How does it feel to visit Auschwitz

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I am finding this post extremely difficult to write because even if it’s been two weeks since I have visited the remains of the concentration camp from Auschwitz and Birkenau, I still don’t really know how to feel about it.

I actually wasn’t planning on visiting Auschwitz, as I went to Poland without a proper itinerary, just to visit a friend. After a couple of days spent in Prague, he went back to work and I spontaneously decided to visit Krakow. I didn’t really have any time to prepare for this… experience, if I may call it like this? I booked the tour one day before.

As I grew up, I have learned about Holocaust from movies, as our history books always finished before the first world war. “It’s too recent history”, we would be told. And, coming from an ex-communist country, being in school in the close years which followed the revolution, I somehow understand the secrecy.

Schindler’s List and La Vieta E Bella are two of the movies that marked me, as I was growing up, opening my eyes to what happened during the second world war. Later on, it was “The boy in the striped pyjamas” that brought in me emotions I didn’t know I had. Even if part fiction, these movies have had an impact on many people, not only on me. I was probably around 14 when I have seen Schindler’s List for the first time, by accident. I vividly remember the evening. I watched it at 11PM, on my computer, sitting on my uncomfortable desk chair, absorbing every minute of it, crying my heart out and almost every scene. It was painful.

When I found myself in Krakow, I decided that it is important to go and see Auschwitz. Not as a touristic attraction, but as a way of understanding a part of history that was not spoken about for many years.

Let me ask you something, how many times did you hear jokes related to the Holocaust? Or jokes related to the Jewish people? It’s not that people are insensitive, neither because they are mean.  The scale of the things that happened at Auschwitz during only three years is so large that it is very hard to comprehend. Even when walking around the two complexes, it is very hard to imagine that 80 years ago people were dying on the same paths I was walking on, in the same buildings that these days host exhibitions and reminders of the past.

I am not going to get into too many details about the Holocaust in this post, I am not qualified and there are too many books and memoires from where you can learn about it. This article is purely about my experience and how it felt to visit Auschwitz.

 

How to choose the best tour to Auschwitz, from Krakow

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You will find tours to Auschwitz almost at every corner in Krakow. Some are cheaper, some are more expensive. I chose the tour I went with by reading the reviews on Get Your Guide. The fact that the tour was small and the transport from Krakow to Auschwitz was by minibus were pluses. This is the tour I booked, you can click here to check the most recent price and to book.

Depending on how the tour operators manage to book their guides at Auschwitz, the picking up hour does not reflect the one mentioned on the website, so keep that in mind. I received an email a day before informing me that my pick up was at 1:05PM, from my hostel. Very precise time. I didn’t know if they would ring the bell or just wait for me, so I went downstairs 5 minutes before. It was perfect timing, as Lukasz, the driver, was just arriving. I was the first one to be picked up, so I chose my seat in the minibus.

We stopped twice more, to pick up another girl and a family, and we started our journey towards Auschwitz. It takes an hour and twenty minutes to drive from Krakow to Auschwitz.

The tour I’ve chosen was organised really good and both the driver and the guide were fantastic. Patrycja, out guide, was so knowledgeable and passionate to make us understand the history, sometimes overwhelmed with emotion, sometimes speaking with a lump in her throat. She has been working at Auschwitz for 12 years, out of which the last 6 as a guide. And still, she could spread so many feelings through her words and in a way, that somehow felt like anger.

 

Auschwitz 1

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The road towards Oswiecim, the Polish name of the city where the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum is, was very quiet. Green fields and tall forests, trees in bloom and a too unjust blue sky.  Everyone stood quiet in the car, only the music from the radio breaking the silence from time to time with a louder tune. And from all the songs in the universe, as we approached the now – museum, John Lennon’s Imagine was aired.

“Imagine all the people, living life in peace”

There are many people visiting Auschwitz, and you can see that from the multitude of buses, minibuses and cars that barely fit in the large parking lots just outside the Museum. The visiting rules are very strict: no backpacks, no food and drinks and a check through the metal detector. Another rule, not enforced as the others, but probably the most important is to be respectful and don’t take selfies. Unfortunately, too little people follow it. I will never understand the fascination of taking a photo of yourself smiling in a place of genocide…

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“Auschwitz 1” is the first of the three main concentration camps operated by the German Nazi near Krakow. At first, it served as a prison camp for Polish political prisoners, after Germany invaded Poland in the autumn of 1939. Before that, Auschwitz 1 was used as army barracks, so the buildings already existed.

