Auschwitz-Birkenau

This is the part where I write an incredibly detailed, thought-provoking sentence that sends shivers down your spine and transports you there with me, to Auschwitz memorial, to make you feel what I felt as a visitor, experience what I experienced. This is where I paint the picture, set out the scene and make stories with words.

But in reality that’s impossible.

There’s no way you can convey the intense level of emotions one feels stepping off of the bus outside what is arguably the scene of one of the biggest crimes against humanity of all history.

It’s above words. It’s beyond pictures. It’s surreal, but it’s also very very real.

And it’s also something I would encourage each and every person to do at some point in their lives.

But why would I go to a concentration camp on holiday? Isn’t that a bit morbid?

Maybe it is a little morbid and yeah, it’s not your typical day out, but it is SO necessary. Especially with the world’s political situation as it is right now, and with all these crazy decisions being made, we need to remember what can happen when almost unlimited power is put into the wrong hands.

No more than one hour and forty-five minutes from Krakow by bus, it’s actually super accessible. There’s not really any need to book yourself onto an organised tour if you don’t want to. Buses leave from the main bus station in Krakow pretty regularly – just turn up and ask at the ticket counter for Auschwitz and the clerks will point you in the right direction. Alternatively you can check the bus timings online here.

The full name of Auschwitz these days is “Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum” and is set across two different sites, about 3km away from each other – Auschwitz and Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II).

The bus drops you off outside of Auschwitz, the first of the two sites to be built and used for what it was.

Photo of the entrance gate to Auschwitz concentration campInformation taken from one of the plaques inside of the museum:

Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. In the years 1940-1945, the Nazis deported at least 1,300,000 people to Auschwitz:

1,100,000 Jews; 140,000-150,000 Poles; 23,000 Roma (Gypsies); 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war; 25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups.

1,100,000 of these people died in Auschwitz. Approximately 90% of the victims were Jews. The SS murdered the majority of them in the gas chambers.

Those figures don’t even bear thinking about. It’s more than a third of my country’s population. It’s almost twice the population of Washington DC. It’s more than four times the entire population of Belize. It’s unthinkable, it’s unimaginable, but it happened. It happened right there where I was standing.

Auschwitz is cold.

Yes, I visited in sub-zero temperatures in the middle of winter, but it’s a different kind of cold. It’s chilling.

Even inside, in the warmth of some of the heated exhibitions, it was cold. You shiver, your teeth chatter, and no amount of winterwear or jogging on the spot can help with it.

Bizarrely, the set-up of Auschwitz I reminded me of a Butlins-type holiday camp, with its identical buildings equally spaced out in rows. Whereas in the past these buildings were used as pens to keep prisoners and guards alike, or as chambers of torture for evil men to carry out their ‘experiments’, these days they each have their own purpose as a different kind of exhibition.

Some rooms have been kept almost exactly as they were, frozen in time. Others have been converted entirely into memorial exhibits set up by various countries and/or associations.

The first exhibit we entered was in Block 14, entitled “Tragedy. Valour. Liberation” and is considered the “new” Russian exhibition. The original Russian exhibition was a controversial matter and as such was closed to the public for a good few years. At the time, the museum’s administration said “the complex does not agree with the Russian interpretation of history that is portrayed in the display“. I’m not sure what, if anything, has changed between the old and new exhibit, but what I saw was certainly heartbreaking.

According to statistics featured in the exhibit, there were more than 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war at Auschwitz and only 600 walked out alive. Just 600.

The exhibit featured countless stories of Russian people – both victims and survivors of Auschwitz. One was particularly heart-wrenching.

A photo of a boy on arrival at the camp, head shaven, standard Auschwitz ‘uniform’, smiling at the camera.  He looked young, but it was hard to guess his exact age. I’d say not much older than my 9-year old nephew. Underneath his photo was the caption:

Russian boy, last name unknown. Arrived at Auschwitz on 27/11/1942 along with 39 male and 13 female prisoners, delivered by the Gestapo of the town of Opole. His prisoner number was 78174. On 01/03/1943 the boy was killed by an injection of phenol to the heart in block 20.

