‘We have to live a normal life here’: Inside Oswiecim, the town in the shadow of Auschwitz

Only train tracks and barbed wire separate the former German death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau from Oswiecim.

'We have to live a normal life here': Inside Oswiecim, the town in the shadow of Auschwitz
The train tracks leading to the former Auschwitz concentration camp. Photo: DPA

Its 40,000 Polish residents try to lead normal lives despite knowing their town will always be associated with the Holocaust, much like Hiroshima is forever tied to the atomic bomb.

On Friday, it will once again be back in the spotlight when German Chancellor Angela Merkel pays her first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

For locals, the burden of history is tough to shake.

“Visitors believe that even three generations later, we should be in mourning all day, every day,” resident Dawid Karlik told AFP this week.

The 24-year-old is a student at the college located just 200 metres (650 feet) from the camp's infamous gate bearing the chilling Nazi message “Arbeit macht frei”, or “Work will set you free”.

Photo: DPA

Hundreds of thousands of Europeans passed through this gate before being gassed to death or killed by hard labour, hunger, disease, medical experiments.

Most of them were Jews, but also Catholic Poles, Roma, Soviet soldiers and others.

“Yes, we know the history. The building where I study had previously served as housing for SS women. But today it's our school,” Karlik said.

READ ALSO: Merkel set to visit Auschwitz as Germany battles resurgence of anti-Semitism

Fellow student Anna Duda added that “it is the Germans who built the biggest death camp here during the war.”

“We, the residents of Oswiecim, had nothing to do with it. But we remember and have to live a normal life here despite the difficult past.”

Karlik works at the library of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, and wants to eventually become a tour guide there.

Empty hotels

This year, the museum expects a record 2.3 million visitors.

And yet, Oswiecim's hotels stand empty.

Tourists rarely spend the night in Oswiecim, a town with 800 years of history, preferring to stay in the nearby city of Krakow.

In an attempt to revamp the town's image, high-profile journalist Dariusz Maciborek launched the annual music event Life Festival Oswiecim in 2010.

Rock stars like Santana and Sting have sung and called for world peace in front of thousands of people there. But this year's edition was cancelled because of a lack of funding.

Oswiecim is filled with reminders of the past. Half of the street names have a connection to the camp. At the intersection of the streets named “Deportees” and “Camp”, a mass grave bears the remains of 700 inmates.

There are commemorative plaques everywhere. The one on a building right next to the camp pays tribute to the first Polish inmates shot to death on November 22nd, 1940, even before the camp became the 20th-century's largest
death factory.

“Those who live here keep the flame alive,” said pensioner Jerzy Tobiasz, pointing to a couple of grave lanterns placed under the plaque.

“At least we have the opportunity to welcome heads of state and royals from around the world. I myself saw German chancellor Helmut Kohl, and Pope Francis,” he told AFP.

Armin Laschet (CDU), state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia with guide Ewa Pasterak while visiting Auschwitz in Oswiecim on January 7th 2019, International Holocaust Memorial Day.

Merkel will be only Germany's third chancellor to travel to the camp, after Kohl and Helmut Schmidt.

Save camp items 'at all cost'

The camp spanned 42 square kilometres (16 square miles), and to build the barracks and the crematoria, the Nazis forced the residents of eight villages to clear out.

In addition to Auschwitz I and Birkenau II, there were several auxiliary camps while inmates were forced to work at affiliated factories.

The museum, which was created after the war at the initiative of survivors, is located on only 200 hectares of land so several of the camp's buildings are outside the museum grounds.

READ ALSO: 'We must send a signal': Germany to tighten law on anti-Semitic crimes

Some 30 volunteers from the Foundation of Memory Sites Near Auschwitz-Birkenau (FPMP) have made it their mission to collect items related to the camp to save them from oblivion.

At first, they visited local scrap dealers to search for old camp work tools or collected SS dishware and furniture found in attics.

This year, their seventh, the group is finishing the renovation of the huge SS canteen and cultural centre, located near the camp.

In February, the town entrusted the foundation with the renovation of two other large buildings in ruins near Birkenau: a potato warehouse and a cabbage warehouse.

“We must save them at all costs. Visitors will be able to better understand life in the camp,” said foundation volunteer Dagmar Kopijasz.

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.