“Arbeit macht frei” – “Work sets you free”, 3 words engraved in iron, set above the main gate of Auschwitz 1. These 3 words were not only a cynical lie, but a symbol of courage in the same time. If you look closer, the “B” in “Arbeit” is upside down. The sign was made by prisoners, who intentionally turned the “B” upside down, making it look like a mistake, to demonstrate their will to overcome the fear of living in the camp where they would witness violence, humiliation and death every day. This was their way of hoping that they will survive. However, most of the prisoners at Auschwitz 1 did not survive more than two months. Passing through this gate, followed by the once electrified fence, gave me chills.

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Looking around, endless groups of tourists were swarmed around the courtyard, moving from one building to another, stopping to take photos. Closing my eyes for a second, it wasn’t hard to imagine how 80 years ago there were prisoners wearing stripped uniforms that were moving in the same way, in and out of the main gate, getting ready to be counted or coming back from the hard labour.

Enclosed inside a double electric fence, the buildings at Auschwitz 1 all look the same. Two storey high brick barracks, with a main door, some with windows, some without, are differentiated only by a number. Block 10 is closed to the public…. Here is where the SS doctors performed experiments on the Jewish women. Some died because of the treatment received, some were killed so that the doctors can perform autopsies on their bodies.

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Block 6 and block 4 are hosting the probably most painful exhibitions. Stepping into block 6 was difficult. Whist I followed out guide into one of the rooms adjacent to the main corridor, I couldn’t stop looking towards all the photos hanged on the wall. The entire length of the hallway is covered with the photos of the prisoners registered at Auschwitz: men, women, children. Underneath, the date of the deportation and the date of… death. Mostly, 1 to 2 months apart. Block 6 also hosts an exhibition dedicated to the memory of all the children who died here: there are photos, shoes, moth eaten tiny clothes…

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It is block 6 where I found out that Auschwitz is the only concentration camp where the prisoners were tattooed with a serial number. This is because there were so many people dying that it was hard to identify them. Also, because it was easier for soldiers to be violent if they would dehumanise humans and consider them numbers.

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I find it very hard to describe how it feels to visit Auschwitz and go from block to block. It is hard to understand and process the genocide that happened not so long ago. At some point, it all becomes numbers…. 500, 800, 5000! Block 4 has some grim exhibitions, rooms that made me tear up. Upstairs, in a dark room, there are two tonnes of human hair, collected during the last 5 days before the liberation. Can you even imagine that, knowing how less hair weights? Another room preserves mountains of shoes. “Hanna Feitsma, 3.9.1907, Holland”, is written on one of the thousand suitcases from another room. Under a glass table I recognise a Nivea hand cream… who knows who it belonged to… maybe it still has the owner fingerprints underneath the lid, embedded in the white cream.

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The last stop of the guided tour to Auschwitz 1 is the gas chamber. The black walls are a silent witness of fear, with thousands of marks left by the prisoners’ nails, whilst gasping for their last breath of air. You don’t have to get into the building if you don’t want to. It’s shocking, inducing a mix of emotions too hard to put into words.

 

Auschwitz Birkenau

“Face, age, profession” – These were the three criteria someone was sentenced to work or to death, on their arrival to Auschwitz Birkenau.

We stood in the middle of an empty field, split into two by the railway passing though and ending a few hundred meters up. Once electrified fences are still standing tall on both sides on the railway. Besides them, there is not much left… a forest of chimneys, I thought to myself.

Birkenau, only 3 kilometres away from Oswiecim, has been built specifically to be an extermination camp, after the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” plan was formulated in January 1942. The almost 200 wooden barracks, pretty much stables with a chimney passing through the middle, were purposed to hold 250,000 people. Looking around, I found it very hard to imagine.

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The barracks at Birkenau don’t have numbers and are built out of wood, on top of a cement floor. There are no windows, except for a narrow roof skylight going along the entire length of the wall. A stable with a chimney in the middle more likely. The three-layered wooden beds were crooked, poorly made, and had no mattress, just thin rugs. Meant for 5, at least 8 people were squeezing in, on their side, every night, hoping to get some sleep. The bottom beds were infested with rats which bit as soon as a body was still. No matter the temperature outside, bearing in mind that in Poland winters can bring lows as -20 degrees and summers can bring highs as +30, the barracks were not heated or ventilated. Even if each barrack had a stove inside, there was no fuel provided.  There was no food either.

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More than 80% of the people sent here were murdered inside the gas chambers. Women and children were sentenced straight to death because of their gender and age. Only healthy strong men over 14 years old were sent to work.

“Face, age, profession” ….

