It’s amazing what a human being can endure when they have no other choice. Compared to the amount of people who died in Auschwitz, there were very few survivors, and those who did survive were never the same, both mentally and physically.
I had wanted to visit for a long time and at first I was going to go alone, but was persuaded by many in my hostel to go on a group tour because of not only the convenience, but the amount of information the guides will pass onto you. For 115 Zloty (approximately 28 Euros) it included the bus trip there and back from Krakow, as well as the tour itself. On the journey to Auschwitz, a documentary is also played on the bus. The documentary was shocking to watch as it showed real life images of the state of health that the survivors were in once they were freed. It was not a pretty sight and at times I found it difficult to watch.
The tour will consist of 2 hours at Auschwitz I, followed by 1 hour at the much larger Auschwitz II Birkenau.
If you go alone, it will cost you around 24 Zloty (6 Euro) for a return trip, and entrance into the camps is free.
Walking through the camp, at times I felt numb towards a lot of what I was seeing, and it wasn’t until about half way through the bus ride back into Krakow, during my reflection time, that a lot of it sunk in.
Instead of turning this post into a history lesson, I thought I would share my impressions and the things which stuck in my mind the most from my visit to Auschwitz.
End of the Line
While the trains arrived into Birkenau with loads of prisoners, they were then unloaded and separated into men and women. A member of the Nazi regime would then select those who were deemed fit to work, and those who were not. Those who were determined unfit to work were sent straight to the gas chambers. They were told to walk from where the train stopped all the way to the other end of the camp. They were unaware at this stage that it would be the last time they would ever see their loved ones, instead being told they were heading towards the showers.
While standing near the train, we then began to take the exact same walk. Eventually we reached the other end of the camp, where I noticed the train track also ended. In my mind I am thinking it’s the end of the line (referring to the train tracks), but it suddenly strikes me that it was the end of the line in more ways than one. Here is where 2 large gas chambers were located, capable of holding hundreds and hundreds of people at once, and obviously where thousands of innocent people were murdered.
In one of the buildings in Auschwitz I, a corridor is filled with photos of some of the victims. During their time in the camp, their photos were taken for identification purposes. There were many chilling things left behind which you can see at the camp today, such as shoes, suitcases and female hair. However, it was the photos that had the biggest impact on me. Here, I got to see their faces, looking into their eyes, seeing their names, age and country. Each wearing the same outfit, with their heads shaved, it’s hard to comprehend what they were thinking at the time these pictures were taken. I actually felt uncomfortable taking a photo of them, as if the first photo wasn’t enough, now they will have this same picture taken over and over again for many years to come.
The Living Conditions
As I mentioned earlier, we spent an hour in Birkenau, and I have to say after the hour I was ready to go. I had seen the entire camp and there was snow everywhere, my feet were frozen and the wind was a real nuisance. Birkenau is a lot bigger than the first camp and a lot more spread out, so the wind really takes affect here.
The prisoners were forced to wear thin clothing which in no way was capable of dealing with the harsh Polish winter. They would be forced to stand outside for hours at a time, and sleep in rooms with no insulation, with at least 5 people to 1 bed, and yet here I was wearing a thick ski jacket and I had enough after an hour. The thought of being forced to live here 24 hours a day is unimaginable.
Destroying the Evidence
What I found staggering was that even with the amount of destruction the Nazis caused, they still had the nerve and the arrogance to think they could get away with it by destroying the evidence. All that’s left of the gas chambers at Birkenau are the ruins, as the Nazis destroyed them just prior to the camp being liberated. There is however a much smaller gas chamber at the first Auschwitz camp that was not destroyed which you can enter.
Regardless of what documents and facilities were destroyed, it’s hard to think how they could cover up the fact that over a million people had just been murdered.
Overall I am very glad I went to Auschwitz, and although I cant necessarily say it was an enjoyable experience, it certainly will be one of the more memorable ones. I did not meet one person in Krakow who did not visit or was not planning on visiting Auschwitz. It is a must visit if you are ever in this city.