Visiting Auschwitz


Auschwitz: Reflections from my Visit

How does one describe the feeling of visiting Auschwitz? How do I even write a blog post about visiting a place where unimaginable atrocities and crimes against humanity took place? Words can not adequately describe what took place here, but I'll do my best to describe the process and the experience of visiting such and unimaginable place. 

Auschwitz is about an hour and a half outside of Krakow. You can get there by train, but taking the bus that drops you off directly in front is best, you'll have less walking to do. Just head to the train station and catch the buses from there. If you arrive before 10 you can get in without a tour guide, but paying the 40 zloty for a tour guide is worth it, especially if you don't have an extensive knowledge on the Holocaust and Auschwitz. You start with a 30 minute documentary on the camp and then go on the guided tour.

Gate to Auschwitz
Getting off the bus and arriving at Auschwitz is quite the experience. You expect it to be in the middle of nowhere, that there won't be things built around it, but that's not the case. Across the street are cheap restaurants, houses, and other business. You would think that people would never want to stay close to such a place, but as the tour guide explained to us, many people returned to their homes to find this huge concentration camp. Many didn't have any other means and just stayed there. They didn't have much of a choice. The guide also explained that during the building of Auschwitz, the Poles living nearby were taken away to other camps and their homes were used to build the barracks to keep the camp as secret as possible. The Nazis thought of everything.

Old Military Barracks Converted to Prisoner Barracks
The guided tour was worth the money. It begins in Auschwitz I which were old military barracks converted to make a camp for political prisoners. Many of the barracks house displays of the Holocaust including rooms full of items confiscated from Jews by the Nazis, one room containing two tons of human hair. The rooms also display the way the bunks were set up and some of the torture cells. The tour continues through the gas chambers of the Auschwitz I camp, which are the only ones still intact today. Walking through the gas chambers is a chilling experience, especially when you notice all the scratch marks on the walls. Images like these give you hints on the horrors that took place, what people went through, but still, you cannot imagine, cannot fully grasp the concept of what really happened.

Cattle Car at Auschwitz
The tour continues by taking a bus to Auschwitz II-Birkeanu. This is the camp where the train would go directly inside, people would get off, and be separated. Men on one side, women and children on the other. The guide explained just how thought out the Nazis' plans were. Many of the mothers were fit for work, but because they had children with them, during selection, they would send them to the right in order to prevent panic and chaos. Let that one sink in for a moment. When arriving to this large camp, it takes your breath away, in the worst way possible. Every book I read said it was huge, but seeing is different. Auschwitz II-Birkenau is enormous. Most of the barracks on the men's side are destroyed today because the Germans lit them on fire as they fled to destroy the evidence, but you can still see the foundations of where they were. The rows upon rows of barracks. You can't see all the way to the end. It seems like it never ends. On the tracks, a cattle car stands, one of the originals used. It's not that big, but yet more people were forced inside than modern day train cars, which offer seating and are twice the size.

Bunk Beds in the Women's Barracks
The tour continued to the women's camp, which was the only camp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau that had barracks made of bricks. There bricks came from the demolished Polish homes whose previous inhabitants were forced into other labor camps. The barracks had chimneys, none of which were ever used. They were there for show, in order to get people to believe that these were relocation camps, where Jews and Roma could have better lives. This lie was told to keep people from panicking. If people believe that they were being relocated, they would follow orders better. If they know that they would be beaten, starved, overworked, and living in inhumane conditions, they would have never gone, choosing to fight than to face such a fate. The one barrack that we visited showed the bunk system. The guide explained that seven women would lay on one skinny slab, and each bunk had three layers. I couldn't even count the bunks, but the guide explained that at least two hundred women would be in one barrack. The bottom was the worst because it was infested with rats. The top was no better as the roof looked like it was just laid on, leaving at least a good inch between the sheet metal and the brick, allowing snow to fall in. Most people in the camp didn't survive winter because of this.

Destroyed Gas Chambers
The tour concluded with a visit to the gas chambers and the crematoriums, or what was left of them. The Nazis, on the way out, bombed the gas chambers as an attempt to cover up, so today you can only see the remains. In the middle of the two main gas chambers stands a memorial that starts right where the train tracks end. It's layers of stairs and inscriptions in each of the languages of the victims. Standing from the memorial you can see the gates to the camp, the gates that so many wanted to leave, but never could.

Room Full of Shoes Taken by the Nazis
The tour was very good, and even though I've read so much on the Holocaust and Auschwitz, I learned so much. There were some facts that really stood out to me. For example, the Nazis would assign people to barracks in order to create language barriers. If people couldn't communicate, they couldn't organize a revolt. Or that after the war, the Auschwitz Memorial Museum opened as early as 1947 and the tour guides were survivors of the camp. I cannot imagine how emotional those tours were. But one of the most chilling was that of the 7,000 perpetrators at Auschwitz, only 1,000 were convicted, the rest fled.

The Main Entrance of Auschwitz II-Birkeanu
Visiting Auschwitz is an emotional roller coaster, but one that should be taken. I think that the rolling thunder and lightening in the background really set the mood for this place. It's not a fun tourist attraction, it's a part of history that should have never happened and should never be forgotten. You cannot visit this place without an emotional reaction. You can't look at the pictures of the people taken there, read their date of birth, then their date of death without feeling something. You can't look at the images of families being torn apart, people being starved, and the living conditions without a heavy heart. And when your guide tells you that you are walking on human ash everywhere in the camp, you immediately feel sickeningly emotional. But I believe that by visiting this place we are stopping it from repeating. We are acknowledging that what was done were horrible crimes against humanity by visiting Auschwitz. By educating ourselves we are learning to prevent it. And by visiting, we pay our respects to the dead. The Holocaust claimed over six million lives, many of them remain unnamed. By visiting, we will never forget them. 

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