Desolate, empty and uninviting; a place haunted by memories of genocide and sadness. Auschwitz concentration camp is not exactly the kind of place you want to visit. Yet, it’s important to. Like many people I had seen films like Schindler’s List, and as a young girl I read Anne Frank’s diary. A few years ago I visited Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. I thought I understood the Holocaust – but this gave me an entirely different perspective. Auschwitz was the largest concentration and extermination camp in Europe.
I visited the camp on a day trip from Krakow, Poland on a guided tour. It’s located on the outskirts of a small town named Oświęcim (the Germans called the town Auschwitz and that’s how it became known). Oświęcim, our guide describes, is moody. The weather changes drastically here. One moment there is sunshine, and the next, dark skies and torrential downpour. Just one hour drive east, Krakow right now seems an entire world away.
Warning: some of the content that follows may be disturbing.
In 1942, Auschwitz was made up of 3 main camps – Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Monowitz. They became the sites of the worst systematic genocide in history with an estimate of 1.3 million Jews tortured and killed here – in total, about 58% of all Jews in Europe were murdered during the Holocaust.
The tour begins at Blocks 4, 5, 6, and 7 of Auschwitz I State Museum which have been converted from barracks into exhibits displaying all the belongings of the prisoners.
This set the tone slowly for what I was about to experience.
You can’t walk past the entrance gate without thinking about the prisoners who arrived here first, having high hopes of a “promised land”. They were told they were coming to work, to support their families during wartime.
Above the gate door, a sign ironically reads Arbeit Macht Frei (work will make you free).
What few people know is that, after Polish and Russian Jews, more Hungarian Jews were killed during the Holocaust than any other European population. It’s a fact our textbooks often ignore. About 400,000 Hungarian Jews were crammed into cars like this one below with 80-100 people (normal capacity was 20). Each person was also allowed to take one small 20kg suitcase. The journey sometimes took as long as two weeks without any stops. They were given no food, water, or toilets. In the cold months, rain and snow would enter through the cracks. In the summer the heat was impossible to escape.
Upon arriving, one third, mostly families, were immediately separated from one another. Men and women were told to go either left or right. They were assessed by their look, age, strength, even how they walked. Children were separated from their parents, and told not to worry, that their mom or dad was just going to take a shower.
Only 20-30% of all Jews who arrived at Auschwitz were deemed by the Germans as fit to work. Within 30-60 minutes of stepping off the car, the rest were sent to the gas chambers at nearby Birkenau with no chance to live.
Walking into one of the gas chambers, it felt cold, clammy and eerie. Block 11 is where most Jews were murdered covertly. The layout had multiple rooms and many of the people sent inside truly believed they were going to take a shower. We walked through the first room, where they were told to undress. Some were even handed a bar of soap. In the imitation shower room, I could see a few window openings from the ceiling above. Nazis used these openings to disperse a German-invented crystal gas called Zyklon B or cyanide. Our guide described this as 15 minutes of torture, vomiting, and sickness. After 20 minutes no one remained alive.
Extracting rooms were used for taking gold teeth from the bodies or cutting off their hair which Germans used for textiles. The crematorium was used to turn bodies to ashes – a sure way to relieve their murderers of any evidence and corpses.
Block 11 is also where a small candle flickers in a cold, dark cell in memory of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest remembered for his selflessness. In July 1941, three men escaped the camp. During roll call, German soldiers noticed the count was different and chose 10 men at random to starve to death as a punishment for their escape. One of the chosen men cried out for his wife and children, and pleaded desperately to be spared. Father Maximilian volunteered to exchange his life for his. He died in this block after two weeks of starvation. We often hear about the torture and horror of the victims during the Holocaust but there were also many stories of heroism and acts of humanity like this one.
I was having a hard time understanding, how could humans do such horrible things to each other? Didn’t the German soldiers feel any remorse and compassion? What made them think this was all okay?
Outside between the barracks of Block 10 and 11 is a courtyard where visitors have left flowers, candles and tributes for the victims. At the end of the courtyard is a replica of The Black Wall, where mass executions took place. Prisoners were lined up and shot here for resisting the camp. The wall was made of cork, constructed by the Germans to protect the red brick wall behind from bullet holes.
Thousands were murdered in this courtyard and out of respect, it’s important to be silent here.
In block 25 and 26 at the Birkenau camp, women and children unfit for German soldiers were housed here without any food or water. They often lived in knee-deep muddy conditions. Many died of starvation before they were summoned to the gas chambers. The strongest women were used by the Germans to carry the bodies of their inmates.
In 1945 the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz (another important fact our Western history books get wrong) and about 7,000 remaining prisoners were released. German soldiers tried to destroy all evidence of their crimes such as blowing up the gas chambers. Today, some of the rubble from the explosions remain.
After Liberation, Auschwitz was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. While the site is now a place to commemorate the victims, I couldn’t help but feel everywhere I walked, I was walking the grounds of an unfortunate cemetery. The ashes of prisoners were spread all over this complex. Our guide says, even years later, after a heavy rainfall and when the camp begins to dry, the ground still sweeps up ashes in the air.
