The Grey Zone is a film that tells the story of the 12th Sondercommandos (special unit) at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in 1944, just a few months before its liberation. It opened in Memphis last November but, as with most films of this type, played only a week. You should go rent it immediately.
The Sondercommandos were Jewish prisoners who volunteered for the dirty work in the camps. They removed the gassed bodies, washed out the chambers, put the bodies in the ovens. For this, they were given food and liquor and the right to live an extra four months -- after that they were executed and a new unit took their place.
The reason I mention this is because I am recently back from a visit to Cracow, Poland. Appropriately, it began to snow the day I visited. My driver, Andrew, was the type of European much favored by our current administration. He met me dressed in cowboy boots and vest that he said he bought in the U.S. in the '80s. Crossed flags of the U.S. and Poland were pinned on his shirt. He applauded that day's decision by the Poles and seven other "new" European states to support President Bush's initiative on Iraq. (Bush visited Cracow and Auschwitz in late May, and a recent poll confirmed that Polish favorable opinion of the U.S. far outdistances most other European nations.)
Andrew's uncle, a Polish officer, perished in the camp in 1942. He showed me the death certificate citing the cause of death as a heart attack. He later discovered his uncle had been one of nearly 200 officers shot in the camp.
Auschwitz I is a rather small camp built before the "final solution" became policy. Constructed in 1940 for Polish political prisoners, it would eventually house an increasing number of Jews and averaged about 15,000 prisoners. After the German defeat of the Poles, the area was incorporated into the Third Reich.
Above the gate where the slave laborers passed each day is the now-famous inscription "Arbeit Macht Frei." Nazi humor, no doubt: It translates to "Work Brings Freedom." The buildings each contain an exhibit from a nation affected by the camp. The most compelling in the Jewish exhibit shows confiscated belongings of prisoners and massive piles of hair intended for use in German factories.
A few kilometers away is Auschwitz-Birkenau, the mother of all konzentrationslagers. Auschwitz II at one time housed 100,000 prisoners from all over Europe, mostly Jews. It covered over 400 acres with separate sections for women, who were housed in brick buildings that still stand, and men, held in wooden structures of which only 22 have survived. It was designed to implement the final solution. Since roughly 75 percent of the arriving Jews were sent directly to the gas chambers with no registration, it is impossible to determine how many were executed. The general estimate is 1.5 million. The figure included Soviet prisoners (the first to be gassed), Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and political dissidents.
The SS men destroyed the camp's four gas chambers and crematorium in January 1945 in an attempt to cover up their work. The destruction remains as it was when they fled. Just a few meters away stands the Monument to the Glory of the Victims, perected in 1967.
Cracow was spared WWII devastation and remains today a city unknown and unvisited by most Americans. It was entered on the UNESCO list of World Cultural Heritage cities and three years ago was given the honorary title of a European City of Culture. Along with nearby Auschwitz, it should be a must on any European tour. Meanwhile, rent The Grey Zone.