For Immediate Release
May 31, 2003
Press Gaggle by Ari Fleischer- Krakow, Poland
11:35 A.M. (Local)
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, I just wanted to give you a report on what the President saw at Auschwitz, and what he said. He walked in -- the first building he saw was the Extermination Building. The first thing as he was walking into the building, the guide told him that this is where Elie Wiesel was sent. And of course, the President had previously met the Elie Wiesel. And the President said, "He was a little boy when he was sent here."
Then they walked into the Extermination Building -- this is the first stop, at Auschwitz -- then he walked in under a sign that read "Jews are a race that must be totally exterminated," which was said by the Nazi Governor General named Hans Frank, in 1944. Standing underneath that sign, the President and Mrs. Bush began their tour of the Extermination Building.
The guide talked to him about the prisoners who were there, how within 15 to 20 minutes of their arrival they were suffocated by gas and they died. And then she started talking about the machinery of death and how they were transported out.'
The President saw actual cans which contained cyclone B, that were used for the killing in the gas chambers. And the guide talked to him and said how the Germans would describe this in code, that they would talk about it as the "special treatment" that the prisoners would receive.
This is very moving. He saw the hair of murdered women which was then later sold to the German textile industry. Much of the hair still is there -- I shouldn't say "much," but a considerable amount of hair is still there behind a large glass partition which the President walked by.
Q Roughly how big was that partition area?
MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, that probably extended some 30, 40 feet behind glass, and you just see hair. Women's hair. The guide talked about in the next room that Auschwitz was also a site of plunder because as the Jews were rounded up and sent there, they brought their belongings with them so they had their suitcases. They didn't know they were going to their death, so they carried their life's possessions with them, which was then quickly plundered, the guide explained.
The President saw the Jewish prayer shawls that were hanging. And then another deeply moving part, he saw artificial limbs, actual artificial limbs, prosthesis, legs that were there and which she explained to the President, even these were plundered after people were killed, and then used back in Germany.
The President would say things such as "Powerful." I just wrote down as I listened to him -- "powerful." When he saw the suitcases, he said, "So sad." And then at one point when he went by another display where there were teeny little shoes, the President looked at it and said, "All the little baby shoes." He told the guide, "You've done a good job recording history."
The President talked about the current context of it, how many people come each year. He asked, where do they come from. He asked, "Do people challenge the accuracy of what you present?" And one cell --
Q And what did the guide say?
MR. FLEISCHER: She explained where people come from. They come from all over, she said. A lot come from Poland, from the United States, from Israel, from Germany.
Q Did she answer his question, do people challenge --
MR. FLEISCHER: I didn't get it. If she did, I don't remember, I didn't write it down.
Then he saw some cells where the prisoners were kept. Now, these are not -- at Birkenau he saw the bunk cells. But this were actual prison cells with doors that swing open and bars, very, very small rooms. And in one small room, the guide explained, there were 39 people in a small cell with a teeny, teeny little bit of air that came in from a window up top. And this cell was very small. And she said to him, on the doors you can see signs on how to scratch the door to survive. And you could see it -- on the door they would just scratch to get air into the room. They tried to claw their way through a very thick wooden door.
Q Was this inside the Execution Wall, in that --
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, it was in the basement of that, exactly right.
Q Roughly how big was this?
MR. FLEISCHER: That one was -- I'm not good at this, but, gosh, 10 by 15 maybe.
Q We saw it yesterday -- it was sort of that size --
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay. Is that good a guess, 10 by 15? Then they took them to a room where scratched on the wall was the face of Jesus Christ. That was scratched in there by a Polish officer who was taken there. And the President said as he left that building -- walking now -- he said, "History is a reminder of what's possible."
He asked how many people escaped. He was told, 800. Then at the second site, Birkenau, the guide explained that Birkenau was more efficient, that the Nazis designed a more efficient way to kill. She talked about how the Nazis needed trains for the war effort, but their desire to kill the Jews was so strong that they used the limited transportation resources they had for the purpose of killing the Jews.
