Visiting Auschwitz has long been on my list of things to do since my very first trip to Europe. It’s never been something I’ve looked forward to, but something I’ve always felt I needed to do, having watched many documentaries and movies on WWII and having met a holocaust survivor. Seeing it on tv and visiting it in person are two completely different things, and I think that you can’t truly understand the horror of it until you’ve seen it with your own eyes. I’ve been to two concentration camps before: Dachau, near Munich in Germany, and Theresienstatd, near Terezin in the Czech Republic, so I already had an idea of what the visit would be like, but you can never fully be prepared for the horror of what took place in Auschwitz.
Auschwitz is located about an 1-1½ hours from Krakow and can be reached by car, train or bus. There are also many tours that do day trips to the camp. Entry to the grounds is free, and you only pay for either a guided tour, audioguide or to watch a 15 min film showing the first moments of the camp being liberated. Groups must hire a guide, but those arriving solo can either join a tour or are free to wander around on their own. It’s also recommended to reserve your tickets in advance, as there are a limited amount of tickets available the day of. I arrived in Oświęcim (the actual name of the town. Auschwitz is the German name for the camp) and walked to Auschwitz, arriving just before 10am and managed to snag one of the last tickets of the day (of course I hadn’t reserved ahead of time because I apparently like to live on the edge).
The camp is divided into two areas, Auschwitz I, the original camp, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a purposely built labour/extermination camp where the crematoriums were located. We toured Auschwitz I first, where most of the buildings are still standing and are open to the public. They are numbered and have information panels for those walking around on their own. Our tour took us through a few of the buildings to see some of the permanent exhibitions, which include photos and displays containing piles of shoes, suitcases and various items belonging to the prisoners. There is also a display of human hair belonging to the prisoners and another of Zyklon B canisters (the poison used in the gas chambers). It’s chilling to walk through and see these displays. They are a tangible reminder of the people that came to Auschwitz, most of them not knowing that this would be where their lives would come to an end.
Auschwitz I was originally built as an army barracks for the Austrian, and later, Polish armies and was also a camp for transient workers. In April 1940 (this part of Poland having already been annexed by the Nazis) it was approved by the Germans to be used as a prison for political prisoners. Local residents of Oświęcim and many other towns and villages nearby were forced to relocate to make room for incoming German citizens as space was needed for the camps and as part of an ethnic cleansing by the Nazis. The plan, called Generalplan Ost, was to rid Poland of Poles and to repopulate it with Germans, expanding the German empire. By March 1941, nearly 11,000 people, mostly Poles, were imprisoned in Auschwitz I.
The only remaining gas chamber can be found here, in Auschwitz I, although parts of it were reconstructed after the war. Block 11, the notorious prison within the prison can be found here, as can Block 10, the building where Dr. Josef Mengele performed his horrific medical experiments (many of them on twins) on the prisoners, but it is closed to visitors.
After touring the original camp, we took the free shuttle to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Most of the buildings in this part of the camp are no longer standing. The majority of the barracks were crude shacks made of wood, and when the war was over and the residents of Oświęcim returned, many of them used the wood from the barracks to rebuild the homes they had lost when they were forced to relocate.
You will see here the primitive conditions the prisoners were forced to live in, with barracks made of wood offering very little protection from the elements, and prisoners forced to sleep on their sides as they were crammed in 5-6 people per bunk. For the first two years, prisoners were forced to use a bucket to relieve themselves, as latrines were not installed until 1944. Food did not exceed 700 calories per day, with food for the day consisting of a hot beverage, a moldy piece of bread and a meatless soup. Conditions in the camp were inhuman and unsanitary. Diseases such as typhus, tuberculosis, meningitis, dysentery and others, ran rampant in the camps, killing many people. Many others died due to starvation, frostbite and exhaustion.
With the original camp at capacity, construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau started in October 1941, with the intention of housing 50,000 prisoners of war. But by March 1942, Hitler had decide to exterminate the Jewish population and so Birkenau was changed to become a labour camp/extermination camp, with the first gas chamber going into operation that month and a second one going into operation a few weeks later. In early 1943, the Nazis decided to ramp up their gassing capabilities and by June 1943, four crematoriums were operational. While it is impossible to know exactly how many people were killed at Auschwitz, the official estimated number is that over a million people, the majority of them Jewish, died there.
Here, you can see the remains of the four crematoriums, three of which were destroyed by the Nazis as they fled Auschwitz (the fourth was destroyed in an uprising by inmates several months prior to the camp’s liberation). Small bone fragments can still be found near the crematoriums and in the ash ponds and there are commemorative stones dedicated to the victims of the crematoriums. It is an ancient Jewish custom to leave a rock on a grave or headstone and you will find many rocks on top of the commemorative stones.
After the tour ended, I walked around Birkenau on my own for a bit, but it had been a long, emotionally draining day so I didn’t stay for too much longer. Also, as I got a bit further away from the tour groups, I found it eerie to be walking around on my own, away from everyone and feeling very alone in the vastness of the camp, knowing the horrors that had transpired there. I was starting to get creeped out going into some of the buildings with no one else around, so I headed back to the main gate (nicknamed the Gate of Death by the prisoners) and all the other visitors and decided to call it a day. I took the shuttle back to Auschwitz I and walked back to the local bus stop to catch a bus back to Krakow. It had been a long and sad day, but I was glad I had done it. I learned a lot while I was there and it really is different to see it first-hand, having heard so many stories of the horrors that transpired there.
While I would encourage people to visit Auschwitz as I do think it’s important to remember the terrible things that have happened in history so we can try not to repeat them, I do understand that not everyone will be up to visiting a concentration camp. It’s not pleasant, but I think it’s important to face unpleasant historical events, and bring them out into the open, rather than to try and pretend that they never happened or that they could never happen again. As much as we like to think that we learn from our mistakes, history has a tendency to repeat itself. As we’ve seen with the current rise in neo-nazism, nationalism, the alt-right and the backlash against immigrants, we are not so far removed from the Holocaust and Nazi ideologies as we like to think.
If you do choose to visit Auschwitz, please be respectful while you’re there. It’s important to remember that this was a place of murder on a mass scale and that other people visiting may have had family members who were killed or imprisoned here. Do not try to take home “souvenirs” (you’d be surprised how many people do this) as removing anything is considered illegal and can result in a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, as does defacing property (such as scratching your name on the bunks). Pictures are allowed in most areas, but again, be respectful. I love a selfie as much as the next person, but this is hardly the time or place for a smiling selfie (or even a sad one. I saw people doing both while I was there). Save your selfies for another day.