When I was in Prague, I had several people recommend going to Krakow and seeing Auschwitz. In the words of one kiwi, “As a human being, you really should go see it”. I also heard Krakow itself was a cool city, and I wouldn’t regret it. Then I found out someone I had met in my US travels was in Krakow. The vibe was saying Poland, so I booked a train out of Prague and headed to Krakow.
I didn’t think I would write about my experience at Auschwitz at first. It seems like such a grave topic to write about in a blog, but it was part of my trip. I also had a couple friends who were really interested in seeing photos and hearing my thoughts. So here is the story of how I spent a day at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
On my first night in Krakow, I met someone from the hostel who was planning a day trip to Auschwitz the next day. The camp is actually about an hour and half bus ride from the city center of Krakow. We headed to the bus station in the morning, and took a bus to the camp. After an hour and half, you arrive at the city of Oświęcim which is where the first camp is located. Auschwitz was a network of camps with the three main camps being Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Berkenou, and a third used as a labor camp. If you want to tour the camp between the hours of 9 AM and 3 PM, you must be a part of a tour group. The guide reminds everyone in the very beginning that they are in a cemetery and to be quiet and respectful. Despite the large volumes of people touring the camp, it’s incredibly silent. It is not recommended that children fourteen and under view the camp due to some really disturbing sites. At the entrance of the camp, you see the original sign that greeted the prisoners… Arbeit macht frei (Work Makes You Free). The lying begins.
The tour consists of entering several blocks. Most notably is block 11 which was a prison inside a prison. In the basement, prisoners could be subjected to two of the worst tortures the camp had to offer. One was to be placed in a standing only cell with three other inmates. A person would have to work all day, and then stand all night in a cell. Another wing in the basement consisted of starving cells. Prisoners would be placed in there and not given and food and water. The purpose of both cells was basically a very slow form of execution.
I didn’t take any photos inside the blocks. It just didn’t feel right, and in some cases, you’re not allowed to take photos due to the extreme personal nature of what’s inside. One room is filled with old suitcases Jews had with them. Another room is filled with personal affects like toothbrushes, combs and makeup brushes. Another room was filled with pots and pans. When the Jews were deported to the camp, they were under the impression that they were being relocated. They brought with them all the belongings they could carry that they thought they would need to live.
By far, the most disturbing room is in Block 4. It’s filled with human hair from around 140,000 people. It’s mostly from women who had their heads shaved upon entering the camp. The Nazi’s actually used the hair to make a type of linen, and bolts of this cloth are also in the same room.
One of the last stops on the tour of the first camp is the gas chamber and crematorium. There was not a word spoken by anyone in our tour group in that building. You’re standing in a basement like room devoid of any natural light where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered. A memorial with flowers is setup in the middle of the room. Here’s a picture I found online.
After Auschwitz I, you can take a free shuttle to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I learned Auschwitz was originally built as a barracks, and then used as camp for Polish political prisoners. Later on, a gas chamber and crematorium were eventually built on the site from an old bunker. However, Birkenau was an extermination camp and was purposely designed as an engine of mass murder. The gate into Birkenau…
The bunk houses stretched as far as the eye could see. A lot of them were burned down by the Nazis towards the end of the war to hide what they had done. Only the chimneys remained in these former structures which actually created an even more eerie scene. With the buildings gone, you could clearly see for hundreds of yards in every direction nothing but these chimney stacks. Typical bunk room. Prisoners often had to sleep two to four people to a bunk bed.
One of the many Birkenau houses used as a latrine.This is the portion of the tracks just after the gate. The front of Birkenau contained the bunk houses, latrines and other camp buildings. The tracks here lead to the gas chambers and crematoriums which were kept in the back of the camp.One of the train cars that brought Jews from all cities in Europe under Nazi occupation to the concentration camp.There were five gas chambers and crematoriums at Birkenau. To get the Jews into the chambers, the Nazis would tell them they were taking showers to kill parasites. Once it was over, they would be given food and drink. The camp guards would have everyone undress and keep the lie going all the way up to when the doors were shut, and the gas pellets dropped into the rooms. Some of the gas chambers were detonated by the Nazi’s near the end of the war. Here’s one of them… There are several pools of water where the ashes from the dead bodies in the crematorium were dumped.
Way in the back of the Birkinou Camp near the gas chambers and crematorium is a memorial to all the people who were murdered at Auschwitz. There are signs in about 20 different languages warning the world that human beings did this. We need to be ever vigilent that our species is capable of the horrific acts commited at Auschwitz.
I can’t think of a more horrible place I’ve been in my lifetime. It’s really hard to wrap your head around what happened there. Out of the estimated 12 million civilians killed by the Nazis during WWII, around 1.2 million were killed at Auschwitz. An estimated 90% being Jews. The scale of Birkenau just blew me away. It was massive, and to think very few lasted more than a couple months in the camp. But, the camp was always full because of new arrivals everyday. I felt it had been a good decision to visit the camp and didn’t regret it all. We all grow up hearing about what happened in WWII, but it was still really educational. Once again I had that experience of putting my hands on the history and seeing things for myself.