We walked for 5 minutes, towards the point where the rail tracks end. 80 years ago, behind a line of trees, this was the location of the gas chambers. Today, is the place of the memorial for the victims of the Holocaust who died here. There is not much left, only some piles of bricks and some dark dry holes. As our guide was telling us more and more disturbing stories…. I start to feel numb. I would dare to say that visiting Auschwitz brought up in me feelings of disbelief. There is pain, there is injustice, there is cruelty…. but what happened here is so much more than that, something that my brain can’t understand. The numbness I felt wasn’t emotionless, on the contrary, it was too much emotion, too many feelings that I couldn’t process.

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In order for me to write this post I had to watch again some of the movies I mentioned at the beginning. I was ashamed at myself for not feeling more, and I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t as hard as I imagined it to be. My chest is heavy though, at every word I’m writing down, at every photo I’m looking at, at every thought that comes through my mind, at every single page I open to research. Why do the movies have more impact on me, why do they make me feel more than what I did when I was standing next to the cattle carriage prisoners were transported to, at Birkenau? Speaking with a couple of friends who visited before, I realised I am not the only one who is confused about this. It might be because none of us can understand how so many human beings were capable of such atrocities. It might be because most of the signs of the atrocities that took place at Auschwitz have been destroyed. And it might also be because it somehow feels like a very bad story that couldn’t have existed….

“Don’t think of Auschwitz as the only place where people were murdered. There were hundreds of extermination camps like Auschwitz, think of Treblinka, Bełżec, Sobibór, Chełmno. Some of them which were built exclusively as rapid extermination camps.”

Over the length of four years, over 3 million people were executed in the Nazi extermination camps.

I think it’s important to visit Auschwitz and learn the hard truth, feel uncomfortable and let the anger fill our beings. I think it’s important for teenagers to visit as well, to understand what sick minds are capable of doing and to ensure that nothing like this will ever happen again.

 

 

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Traveler. Dreamer. Cat lover. Wondering around the world with my backpack and my camera. Contributing to make the world a better place.

48 Comments

  1. I have never been to Auschwitz and I am not sure I would like to visit the place. We learnt the history of the place and context of WWII. And it reminds us of how far human cruelty can go and how precious peace is. But not sure i’d go on a tour there.

  2. I’m not sure I could ever visit here – just looking at the pictures makes me sick to my stomach. It was such a dark time in the world’s history and it hurts me to think about.

  3. I’ve never been here, but I want to go. I think everyone should go, so we can be reminded what evil truly is. I can’t even imagine what these innocent people went through in there. I have seen some of the movies listed, and I cry each time.

  4. Joanna, this story is so beautifully told. We must never forget what happened. I want to go here with my family so that my children will know what happened. I tried to explain the story of Anne Frank and they were so sad, but couldn’t really understand WHY. I purchased a dvd and am waiting for the right time to show them. It will make a great impact, I’m sure.

  5. Joanna, this story is so beautifully told. We must never forget what happened. I want to go here with my family so that my children will know what happened. I tried to explain the story of Anne Frank and they were so sad, but couldn’t really understand WHY. I purchased a dvd and am waiting for the right time to show them. It will make a great impact, I’m sure..

  6. i have never been there though i know i would find it very interesting yet heartbreaking. I remember when we studied history at high school and i found the Holocaust deeply hard to swallow yet i wanted to know more about it at the same time.

    1. This is so beautifully written. I wish I could have visited it during my trip to Poland. It’s a reminder of dark times but a reminder of how valuable peace is.

  7. I’ve never been to the Auschwitz but i feel it is my duty to visit to pay respect to all the victims that were brutally murdered. Thank you for writing about this.

  8. Wow! I learned a lot reading this post! I love history and I love learning new things. The only thing is history is not alway positive or beautiful. I appreciate how you detail something so ugly so beautifully! This was well written!

  9. I find myself to be an empath, and I think it would be so emotionally overwhelming to visit here. I do love traveling and history though.

  10. It is such a sad reality of what happened here less than 100 years ago. I still find it hard to believe that the world at that time could not do more to save these people.

  11. I don’t think I could ever be brave enough to visit such a place. I’m sure it must have been very emotional and overwhelming for you to be there.

  12. You have written about this topic with so much sensitivity and empathy. I watched Schindler’s List too and know why the movie has an impact. Seeing empty buildings and landmarks have less impact on ones emotions than seeing the suffering of emaciated, starving prisoners with their pain and hopelessness showing in their sunken eyes. It is when we imagine that one day it could be us, and wonder who, if anyone, will come to save us from such a fate, that our hearts break open.

  13. It’s so sad to think of the atrocities that happened in that place not that long ago. It’s a great reminder and something we should always keep in mind to never let it happen again. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Although it is very sad to visit Auschwitz, it is very important to go and see what happen so we don’t repeat the same events again.

  15. Such a great post. I grew up in Poland, and remember going to Auschwitz once with school long time ago. I want to again, as an adult now, even though I know how hard and heartbreaking it will be.