The President then saw the bunks, the classic picture, of course, of the concentration camps where people are in the bunks. The President -- this was right after he talked to the pool -- he went into that room. And the guide explained how crammed it was with corpses and rats. And the President said -- his words I wrote down were "Very powerful."
I think that's all my verbatims on it.
Q Do you know the name of the guide?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know what, I also have how he signed the inscription. Let me give you that, and her name might be on there.
Q Was it not possible for the pool to go on some of this? Wouldn't it have been easier for us to see it and actually videotape it?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think something like this, they really want to keep it pretty solemn, just in person, no fanfare, let the President and Mrs. Bush see it.
Q Who was with them other than you, Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: The White House photographer, of course, Secret Service agents, and that's it. Everybody else -- Secretary Powell, Condi, they were in a separate tour behind. I went for the purpose of being able to provide you with what he saw.
Q We should say Powell, Condi --
MR. FLEISCHER: They all -- Andy -- they all were toured separately right behind the President.
Here's how he signed the book, and I don't know who his guide was. "To Director Wrobleski, Krystyna Olesky, Dr. Swiebocka, and all the staff of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum: Thank you sincerely for a deeply moving tour, and dedicating your lives to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and the martyrdom of Poles. You honor all who are victims here. May your work inspire future generations to stand ever vigilant against the return of such unspeakable evil to our world. Never forget." Then he signed his signature.
Q Who wrote the inscription?
MR. FLEISCHER: Who wrote it? The "thank you sincerely" up to "evil to our world" was calligraphied in, and then "never forget" he hand-wrote and signed.
The tour was just the President and Mrs. Bush, because everybody else was so far behind. She was talking to the two of them.
Q How does this fit in with the overall tone of this trip? Why start with that as the first stop?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President wanted to go to Auschwitz and Birkenau because it's important to remember history and to come to this area -- it's important to visit the site of such horror, to visit the Holocaust. And that's why he came, because it, in and of itself, must be visited and must be remembered in his judgment.
Q And how does that relate to the war on terrorism or to what he will be doing in the Middle East?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think in the President's speech he'll talk a little bit about that, he'll touch on that.
Q How long was he there?
MR. FLEISCHER: I've got that. The tour began at approximately 8:00 a.m. They finished at 8:45 a.m. at the first Auschwitz. And then I have him departing at around 9:40 a.m. or so. He addressed the pool at about 9:20 a.m.
Q So an hour, 40 total?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, that's about right.
Q Did you say he laid a wreath?
MR. FLEISCHER: Two wreaths.
Q One at each place?
MR. FLEISCHER: Correct. Okay, that's what I've got.
Q Where was the first wreath and where was the second?
MR. FLEISCHER: The pool was there for all of those.
Q We weren't there for this part.
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, you were.
Q It was a different pool.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, no, the pool was there. I couldn't tell you the specific -- well, maybe I can. Let me see if I can give you answer to the first question.
Okay, here we go. He was escorted by Dr. Teresa Swiebocka, senior curator. The wreath at Auschwitz was laid at the Death Wall. And then he toured -- I can give you the actual names -- Block 4 is the extermination exhibit. Block 5 is the Material Proof of Crimes. Block 11 is Torture and Holding Cells. He visited the crematorium; he signed the guest book.
Then he went to Birkenau. At Birkenau, he saw the railroad tracks. The wreath-laying was at the Memorial Wall. The crematorium is called K-2. And he went inside Barracks 27.
Q Of the men's barracks, right?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't recall a distinction between --
Q He went into the barracks?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, right after he talked to the pool. Yes, that's -- when you think of the pictures and the Holocaust, of people crammed into the barracks, on kind of two tiers, that's what that barracks was.
Q Have you ever seen that before? Have you ever been --
Q Do you know if the President has been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington?
MR. FLEISCHER: I had relatives there. They were Hungarian, that's where they were taken.
Q Do you know if he's been to the Holocaust Museum?
MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, yes, he has. He went early in 2001.
Okay. Thank you.
END 11:47 A.M. (Local