*Trigger Warning* This post contains pictures and text about Auschwitz.
For our last full day at the AirBnB in Krakow, Abbey and I decided that it would be appropriate to visit Auschwitz concentration camp. While Auschwitz is located in Oświęcim, Poland (which we would later learn is just the Polish translation of Auschwitz from German), it is only about 90 minutes outside of Krakow. We had previously had opportunities to visit concentration camps in both Berlin and Warsaw, but we concluded that since we were going to be so close to Auschwitz it would be the most powerful one to experience.
We woke up relatively early the morning of our visit and walked to Krakow’s main bus terminal in the darkness of the early morning. Our bus departed around 7am and we were at Auschwitz by 8:30. We booked one of the longer English tours which started at 9am and lasted until 3pm. Auschwitz is actually made up of three different camps; Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III. The first half of our tour was at Auschwitz I and the second half was at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. We did not visit Auschwitz III because not much remains of it.
We were put in a relatively small group of about ten people. We were required to wear a headset so that our tour guide could communicate with us via her microphone. Even though we were a small group, the headsets were necessary so that our guide could speak quietly in the buildings and we would still be able to hear. I appreciated this addition because we could visit the buildings without the distraction of chatter everywhere. Silence lets you take in more of what surrounds you.
The tour started out at the entry gate to Auschwitz I. The top of the gate read the infamous phrase “Work will set you free” (translated from German) and rail tracks ran parallel to the gate. Our guide told us that Auschwitz I was very small compared to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, but that we are spending half the tour there because it is the best preserved sections. After stepping through the gate you could tell that it was a relatively small space, which was surprising to me because I always associated Auschwitz with being a massive concentration camp. All of the buildings looked more or less the same with a rectangular shape and brick exterior. They were tightly packed together in a simple grid formation. I believe in total there were less than 30 buildings.
We did not visit all of the buildings, but the ones we did go into contained powerful exhibits. Some of the more memorable and disturbing buildings we saw were the extremely small sleeping quarters (10 people to a bed, if they even had one), the dehumanizing restrooms, ad the windowless prison cells. Some buildings had simple exhibits that contained prisoner’s possessions that were confiscated upon arrival. These collections consisted of a pile of luggage, a large bundle of entangled glasses, a mountain of hair stretching the length of a wall, piles of clothes, and large piles of shoes stretching the perimeter of a room. For me, the most disturbing exhibit was the pile of human hair that was shaved from the prisoners’ heads when they arrived.
After seeing a few of the buildings I realized that this was unlike any museum I had ever seen before. The walls weren’t covered in detailed information, maps, models, or recreations. This was real. There didn’t need to be a long explanation for what was in front of you. You knew what you were seeing and what it signified for the people who were subjected to this place. The only exhibits that were drastically changed from their original state were a building telling the stories of Jewish prisoners. In this building there were many videos, maps, and lights. There was also a “book of names” which aims to list the names of all the Jewish people who were taken to Auschwitz. It wasn’t so much a book per say but rather a row of large vertical pages you could flip through.
Additionally, we also saw sights of Auschwitz outside of the main buildings. Between two barrack buildings was a normal-looking wall, but it turns out this wall was where victims of the SS shooting squad stood before being executed. There were also gallows and gas chambers that we were allowed to view. Perhaps the most disturbing outdoor sight was the small space between the two walls surrounding the camp which had been stuffed full of live bodies left to die.
This drew the first half of our tour to an end. There was a small cafe at the entrance where Abbey and I grabbed a quick lunch (although I don’t believe either of us were very hungry after seeing everything). After our short break, the tour group piled in a bus to take a quick ride to Auschwitz II-Birkenau for the second leg of the tour.
Upon arrival you could immediately tell that Auschwitz II-Birkenau was much different than Auschwitz I. It was massive and many of the structures had been damaged or completely demolished. The front gate was much bigger and the railway tracks ran perpendicular to it, leading directly to the inside of the camp. For me at least, this is what I imagined in my head when I thought of Auschwitz. Not long after we arrived the weather began to worse and a steady rain set in. The atmosphere seemed appropriate for where we were.
We walked along the railway tracks while our guide spoke to us about arrivals to the camp by train. A lot of people were immediately sent to execution upon exiting the train. Our guide made the insightful point that many prisoners spent less than hour here before dying, which was a third of the amount of time we would be at the camp. We turned from the tracks and walked past the hundreds of meters of barracks. We entered a few of the barracks which were much different than what we saw at Auschwitz I. These felt less like enclosed buildings and more like stables or barns.
As the rain continued to fall we gradually made our way to the woods in the back of the camp. Here we saw the sight of mass body burnings and executions. This was also where our guide told us about a failed uprising that resulted in the death of hundreds of prisoners. Following our time in the woods we began to slowly head back towards the front of the camp while stopping in various barracks along the way.
There really isn’t much more to say about Auschwitz II-Birkenau. It is exactly as you would expect, but it feels completely different to actually see the relatively untouched sights firsthand. If possible, everyone should make the effort to see what a sobering experience it is. Our last stop was to climb the guard tower at entrance so we could see the camp from the point of view of the SS guards. It was an uncomfortable yet interesting experience to view Auschwitz as the guards once did.
Following this we got in a bus that took us back to Auschwitz I. Here we transferred to a different bus which took us back to Krakow as the sun setting for our last night in the city.
There’s a certain kind of sobriety that falls over you as you disembark the bus as you arrive at Auschwitz. It was immediately noted that we were arriving on our own volition and knew we were leaving later that day – neither of those options were given to the victims of the concentration camps. The skies were gray and the air was cold and heavy with impending rain the day that we visited the infamous concentration camp.
We were at Auschwitz mere days after the 73rd commemoration of Liberation Day (also known as International Holocaust Remembrance Day). I do wish we had planned our visit out a bit better to have visited on such a momentous anniversary, but I think the visit was memorable all the same. When we were looking at the confiscated items it was, of course, very shocking. What really shook me were the baby shoes.
Whenever I pass a display of baby shoes I always point them out and am amazed with just how small they are.
When I was looking at the display of shoes at Auschwitz I was distraught with just how small the baby shoes were.
There was a lot to take in during the 6 hours we were there. I left feeling numb and incredibly thankful. It was horrendous to walk the paths, see the sites, and hear about the atrocities done to the victims at Auschwitz. After that experience, it was hard not to be thankful for everything in my life. Taking a trip to Auschwitz is a sobering experience that I urge anyone to try to do once in their lives. It helps put a lot of things into perspective, something that I think everyone could use.