Day Trip from Krakow #2: Auschwitz-Birkenau

I've really hesitated about sharing the other day trip I took from Krakow. There’s nothing cheery or uplifting about this trip, and a bunch of people were surprised that I would go to such a location while on vacation. I hope to share my trip sensitively and respectfully because I can’t write about my time in Poland and leave this bit out. 

It’s one of the reasons I came to Poland in the first place.

I’ve always been interested in WWII history, especially the facets of the war surrounding the Holocaust. When I learned in school about the horrible events that happened, I was intrigued because I had so many questions. How could this happen? How could there be so much evil in one’s heart to do this to another human being? The scale of the operation, the swiftness with which everything was carried out, and the hate behind it just left me questioning how this mass murder of European Jews (along with other minorities) could happen in a blink of an eye.

The way these events played out in my mind when I initially learned about them went like this: Germany was reeling from the heavy loss of WWI, a new party came to power, and as it gained momentum its radical, hateful ideology somehow came out of nowhere and took hold. Now, later on, I’ve realized from my travels in Europe that the discrimination of Jews didn’t just come about in the 1930’s. I've stood in Nuremberg’s main square and enjoyed its famous Christmas market in the shadow of the Frauenkirche. A church that was built from the rubble of the synagogue that stood there, seized and demolished in order to create this square. I’ve been to Prague and have seen the old Jewish cemetery, its tombstones piled up on top of each other because the Jews were contained to a very limited area in the city. I know now that the manifestation of this hatred was a long time in the making - centuries of discrimination built up to the Holocaust.

I had always wanted to visit Auschwitz, the most notorious of the death camps. I think part of me felt like if I could stand on the physical land where some of the horrendous events occurred, I would somehow understand it better. “Understand” is the closest word I can grasp to explain this feeling - maybe more like comprehend and better process just what happened, and to never forget. Then later on in my adult years I learned that almost all of one branch of my family tree perished in the Holocaust. Not likely at Auschwitz but in another camp in Poland. The desire to go only got stronger as I hoped to connect to part of my family I never got the chance to know, to pay my respects in a way, and to remember all whose lives were cut too short.

All of this to say that it was a long time in the making leading up to the morning I finally set foot in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps outside of Krakow. Our tour began in the Auschwitz II-Birkenau side, and then continued on to the buildings of Auschwitz I and the museum on that side.

The grounds of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest of the camps in the Auschwitz complex. An estimated 90% of the victims who were brought to Auschwitz died in this camp - about 1 million people.

It was a beautiful day. The kind of day you would hope to have on any day trip during vacation - warm temperatures, blue skies, abundant sunshine. Except we were visiting Auschwitz. If it didn't already feel surreal, the weather certainly wasn’t helping with making what happened on this land feel more concrete. 

We started touring the grounds. We saw the platform where the trains pulled in and the sorting happened. We saw some of the bunks that were still standing. We went into the edge of the forest where some of the crematoriums had been (they stand partly demolished and some were completely destroyed when the Nazis tried to cover up their operations). I had waited so long to be there and was sure that seeing all this with my own eyes would move me emotionally, yet it all felt so sterile and surreal.

These tracks brought in train car after car of Jews, packed in conditions worse than livestock being transported.

There’s a book that has really impacted me and if you’re interested at all in the Holocaust, I highly recommend it (with a warning for its graphic nature). Rena’s Promise is the account of a young Polish Jewish woman who gets sent to Auschwitz and had made a promise to her parents to look out for her sister. Her story is incredible - she is one of the only known survivors who endured for such a length of time, arriving on one of the first registered convoys to the camps. I will admit, I have an awful memory when it comes to books, (especially for someone who majored in English literature in college!). But the gruesome details of Rena’s account are burned into my memory. That’s how vivid and haunting her story is. With those events playing in the background of my mind, it was hard to imagine how those things happened on the ground I was walking on.