Connecting the words, the story, to that innocent smiling little face was hard. He was a boy. Just a boy. I don’t have children, and being there, reading this boy’s story along with so many other stories brutal and unnecessary executions of children, I was glad I don’t. I’m not sure I would have been able to cope if I had.

Zinovy Senderovich Tolkachyov arrived at Auschwitz camp in late January of 1945. He wasn’t a prisoner or a soldier. He was an artist. His arrival at the camp came only a few hours after the Red Army entered, signalling the end of the wave of atrocities that had happened on the site. To quote the information provided within the exhibition “Tolkachyov felt that it was his duty to record everything he saw and heard“.

Artist drawings of Auschwitz victims on the walls of Auschwitz exhibition

The walls are lined with his pictures – scenes as he saw them in the camp immediately after the end began. They’re difficult to look at, but to quote the exhibit again “They are not just drawings; they are a unique and priceless historical documentary testimony against the Nazi crimes. His drawings were used as evidence for the prosecution during the Nuremberg trials“.

Moving next door to Block 13, we entered into the “Extermination of European Roma” exhibit. This is dedicated to the Sinti and Roma people who lost their lives, who lost their families, at Auschwitz.

Many Sinti and Roma children whose parents had already been deported to concentration camps were initially put into children’s homes. Their names were centrally recorded. In the end, they were also deported to Auschwitz. Even those Sinti and Roma children who had grown up with “Aryan” adoptive parents were not spared.

There were children – countless children – who first had their parents torn away from them, sent to their death, before starting a new life with a new family, thinking they were safe. But then they were torn away, taken to where their birth parents suffered and were eventually murdered, only to be murdered themselves.

But before being killed, many of the Sinti and Roma people were first sent to the “racial hygiene research unit” of Auschwitz, to play puppets in Josef Mengele’s sick games. He personally murdered many Sinti and Roma people for no reason other than to dissect their bodies.

There were some photos on display in this exhibit, with the caption “Photos taken during medical experiments in the concentration camp of Dachau. The experiments were part of research which had the aim of making seawater drinkable”.

The world managed to turn, humanity managed to thrive, for hundreds and thousands of years without seawater being drinkable. It begs the question why? Were these pointless experiments really worth all that was lost? Is drinkable seawater really more valuable than thousands of innocent people’s lives?

There was one excerpt on the wall – a piece of a letter written from one boy to the children’s home in which he stayed after his parents were taken.

I have found my parents and brothers and sisters again. We are being transported to the concentration camp. My parents don’t know what is in store for us but I do. After a long mental struggle, I have come to terms with having to face death. Thank you once more for everything you’ve done for me…

Robert Renhardt, deported from Catholic children’s home, aged 14

The exhibit was full of screens displaying photos, stories, facts and figures about the Roma and Sinti people of Europe. There were boards dedicated to certain countries – Italy, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Austria, Poland, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, Netherlands.

Other than the so-called “national exhibitions” such as Tragedy. Valour. Liberation and Extermination of European Roma in Blocks 14 and 13 respectively, there are also many permanent exhibitions on-site. These are the ones I mentioned earlier as being almost “frozen in time”.

Barbed wire fencing and barracks at Auschwitz concentration camp

Block 5 is the “Material Evidence of Crime” exhibit and this is the one which made the magnitude of what had gone on there really hit home for me.

Suitcases. Shoes. Eye glasses. Hundreds and hundreds, even thousands of them all. Piled up together, all that’s left of their owners. The eye glasses were almost identical to each other – a sign of the times. The suitcases had people’s names on them. A reminder that the victims of Auschwitz and all concentration camps were people, they had names, they had families and they had belongings. They weren’t just prison numbers, they were people. People who deserve to be remembered.

The most shocking part of Block 5 is the room full of hair. Over 7 tonnes of human hair, shaved from the prisoners to make crude rugs and textiles. It was all there behind a huge glass cabinet. Human hair. Seven tonnes of it.

There are a lot more exhibits in each of the blocks – too many to go into detail, but each and every one of them of utmost importance in remembering the horrors that went on there.