What Auschwitz can Teach Us
Some people believe death camps like Auschwitz are an exploitation and tourist attraction for profit, and a disrespect to the victims who perished here. Yes, Auschwitz is where the worst human atrocities in history unfolded. There is no good feeling about being here. Then why visit a place so symbolic of torture, genocide and sadness? Because it’s important. For so many reasons.
First, one of the goals of the museum is to not let history be repeated.
Second, there are some people who still believe the Holocaust did not happen. Our guide meets these kinds of non-believers from time to time and during the tour she kept reiterating multiple times that everything we are seeing is original, as if we might not believe it (if there was something we were looking at that was not original she let us know). Auschwitz stands to prove that these atrocities did happen and were very real.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
– George Santayana
I am sure reading this post was hard. It was hard for me to write it. I can’t think of a worst place to visit on your travels – being there left me speechless. But it reminded me about gratitude, compassion, and perspective. Today, most of us live in warm houses, we can take clean showers, and eat a hot meal. We know peace, freedom and human rights. We don’t need to fight for a piece of bread or go to sleep in a muddy room. We also know justice. These victims and their families who survive them will never see justice because many of the Germans soldiers who fled or died and could never be tried in a court for their crimes.
Visiting Auschwitz is also a reminder that inhumane treatment and similar atrocities around the world continue to exist. There are populations still facing honour killings in extremist Middle East, murder, torture, and labour camps in communist North Korea; denial of refugees from Syria and the Burmese refugees in Thailand; human rights deprivation in places like Haiti, Cuba, North Korea, and South Sudan.
We can’t change the past, but we can try to do better. We can question more and be more empathetic; take a stand against oppression, bullying and marginalization. There are similar degrees of inhumane actions happening everywhere and I think we are all guilty if we choose to ignore them.
Finally, one of the most remarkable things that my visit to Auschwitz has taught me is strength. Even in impossible circumstances. At the end of the tour, our guide shared with us a story about an Auschwitz survivor, an 80 year old woman who was just 10 years old at the time she and her family were deported to Auschwitz. It was just two weeks before our tour, she happened to return to the camp and visit the place she was tortured as a child and her family murdered. Even after all the suffering, our guide says she makes a point to return twice a year. My heart absolutely dropped and I felt a sense of guilt I couldn’t explain. If I had been there a couple of weeks earlier I think I would have given her a big warm hug, told her how courageous she is, and that I was sorry about what had happened. If it was me, I don’t think I would ever have the strength to return.
How to Visit Auschwitz
The Auschwitz concentration camp is about 70km from Kraków. It is free to visit, however I highly recommend booking a guided tour like the one I took through JayWay Travel. You are picked up at your hotel around 8am and then dropped off by about 2pm. The journey is about 1 hour each way from Krakow and includes a stop at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
The guides are more like educators and JayWay does a great job at matching visitors with very informative and experienced educators who know the camp inside out and the true facts (which sometimes our textbooks get wrong). What I really appreciated most of all, was hearing some of the stories about the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, which you can only get on a guided tour.
In a guided tour you also have the opportunity to ask questions which you can’t do if you decide to visit independently. The guides are genuine and honest. I imagine they do tours every day and so I am sure they’ve seen the site multiple times but it never seemed like this was just another job for our guide. She still had so much emotion and compassion and I could tell she felt a lot of purpose in her work, to educate and show visitors why it’s important not to forget the past.
Another reason I suggest taking a guided tour is that Auschwitz is so large, you can’t possibly see all the blocks (it would take you days) but with a guided tour you will be shown the most important ones.
Tips for Visiting Auschwitz
- Prepare for the weather. Bring a hat, umbrella, water bottle, and good walking shoes. Wear sunscreen. In summertime, the sun can feel very strong here. You will be outside a lot and there is very little shade to protect from the elements.
- Bring snacks with you. There is a small café at Auschwitz I but not at Birkenau.
- Leave backpacks at home. No large bags are allowed in Auschwitz I. You will go through a security check before you enter and you will be allowed to take a very small bag such as a purse or compact camera bag. They are very strict about this rule.
- Stay with the guide. There are many guided groups going through at the same time so it’s easy to lose your guide and group. I fell behind at the back of my group for a short while and missed some of the stories of the victims that our guide was sharing.
- Do not take photos where you are not supposed to. Photography is allowed except in some places like the hair room and in the basement of Block 11. There are signs indicating where photos are forbidden. Please respect the victims and don’t be the idiot that waits for people to turn around so you can take a pic. Remember this is a place where millions of people suffered, lost their freedoms and their lives.
- Do not take selfies. Out of respect for the victims, this is not a place to take photos of yourself. It’s a memorial.
- Be silent. In some areas you are asked for a moment of silence such as in Block 11 and The Black Wall.
I was a guest of JayWay Travel during my tour of Poland, but as always, all opinions are my own.