I never made any real plans to visit Auschwitz, but then again we never made any real plans to visit Poland. When I realised how close Krakow is to Oswiecin I mentioned to Rohan I might want to go. We both agreed we couldn’t take the kids, the website recommends above 14 years and it didn’t feel right for us. I wasn’t sure it was the right decision for me to go right up until the tour started but I can say now I would encourage anyone to go if they get the chance.
Because I was going solo I decided I wanted to visit in a tour group, the kind that picks you up, takes you there and brings you home again. I wanted to devote all my energy into absorbing the place and spend zero energy on getting myself there and home again. After doing a bit of research I found out you have to visit with a tour group at this time of year anyway. I did see a few people walking around without a tour group so the rule mustn’t be strictly enforced.
I booked a tour through See Krakow, they had mixed reviews but because I left it until the last minute there wasn’t much of an option. You have to choose the pickup from a list of hotels and apartments in the area, ours wasn’t listed but there was one right around the corner so I just walked to it and the guy was waiting for me. Getting to Aushwitz from Krakow takes about an hour and a half, I shared a minibus with a family with four adults and two kids.
It was hectic after we pulled up into the car park, the company has many bus loads of people that needed to be sorted according to the language they speak. Also they are very strict on what you can take in, nothing larger then an A4 piece of paper, so that meant some more time before we all got in and started. The guides are employed by the Museum and ours was fantastic.
Our tour started at the extermination section of the camp and we were shown photographs of people being brought to the camp for immediate gassing. You are shown where the Jewish people were moved from and how strategic the positioning of Auschwitz within Poland was.
We were then shown hair that was taken from people after they were murdered to be sold for fabric. To give an idea on the scale of the killings, about 7 tonnes of hair was found after Liberation, the hair was mostly from women. There are also shoes, suit cases and everyday household items people brought with them after because they were told by the Nazi’s they would be ‘resettled.” Probably most confronting for me in this section was the children’s clothes and toys.
We then were shown the concentration camp and the prison cells people were kept in. We were told that the trials were used as an excuse to carry out further extermination, with one Judge known to sentence as many as 200 people to death in just 2 hours. The cells themselves were designed to kill, in particular the “dark cell” where they would overcrowd people to cause suffocation.
Prisoners were given approximately 1000 calories a day, for breakfast they would be given a coffee/tea with some stale bread and then forced to work all day. The walls are lined with photographs of the prisoners including the dates they were born and the dates they died, the Nazi’s regularly took photos of the prisoners because the starvation and regular beatings changed their appearance so much.
When visiting the gas chamber you are told to remain silent out of respect. I’m really not sure how anyone could have found the words in there anyway. Out of everything I saw at Auschwitz what I saw in there was not something I will forget.
After that we had a short break before we were taken to the second camp Birkenau which is about a 5 minute drive away.
The tour started at a train carriage used to transport people to Birkenau. The carriage was very small with no windows and one hole for ventilation. Sometimes people were in the carriage for up to 10 days with 100 people inside. If they survived the journey they got off the train and were immediately placed in a line for selection. We were taken on the same path the people selected for immediate killing were taken on as they made there way from the train to the gas chamber.
The gas chambers here are in ruins after the Nazis bombed them in an attempt to hide the evidence of mass extermination. Strategically built as mirror images of each other, they were purposely made to look just like harmless shower blocks complete with flowers planted around the outside.
Significant damage to many of the buildings from a storm in 2010 means visitors can only enter two buildings. The Nazis ran out of bricks when building the camp, bricks they got from destroying the local Polish homes in the area, so some were built out of wood and consequently have since collapsed with just the chimneys remaining.
One of the buildings we entered was for washing, although water was rare and the second building was where women waiting to be gassed were housed. The women here were not given food or given water while they waited to be killed.
The tour finished shortly after that and the whole group walked back to their buses stunned and I think in shock.
I thought a lot about whether taking photos is the right thing to do, and to be honest I’m still not completely sure. On the one hand I feel, when done respectfully, it is important so we never forget what happened. But it can feel wrong, like it’s just a tourist attraction. I guess I settled the conflicting feelings within myself by thinking about why I was taking a photo before I took it.
I feel very lucky for my life after visiting this place.