If you follow the route as intended, towards the end of your ‘tour’ of Auschwitz you’ll come to a gas chamber, exactly as it was when Auschwitz was operational.

Visitors can enter the gas chamber. There are signs saying not to use lighters or matches (just in case anyone was stupid enough to try) as there’s no guarantee there are no traces of gas still present in the structure. Walking into the gas chamber, a cold wave hit me. It was a cold like I’d never felt before. Even colder than outside, but not icy. It was a dull cold – chilling – and despite the fact that there were about 30 other visitors in there at the same time chatting away with their guides, there was an eery quiet about the place.

Being there, inside the chamber, it’s impossible to imagine what must have been going through the minds of the thousands upon thousands of people who were murdered there.

On completing the route set out in the guidebooks available to purchase before entering the museum, you’ll end up back at the beginning, at the entrance.

Walking towards the end of the path, this is where you can catch the free shuttle bus to Birkenau, or Auschwitz II.

Train track leading into Auschwitz II Birkenau

Unlike Auschwitz, Birkenau is less of a museum and more a memorial. There are no exhibits here. The shells of structures and barracks are left as they were, with plaques located at each point of interest for you to know exactly what it was. The remains of more gas chambers, more barracks, and more administrative buildings in which began the most terrifying crimes against humanity imaginable – they’re all still there.

Birkenau was built as an extension of Auschwitz in 1941. On visiting the original camp, which was intended to hold up to 30,000 prisoners, Hitler ordered an extension be built with a capacity of up to 100,000.

photo of watchtower at Auschwitz II concentration camp

The sheer size of Birkenau is unbelievable.

When you leave the entrance and walk beyond the “main section” of barracks and gas chambers, there’s an unbelievable amount of open space. Fields and ponds and wooded areas. As I was there during winter, the snow covered everything, making it difficult to tell what was water and what was solid ground. However, one thing in common for several of the wide open areas was these black posts, almost like grave stones.

Photo of memorial stones at Auschwitz II BirkenauAt first we thought they were information placards, which are periodically placed around the camp so you know what you’re looking at. But when we got closer and read the signs – in German, English, Hebrew and another language I didn’t recognised – it became clear what they were.

To the memory of the men, women and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. Here lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace.

It was at that point, after hours of reading the stories and seeing the faces of the victims of Auschwitz, I felt emotionally exhausted. I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry for these people: for the little boy known only as Prisoner No. 78174, for Robert Renhardt and his family, for all 1.1 million people who were murdered, and also for the 200,000 who survived.

Auschwitz is an emotional place.

It’s hard to be there, to look at the faces and read the stories, to stand were so many people stood for the last time, to imagine what life was like for them. It’s hard.

I took very few photos at Auschwitz. It just felt uncomfortable, in a place where so many people were senselessly murdered. This isn’t a tourist attraction. It isn’t a place to take smiling selfies in front of the barracks as I saw so many people doing. It’s a place of reflection. It’s a place to remember, and a place to show respect.

I did take some photos – mostly generic photos of outside the camp, or the words displayed within the exhibits, snippets of information that I wanted to remember for later. But never of the people, never of the victims, and never of their belongings. It’s not the place for that.

Would I go to Auschwitz again?

I’ve read a lot of people’s opinions on this. The general consensus is that while they’re happy that they went to pay their respects, they wouldn’t go again. They don’t need to go again. And while in part I totally agree, I have to say that I would – and I will – go again. I will take my younger sister one day. It’s an incredibly important place in regards to European – and world – history, and though not everybody agrees with my view, I think it’s somewhere we should all visit at least once.

In Birkenau, at the end of the main section of the camp, there is a memorial with plaques in almost every language used by those most affected by the war.

The plaques read:

Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.

Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945

And that’s what it shall be. A warning to humanity. A cry of despair. A place of remembrance.

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36 Comments

  1. 28th February 2017 / 8:12 am

    Chilling recollection. This is somewhere I’d really like to visit myself some day – for the historical importance, particularly now more than ever, as you point out. I think it was a good pick seeing it in the middle of winter. A place like that does not deserve the sunshine.