  16. I think I grew up a decade the day I watched Schindler’s list. And it changed my life. I am not a stakeholder in anyway in the immense plight that holocaust caused in Europe, except for being a human. And that astounded me, that humans are capable of such behavior with each other. Lest we forget!

  17. My husband and I have been wanting to visit Auschwitz, but we haven’t made it to Poland yet. Definitely sounds like a moving experience, so hard to comprehend the horror there. I can’t imagine how that tour guide has been working there for so long.

  18. I wold feel heavy in heart if I visited Auschwitz. Never heard about it but just by the fact that it’s a concentration camp and so much ‘torture’ went on there, I would be moved.

  19. I was excited to read you because I always wondered how it feels to visit these places full of memory and suffering. I believe that I will never visit them, but only because I don’t think I have the emotional strength to be able to bear all that I would feel …

  20. Some of my children have been on history trips. I must say I would like to visit, it must be a very sobering experience for anyone who does.

  21. I cannot begin to imagine how it would really feel to visit a place so heavy with sorry and pain. Auschwitz from your time alone is a place that must be remembered for the brave souls who had no choice but to try to survive. It’s a standing tale to remind us that hate solves nothing.

  22. I cannot fathom the kind of energy coursing through that place. So many terrible things happened there and I am positive that it has left a scar on the grounds. I am sure it is a very sobering experience.

  23. Oh my gosh I remember visiting Auschwitz and Dachau and literally having chills just setting foot on the place. It was so heavy and simmering. Great write up! Just Beautiful

  24. I’ve always wanted to visit Auschwitz. So much horror happened there, and I think paying homage to the people who lost their lives by getting a personal look at the horrors of what people can do is the least any of us can do.

  25. You did a great job depicting how it must feel to visit Auschwitz. At first I didn’t know exactly where it was. There is an eerie beauty, a sad calm, a loud darkness.

  26. Ive actually always wanted to go to Auschwitz. But to be honest I think I would also be kind of nervous just being there.

  27. This is somewhere my husband really wants to visit, but I am not so sure. I know it would be just the two of us if we did as I would not want to take the kids

  28. I can only imagine how emotional this tour is just from reading your write up. It must of been an emotional visit for everyone

  29. I can totally relate to your experience as I visited Auschwitz Concentration camp a few years ago. I still remembered the minutes I stepped into the gas chamber, it was so small and a tiny window at the top. Thinking about the innocent Jewish got killed here made me so heartbroken. The shoes and the hair are the other things that make such a great impact on me.

  30. My daughter has read a lot of books on the subject and wants to visit there. We have talked about making a trip, someday, but it is just so far away. An amazing thing to behold in person I am sure.

  31. An excellent post Joanna, and one that really moved me. We were in Poland last winter, and I couldn’t bring myself to visit. I completely agree that it’s important to visit such places and see the darkest side of humanity, but I think I’d be too fragile. Thank you for sharing your experience; maybe I’ll get the courage to visit one day.

  32. This would be an emotional place for me to visit, but somehow, very exciting to see how far we’ve come for such a terrifying place.

  33. Auschwitz is such a place of historical importance and I think you have captured your feelings about your visit well here. It is appalling what went on there but it is so important to remember those poor victims and pay homage to them. Just looking at your photos is getting me emotional.

  34. I have seen a documentary about the Auschwitz story and I can’t believe how dark it was. It’s heartbreaking! Visiting that place is really something to look forward to and definitely interesting. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It feels as though I went there myself. Your pictures were helpful too.

  35. I can feel the tears in my eyes just reading the post and seeing these images. What an emotional journey it must have been to tour through Auschwitz. Thank you for sharing.

  36. I bet this would be so very emotional. I know as a person having German descent this is not one of my favorite parts of history. It is so very heartbreaking.

  37. I don’t know that I could handle going to Auschwitz. Just so terrible and overwhelming. My daughter and I just watched “Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and it was absolutely devastating. It was very well done but so terribly sad.

  38. This post is incredibly timely for me to read as I have a trip to Krakow planned for early June. I still haven’t decided if I’ll go to Auschwitz. I will be checking out the tour company you went with. In regards to how you felt, I think that we often put this pressure on ourselves to feel a certain way in places like these. Just because it wasn’t hard it doesn’t mean it didn’t make an impact on you.

  39. Wow what an experience! I would find it extremely difficult to walk through there myself but its so important to know the history of such horrifying acts. Thank you so much this, I didn’t even know these remains still existed to this day!

  40. I’ve been to a concentration camp in Germany before but haven’t made it to Auschwitz yet. It was definitely a sobering experience. I can’t imagine what Auschwitz must have been like.

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