To go to Krakow and miss the Auschwitz-Berkenau concentration/extermination camps would have been a shame. Really, it was the main reason why I even came to Poland; I think that everyone should see the dark spots across human history. First for me was Pearl Harbor, then Hiroshima, the killing fields in Cambodia, Nagasaki, and now this.
There are all sorts of tour buses that people can hire, or public options for the slightly more intrepid traveler to utilize for for significantly less money. I arrived during the ‘busy time’ which meant that my tour needed to be guided. It wasn’t a rip off and she would add a lot to my understanding of the place.
I think that we all know what travesties happened here, so rather than retell a sad tale, I’ll just caption some photos of those elements that struck to me as interesting. The tour started at the famous front gate, which in German read ‘Work Brings Freedom’. Seeing people here pose for pictures was bit strange.
We went through a few of the housing units, which had been converted to explain in detail about what went on here. The exhibit on the gas used in the chambers was interesting. The gas started as pesticide pellets that would oxidize after being dropped into the chambers. It took 12 cans 20 to bring 2000 people to an agonizing death.
Another display explained how the hair of those killed was reused. I never considered that the Nazis were shaving them for any reason other than just to do it. Apparently this hair was made into fabric, and other goods. There was a room filled with literal tons of hair.
The Jews showing up by train were completely unaware of what sort of place this was. The Nazis forced them to pay for the train tickets and even sold them ‘houses’ to move into once they arrived. They had limits on how much they could bring, so generally they had their most important belongings in their suitcases. Immediately off the train they were either killed or sent off to their actual accommodation, leaving the suitcases for the Nazis. Every article was sorted, so I saw rooms each piled high with shoes, brushes, glasses, or prosthetic limbs.
We went to the killing wall, where thousands were lined up and shot. People tend to think only of the Jews here at Auschwitz, but they represented only 90 percent. While that was the vast majority, there were sizable chunks of other ethnic and people groups who met the same fate. The last stop was to the gas chambers and crematorium, which can only really be met with silent reverence. My prevailing thoughts had mostly to do with a disappointment in humanity.
From there we were done with Auschwitz, and it was off to Birkenau. The former has the name recognition, and though many did died there, it was only a concentration camp. The latter however was an extermination camp, where thousands were being killed every day. It is for this reason that many survived Auschwitz, and a very small few Birkenau.
There wasn’t as much remaining at this camp, although it was absolutely massive. The Polish government had a couple of the housing units rebuilt, but all the rest of them had only the brick chimneys left. It was an eerie scene. We went into one of the units filled with wooden beds and another with the latrines. The conditions were appalling.
From there we walked to the far side of the camp. There was a boxcar there that had been used to transport the prisoners directly to the massive gas chambers.
Before the Nazi retreat, they destroyed the gas chambers at this camp, I guess so no one would notice. The one at Auschwitz survived only because it was repurposed as a bunker. Even just by looking at the remains, it was clear what a massive murder operation they had going here.
Next to these ruins there was a monument built to all those that died. It had the same message in each of the 22 or 24 languages spoken by the people killed here. Visitors placed flowers and candles at many points throughout the visit, but especially here. Unsurprisingly, the one written in Hebrew was getting a lot of love.
At this point we started walking back, but we stopped into a female unit. Things weren’t here any more humane, but at least the brick construction made it look slightly warmer during the frigid winters.
The tour was now finished, so we waited a few minutes for the shuttle to take us back the the beginning, where I then took the mini bus 50 km back to Krakow. It was a day filled with the grim realities of WWII. It is difficult to digest what actually happened here, and I’m sure there would be merit in another visit at some point in my life, but this day felt like one filled with the right kind of tourism.