her throat, from which a scream comes, then lunges out and throws the woman on the truck. “Here! This, too! This also belongs to you, you bitch!” And Andrej tosses the child at her feet.
“Well done! That’s how you punish bad mothers,” says the SS man standing beside the truck. “Good, good, Russky.”

Božena Kramarczyk led us to the gate of the former camp of Birkenau, unimaginably large. Here the main camp’s inmates were forced to build a death zone for hundreds of thousands of prisoners from all over Europe. Today it appears empty in comparison with the main camp. In a replica barracks, a horse stable, Božena explained what the prisoners experienced when they arrived, based on reports that have been handed down.

At our request, we stood near the place where, beginning in August 1942, the Breisach Jews also were killed, having arrived with the transports organized by the Gestapo and SS at the transit camp Drancy near Paris. They had been sent via the Gurs camp on the northern edge of the Pyrenees. The so-called “White House,” a converted farmhouse in the village of Brzezinka (Birkenau), was the first gas chamber in Birkenau.

A reading of the names of the Breisach citizens who were murdered here brought them to life for a moment in our thoughts.

Near the ruins of Crematorium II, Christiane Walesch-Schneller told the story of the courageous Francziska Mann, a Polish-Jewish dancer, who on October 23, 1943, grabbed a gun from an SS man and, with one shot, fatally injured a colleague of his who was known for his cruelty: the cooper’s son Josef Schillinger, born in Breisach-Oberrimsingen.

In the afternoon, we returned in smaller groups to the main camp, Auschwitz I, to visit various former barracks. “National exhibitions” are installed here – the French exhibition, for example, tells the story of the persecution and murder of Jews who had been living in France. This included the Jews from Baden – among them those from Breisach – who had been deported to southern France.

The relatively new exhibitions were also impressive: the Israeli-designed pavilion and the exhibition created for the Sinti and Roma.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Introduction to the history and pedagogical work of the International Youth Meeting Center, with Judith Hoehne-Krawczyk

Visit to the memorial’s archives with Krystyna Lésniak

Guided tour of the “Remembrance Panels” created by survivor Marian Kołodziej at the Harmęże Monastery

Krystyna Lésniak reported on her work at the archive, which is open to people from all over the world who are seeking information about themselves or relatives. She then gave us a demonstration of a major current project: linking the memorial’s documents with the millions of documents assembled by the Arolsen Archive near Kassel.

We had asked her to show us documents regarding the fate of Salomon Wurmser, a butcher from Breisach. She presented a seemingly innocuous document, his death certificate. She told us about the suffering of this man who was “selected” for work at the camp’s arrival ramp and died a few weeks later. Krystyna explained how the SS doctors went about covering up their deeds with invented diagnoses or euphemisms that could be metaphors for causes of death (for example, “sudden cardiac arrest” meant the person was shot).

Before our trip, a member of our group had asked Krystyna Leśniak if she could help her track down her great-grandfather, who, as a refugee from Belgium, had been imprisoned in the Gurs camp and was murdered at Auschwitz (his son, the grandfather of our participant, survived as a child). Krystyna was able to find the transport list with the name of the great-grandfather in the memorial archive, and showed it to us.


I found the visits to the camp fascinating, though for me, the museum in Auschwitz I was more informative than moving. In Birkenau, however, I felt the magnitude of what went on here with full force, and I still can’t grasp the dimensions. For me, the most impressive and emotional experience during the study trip was the exhibition of Marian Kolodziej’s work. At this point in the trip, I was overwhelmed by so much suffering, cruelty and hopelessness that the stories of hope and solidarity, as well as the deep belief in goodness, really affected me.”

In our evening reflection session, it became clear that our visit to the exhibition with the artworks of Marian Kołodziej, guided by a monk from the Harmęże Monastery, constituted the high point of the trip for most participants.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Transfer to Kraków and accommodations at the Hotel David on Szeroka Square in the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, within sight of numerous synagogues

Walking tour of the old city of Kraków and the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz; visit to the Remuh Synagogue and its cemetery

We left the town of Oświęcim in a westerly direction, driving first through villages that had belonged to Auschwitz’s “area of interest”: In each village, the SS had installed one of many satellite camps.

We found Kraków to be a lively university city, popular to tourists from around the world.

Because the most important Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, would begin that evening and some facilities would therefore be closing, we started our exploration of Kraków immediately upon arrival, with a visit to the oldest and most important synagogue, the Remuh Synagogue. Behind it, in a very old cemetery, prominent rabbis and other personalities are buried. We were able to learn about Jewish burial traditions and see the progress of a thorough restoration of the gravestones as well as hundreds of gravestone fragments, now affixed to the inner wall, witnesses to the destruction by the German occupiers.

On the tour through Kazimierz we were introduced to other synagogues and traces of former Jewish life on many houses. Kazimierz in Kraków and especially Szeroka Square served as backdrops for Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Visit to the museum at the former Schindler factory

Visit to the “Pod Orlem” pharmacy on “Ghetto Square” in Podgórze

The museum, the “Fabryka Emalia Oskara Schindlera,” is located in one of the buildings that housed Oskar Schindler’s former enamelware factory in Kraków. The exhibition focusses on the German occupation of Kraków from 1939 to 1945, the fate of the Jews under the occupation, in Kraków’s ghetto and in the forced-labor camp Płaszów (later also a concentration camp), as well as the rescue efforts by Oskar Schindler and his wife, who saved approximately 1,100 Jews from death by employing them in the factory.

Afterwards, we visited the “Pod Orlem / Zum Adler” pharmacy of Tadeusz Pankiewicz, which is also set up as a museum.

When the SS erected a ghetto for Kraków’s Jewish population in the Podgórze district in 1941, Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s pharmacy was right in the middle of the blocked-off area. All non-Jewish residents were supposed to leave the area, but Pankiewicz and his employees stayed and were able to set up an aid network and save lives.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Long, reflective discussion of participants’ impressions, at the hotel

Visit to the former forced-labor and concentration camp Płaszów

After a long conversation and reflection on the study trip, our impressions and the possibilities of other options for action, we headed off in the early afternoon to visit the Płaszów memorial site, which is under construction. Until late 2017, on a huge, unwieldy, park-like expanse in the south of Kraków, there were a few sites with ruins, including two Jewish cemeteries, a destroyed mourning hall and some monuments. One had to speak Polish in order to understand the inscriptions. In our exploration of the site we encountered a stone quarry filled with rusted hoist frames and a path paved with Jewish gravestones: These were replicas used as backdrops for the film Schindler’s List.

More than half of the Plaszów concentration camp area has been built over; the city and the needs of local residents have encroached upon the site, which had appeared abandoned.

Slowly but surely, a museum is being built here that will commemorate the history and the suffering of the inmates. There are now 19 open-air panels that describe what can be seen here and what is no longer present. On each panel, a photo and an inmate’s account complement the explanations; viewing all the panels, we could begin to imagine the atrocities committed here.

We also looked for the house of the ruthless SS man and camp director Amon Göth and found it not only freshly renovated but occupied. We heard that the new owners of this historical building interact with the visitors to the former camp, for example by giving guided tours.

Saturday, September 18, 2021 

After our emotionally intense and shattering week, we all headed for home: some via the Kraków train station, others via the airport for their return flight to Basel. The young family had started for home the day before. The baby had become a special companion for us.