    • rhiydwi
      28th February 2017 / 11:30 pm

      Absolutely! My friend kept saying to imagine what it must have been like for the prisoners in the winter, but the thing is I could. It’s such a cold place that I could easily imagine it. Imagining it in the sun, with the trees flowering and green grass, however, is just strange.

  2. 28th February 2017 / 10:37 am

    I will most likely be in Krakow this summer and at first was super opposed to going to Auschwitz. I was afraid people were using it as grief-porn and were being disrespectful to their deaths. But you’re right, this can be a very respectful and important experience to have. I think I will go, after reading a few more history books so I can understand the gravity better.
    Have you read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl? He was a Holocaust survivor and was processed through Auschwitz.

    • rhiydwi
      28th February 2017 / 11:28 pm

      I definitely see where you’re coming from. There are some people who go to places like this with wrong intentions (such as the group of idiots I witnessed having a snowball fight at Auschwitz of all places! SO inappropriate) but the majority only want to pay respects, educate themselves and reflect on what happened.
      No I haven’t! I’ll have to look into it; I’ve actually been wanting to read related literature since my visit.

  3. 28th February 2017 / 2:28 pm

    This is such a great post on the subject! And I totally agree with you–everyone should visit a concentration camp. And that’s something people won’t really understand until they actually do it. I visited Dachau outside Munich and it was POWERFUL. Your pictures are appropriate–I visited Dachau on a sunny, beautiful summer day so it was a very strange feeling. I always imagined it cold, gloomy and gray–it’s hard to imagine with the things that went on there that there could ever be sunshine and flowers.

    • rhiydwi
      28th February 2017 / 11:25 pm

      Dachau was mentioned quite frequently in the museum, I think a lot of the prisoners were shuttled between the two.
      I can imagine that must have been odd. At least in the winter everything seemed grey and wilted. The only thing was there are randomly a herd of deer living on the site of Auschwitz II – huge juxtaposition if ever I saw one!

  4. 28th February 2017 / 6:56 pm

    I had no idea there were so many exhibitions depicting and describing the horrendous situations at Auschwitz. I thought it was left in its original state but all those stories and pictures and objects surely make the visit much more chilling. It’s almost impossible to even try to imagine what went on there – let history be a precious lesson.

    • rhiydwi
      28th February 2017 / 11:23 pm

      A lot of it has been kept the same, but as a lot of the blocks were used for the same thing (mainly barracks) I suppose there wasn’t a need for all to be kept as they were, and so came all the exhibitions. It really really is difficult to get a grasp on it.

  5. 28th February 2017 / 8:52 pm

    Even just reading this post, I am getting chills down my spine. I think I’d breakdown when I finally go and see it and yes, it’s high up in my MUST go list but for a very different reason, I just think that as a person – I should go and pay respect to all those who suffered in this place. Good call for not taking a lot of photos, I don’t think I’d be able to take photos as well if I’m there.

    • rhiydwi
      28th February 2017 / 11:20 pm

      100% with you there! We can read about the war and Auschwitz as much as we like, watch all the available cinematic interpretations and think we understand, but I actually don’t think it’s possible to fully comprehend what went on there without visiting.

  6. 1st March 2017 / 1:47 am

    What a touching post. You captured the essence of history and emotion beautifully. We have not visited yet but will and intend to take our children. You are correct.. everyone must see it and we must never forget.

  7. Jean
    1st March 2017 / 2:51 am

    A very well written article on a very delicate subject. As a history nerd I’ve always wanted to go to Aushchwitz and one day will take my niece. Like you with your little sister I believe that this is an extremely important historical site to see. Something that we can no longer pretend did not happen or is no longer relevant to ourselves.

    • rhiydwi
      2nd March 2017 / 10:08 pm

      Absolutely! Even those with no interest in history or the war must go, if only to remember.

  8. 1st March 2017 / 8:13 am

    I visited Auschwitz a few years ago and you have captured the feeling of the place well in your post. I didn’t know about the soviet POWs. I couldn’t remember the numbers of those killed, it’s more than I remember. It is hard to understand how something like this could happen, having said that there are some places crazy enough in the world today that could repeat it again.

