A visit here gives a glimpse into the horrendous suffering endured by Holocaust victims.
(Note: this was not an easy article to write, because of the subject matter—and may not be easy to read. Nor was it easy/possible to choose just a few pictures. So, over the weekend, I plan to make a page with another selection of pictures, and I’ll give the link later).
For centuries the town of Oswieçim 75km west of Krakow was a quiet community, largely bypassed by world events. That is, until WWII. Under German occupation its name was changed to Auschwitz and it was the chosen site of the largest death camp in the Third Reich: between 1.1 and 1.5 million people were exterminated here. Around the world, Auschwitz has become the symbol of terror and genocide.
Most visitors to Poland and Krakow have to face the decision as to whether they will visit Auschwitz or not, many having all kinds of reasons why they shouldn’t/couldn’t/don’t need to. All of these reasons are probably true. I doubt there are many people who actually “want” to visit Auschwitz but, for us and other people we’ve spoken to, until you’ve actually visited this place you don’t get a complete picture of what it really was. The atmosphere is overwhelming, suffocating, somber beyond belief. It’s hard to fathom the horrendous injustice inflicted on those innocent lives during the Holocaust, but we are glad we went. It gave a visual frame of reference for all the stories we’ve read. No matter how much you know on the subject, the perspective gained by visiting and seeing with your own eyes is incomparable.
The Auschwitz Museum was established in 1947 on the actual site, and was recognized by UNESCO in 1979. The Auschwitz Museum and tour present one of the most horrific acts in human history in a professional and reasonably tactful way. We come away realizing this is a site of human concern, not just Jewish concern, Polish concern, German concern, minorities concern, or gypsy concern. The recent 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation on January 27th 2015 was commemorated internationally, highlighting this fact.
The best way to visit Auschwitz is with a tour I think, and Krakow has many tour companies to choose from. The Auschwitz Museum can be chaotic and confusing, with huge crowds milling around at the entrance (especially during peak summer season), conflicting information, multiple ticket windows etc. During the season, everyone has to take a guided tour with a licensed Auschwitz guide, offered in many languages. Everyone gets headphones, so you can hear your tour guide. Our guide was Ewelena, and she was excellent, explaining and interpreting so much that we would not have been able to do on our own. As we followed Ewelena, we listened to stories of tragedy, but also of small triumphs, soaking in as much history as we could.
The Krakow tour bus drops you off at Auschwitz I, where you join the guided group, for a roughly 2-hour tour. After a short break you catch another bus that takes you to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where the same guide takes you around for about 1.5 hours. That bus takes you back to Auschwitz I, where you can find your tour bus back to Krakow. At Auschwitz I there are restrooms, a café and restaurant, but only restrooms at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
While you wait for your guided tour, there are many information boards outside. They list names and numbers, total death counts, names of some who managed to escape. The first prisoners here were Poles, then came Soviets and gypsies, and Jewish people from many countries. From 1942, Auschwitz became the setting for the most massive murder campaign in history, when the Nazis put into practice their plan to destroy the Jewish population in Europe.
The tour of Auschwitz I begins by passing underneath a replica of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free) entrance gate, past the kitchens where the camp orchestra played as prisoners marched to work. All around are electrified barbed-wire fences, a constant chilling reminder of what this place is. The tour then goes through many different barrack buildings, called Blocks. Each Block has a different exhibit theme, describing the events during that time. There are many information boards—all in Polish, English, and Hebrew. Some have statistics of the numbers of people, from which countries, which groups etc. Some are of blown-up black and white photos, mostly taken by the Nazis, all of them telling a harrowing story.
Block 4 gives an overview of the creation and reality of this concentration camp, including extermination information and details (sometimes more than we might “want” to see). In Block 5, titled “Material Proof of Crimes”, some rooms are packed to the brim with personal belongings of the prisoners, confiscated on arrival by the Nazis. Mounds of shoes, clothes, eye glasses, prosthetics, brushes and shaving kits, dishware, luggage chalked with the name of the owner, children’s clothing and toys, among others—thousands of items that evidenced the complete dehumanization of the camp’s inhabitants. Block 6 illustrates the daily life of the prisoners and the walls are lined with countless pictures of prisoners in striped clothing, with name, birth date, profession and death date. The next set of barracks recreates the living conditions—one-word summary: awful.
Block 11 (the Death Block”) is the hardest one to visit in Auschwitz I. In the cellars, the Nazis conducted their first experiments with poison gas in 1941 on Soviet prisoners. Some of the barracks here detail the suffering of specific nations. The end point is the worst: the gruesome gas chamber and crematoria, whose two furnaces could burn 350 bodies a day.
It’s haunting, heart-wrenching, unimaginable.
Auschwitz II–Birkenau is larger, built almost exclusively for the purpose of extermination. Added in 1942, it contained 300 barracks and buildings and was the biggest and most savage of all Nazi death camps. Here the sheer size, scope and solitude make an enormous impact, even though little remains that’s actually standing. When the Soviets were advancing towards the end of WWII, the Nazis tried to hide all traces of their crimes and dynamited or dismantled gas chambers and many of the living quarters; burned many documents; and evacuated thousands of people. You can see acres and acres of just posts and foundations behind and between the stark barbed-wire fences.
You first notice the purpose-built train tracks leading directly into the camp, with one lone cattle car today. Notoriously, 50-90 people were brought in on a single cattle car. At the far end of the camp, past the end of the train track, you see the mangled remains of the crematoria, plus a monument erected in 1967. So many people were cremated here that there is still a layer of ash in places, so the whole site is a hallowed place, and we have to remember we are walking on a massive open cemetery. A chilling, unbelievable concept. Close to the ruins of the crematoria remains are 4 small memorial stones. One reads “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”.
This is not a “nice” tourist visit, but an essential one if you are trying to understand the history of the time. A true understanding of the scope of WWII is incomplete without including the Nazi genocide. WWII and all it entailed affected an entire generation of our parents and grandparents, and the ripples from this will be felt for many more generations in many countries. It’s our responsibility as caring citizens of the world to commemorate historical tragedies, in an effort not to forget and not to repeat.
We are stimulated now to find out more about some of the survivors and learn their stories, such as Elie Wiesel.