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