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
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.
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…
“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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Disclaimer: Some of the links on this website are “affiliate links.” This means that if you click on the link and do a purchase, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost for you. This helps me keep my website running and continue to share my traveling knowledge with you. I thank you for booking your flights or hotels using the links on my website. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.