It's so difficult for me to imagine all the people who were forced to sleep on each plank of wood. In the aforementioned book, Rena's Promise, she describes the chilling feeling of waking up to find the body next to her lifeless. Something that didn't just happen once. A situation that certainly happened in this bunk I walked through, once full of flee-bitten, malnourished, suffering victims. 

The main guard tower of Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Afterwards we walked over to the original camp of Auschwitz. It was initially built as military barracks before its later use. If I didn't know any better, I could have thought that I was wandering through a college campus.

Brick buildings of Auschwitz I, which were originally military barracks 

As I mentioned before, Auschwitz I was the first part of the camp to be used and the other two were built subsequently. (Auschwitz II-Birkenau, described above, is where most of the mass murders took place. Auschwitz III- Monowitz was another camp but destroyed by the Nazis in an attempt to cover up their crimes.)

Here we saw some torture chambers and the Black Wall along which victims were shot to death. Auschwitz I is mostly a museum, and we walked room by room learning more about the camps and the horrible conditions prisoners faced. 

I would have thought that if there was a moment to evoke emotion, it would have happened while touring Auschwitz II-Birkenau and seeing the deplorable living conditions and rubble of the gas chambers. That moment did come, but not when I expected it. We visited a room in the museum with the personal effects of the Jewish people, and just like that, all those waited-for emotions welled up inside of me. Huge displays of the shoes, eyeglasses, and even the women’s hair that was cut off lined the rooms. As I looked at all the suitcases, I just lost it. All those owners’ names labeled on their suitcases, property stolen from them, lives taken from them. It’s hard to comprehend the number of people who perished during the Holocaust when you try to wrap your head around the millions who died, but seeing objects that belonged to real people helped to visualize the humanity behind those huge statistics. 

One of the parts of the book Rena’s Promise that has stayed with me vividly is a section when the death march is described. The death march from Auschwitz occurred in January, when the SS marched prisoners from the camp in order to evacuate before the Soviet troops arrived. I can’t even imagine how cold a January in Poland would have felt with little clothing and improper footwear, being forced to walk for miles after being starved for weeks on end. But the part that impacted me wasn’t this march in itself. It was Rena's account of walking the death march and passing through a German town. The townspeople who watched this wretched souls didn’t just observe. They spit on the victims as they passed by.

This moment shows to me the heart of many people who not were only passive to the atrocities that occurred, but had the marks of hatred seeping into their hearts. (And please know that I in no way am saying that all Germans were responsible for what happened in the Holocaust - there is certainly a distinction between the Nazis and German people to be made.) Yet this account reflects what I took away from the visit. It makes me search within myself and investigate my own prejudices. The Holocaust is a tragic part of our past and one we must not forget. Today there are still so many dying needlessly due to discrimination of race, religion, sexual orientation, and the list just goes on. I think a visit to Auschwitz helps one to connect with this horrific scar in human history, pay respects to the innocent lives lost, and should ideally lead to reflection on the root of the evil. When we stop seeing one another as brother and sister and think ourselves better than others is how these atrocities are birthed. 

The infamous sign at the entrance of Auschwitz claims "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Will Set You Free)

Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau
Located on the outskirts of Oświęcim, Poland (see website for more details)
Open daily except January 1, December 25, and Easter Sunday. Opening hours, as listed from the official website, are:
8:00 AM - 3:00 PM December - February
8:00 AM - 4:00 PM March and November
8:00 AM - 5:00 PM April and October
8:00 AM - 6:00 PM May and September
8:00 AM - 7:00 PM June, July, and August
Entry is free - if you want to visit with a tour guide, then there is a fee for the guided visit.

2015 is the 70th anniversary for the liberation of Auschwitz - with a lot more visitors coming, it is recommended by the museum to visit this new website to reserve a space for when you wish to go.


If you want to read a little more about a visit to Auschwitz, I recommend popping over to Slight Astray and reading Anna's thoughts on her visit in her thoughtful blog posts A visit to Auschwitz, Part 1: An introduction and A visit to Auschwitz, Part 2: Behind the barbed wire fence.

Have you ever visited Auschwitz or have been interested in the Holocaust? What do you think can be taken away from such a dark chapter of history?