    • rhiydwi
      2nd March 2017 / 10:09 pm

      Depending which year you were there it’s likely the Russian exhibit was closed, which may be why you didn’t know about them.
      The numbers are absolutely insane!

  9. 1st March 2017 / 10:43 am

    Having already visited Auschwitz, I can totally emphasize with what you are saying. The entire place has this oppressive, intensely unpleasant feeling that I have never felt before or since and would, quite happily, never experience again. That being said, as you stated, it is important for people not to forget the kind of atrocities that mankind is capable of, now more than ever. I hesitate to say that your photos did it justice as this seems an odd phrase for the site of such evil but certainly, the time of year that you visited and the accompanying bleakness does help to compound the awfulness that occurred there. Great albeit unsettling read.

    • rhiydwi
      2nd March 2017 / 10:10 pm

      Over the years I’ve been to many war memorials and museums and such, and thought the chills and feelings at those were bad enough. But it’s nothing compared to Auschwitz! I totally get what you mean about the photos; it’s almost impossible to imagine the sun shining on a place like that.

  10. 1st March 2017 / 11:46 am

    This was chilling to read. I plan to go without a doubt and take my children there, I think it’s so important as you say. Really well written.

    http://amyevans.blog – Amy

  11. 1st March 2017 / 2:08 pm

    Am really sorry you was not able to read your post to the end. Looking at those painting and reading about Nazi crimes makes my heart filled with sorrows. How can someone murder thousands of children and dissect their body parts for pleasure? 🙁

    Jews population have been reduced to nothing now, there are very handful of them scattered all around the world 🙁

  12. 1st March 2017 / 6:35 pm

    One thing which makes me respect Germans that they tell their future generations of the horrible acts done in the post. I wish more countries can do the same. Great post Rhiydwi.

  13. 1st March 2017 / 7:12 pm

    This is very sad place. When I was visiting it I couldn’t stop the tears. So Much tragedy did happend in my country! It’s good that we get to learn about the history now!

  14. 1st March 2017 / 8:26 pm

    The thing I still struggle to get my head around with Auschwitz, and other concentration camps, is how the ordinary and the extraordinary converge; the barracks in many ways remind me of farm outbuildings, the watch towers a military garrison… and yet behind all those doors, unimaginable horrors took place. I’ve read a fair bit of Holocaust literature – mostly relating to experiences at Buchenwald, and of political prisoners, but I did study one account of Auschwitz in my final year. It was by Charlotte Delbo – the English edition is called ‘None of Us Will Return’ (though it’s more readily available in French) – and was so moving, her style of writing was almost poetic and it really emphasised how Auschwitz cannot be described, or explained, as anything else can be. In a similar vein, I remember seeing people pose for selfies with the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima and thinking it wasn’t really the place for it.

  15. 2nd March 2017 / 12:24 am

    I can attest that the chill exists there on a warm summer day as well. We were silent for much of the time there, and the coldness does not wear off quickly. In fact, your few photos brought it right back. A terrible, terrible place, but I agree that we need to see – mainly in order to truly understand – what man can do to man in his darkest hour.

  16. 2nd March 2017 / 10:00 am

    I does send a chill down the spine! I’e been to the Memorial of Murdered Jews in Berlin and Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam. Once you see these images, its impossible to un-see them!! To me, I can relate your feeling to my emotions towards Bhopal Gas Tragedy that happened in my country, but Holocaust took several more lives! Seeing fellow human departing the world in the worst possible way is just too painful to handle!

  17. 2nd March 2017 / 6:52 pm

    I teared up reading this. Honestly, it has to be said, this is such a respectful and meaningful account of Auschwitz and, as the first post of yours that I’ve read, I’m definitely following your travels for more of this.

    In all honesty, I’d never considered going to Auschwitz before, but after reading this I really want to just to experience the history and pay my respects. It really got to me that a FOURTEEN year old could write such a thing.

    Beautifully written post.

  18. 3rd March 2017 / 1:00 am

    I felt like I was walking the length and breadth of the two camps again. Nothing could approximate the feeling that swept through me as I walked from room to room in those buildings in Auschwitz. The human hair, pigtails, suitcases and personal belongings hit the hardest. You are right. Nothing can even get close to describing the emotions you feel during the time spent there. Birkenau was the more deceiving of the two. The gentle swish of the birches in the backdrop made it so difficult to believe that it was the site where lives were snuffed in masses. Yet there it was. When people say they cannot go through the experience of going to camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau, I do not get it. I guess each to his/her own. But the important thing, as you point out, is not to forget.

  19. 3rd March 2017 / 2:24 am

    I’ve never really thought of visiting a concentration camp while holidaying and now I can see why it is so important after you have pointed it out. Auschwitz has such a history and I think it must be visited to show respect. You have chosen a good time to visit too. Thank you for this post.

  20. 5th March 2017 / 6:35 am

    I had a hard time reading through the post, and always happens to me when I read about this place. But as you say, it’s necessary to know about our past and the perils of giving too much power in the wrong hands. I can only pray that such a genocide never ever happens again. Amen.

  21. 5th March 2017 / 9:21 am

    Woow! That’s really detailed. I almost felt like i’m there right now. I’m gonna visit it for sure one day, to pay my respect to all the people that fell there.

  22. 5th March 2017 / 4:56 pm

    I know it’s impossible to put all these emotions into words, but you did a great job in at least trying to help us all who have not been there imagine the scenes and I actually felt a heavy, aching sensation in my chest just reading through the accounts of your experience. 🙁

  23. 7th March 2017 / 7:33 am

    I remember reading about Auschwitz in my literature class. I don’t think I would have the courage to actually visit there – just too much emotion seeing this tragic piece of history. Thanks for sharing your experience and letting me see through your eyes.

  24. 27th March 2017 / 9:23 am

    Hi Rhiannon,

    I grew up with this chilling history and yet every time I visit a concentration camp, it hits home again, chilling me to my bones. It is usually the photos and stories that upset me the most. The gaunt faces, the empty eyes and the despair are just gut-wrenching.

    I haven’t been to Auschwitz (yet) because just visiting other camps has been incredibly difficult and confronting enough. I want to one day but I think you do need to go with the right mindset and be prepared for an emotional experience.

    Love your photos (in as much as you can “love” concentration camp photos). You’ve captured the chilling atmosphere beautifully. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • rhiydwi
      27th March 2017 / 12:54 pm

      Hi! Auschwitz was the first concentration camp I’ve visited, and I’m sure I’ll eventually visit more but I can only assume that, while others will surely be just as harrowing, they won’t quite come close to Auschwitz, purely because of the colossal size of the place!
      In school they teach us the history and the stories of the camp and the War, but it doesn’t properly hit home until you see their faces. Like you said, the empty eyes and despair are gut-wrenching. Worse for me were the photos on arrival at the camp of kids smiling. I can’t imagine what they thought was going to happen to them! Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

      • 30th March 2017 / 1:42 am

        Yes, I assume that Auschwitz-Birkenau would be the most horrendous and traumatic of all the camps. I think that’s why I haven’t been able to face the thought of visiting it (given how harrowing I’ve found even just Buchenwald, near Weimar / Erfurt, or the labour camp Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, where there’s hardly anything left of the barracks, etc.).

        Oh yes, I can imagine how gut-wrenching it must have been to see photos of smiling children when you knew only too well what lie ahead for them… How awful.

        Were there lots of people taking selfies? Did you just ignore that? I can’t quite comprehend that whole obsession – in general but especially at a place like this.

        • rhiydwi
          30th March 2017 / 5:33 pm

          I haven’t heard of either of the 2 camps you mentioned but will definitely do a bit of research into them shortly.

          Yep, selfies EVERYWHERE! In front of the photos, the camps, the gas chamber, the signs.. everywhere! Somebody was even vlogging, which I found totally bizarre.

          • 3rd April 2017 / 1:26 am

            They’re both in Germany, there were so many camps and some are better known than others. No matter which ones you’ll visit, it’ll be harrowing experience.

            Oow, that sounds just awful to me re the selfies and vlogging (unless you’re doing an “educational vlog”???)…

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