On your list of unmissable things to do in Krakow, I urge you not to leave out the tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi German concentration and death camp. It is an emotional day seeing this dark chapter in our history first hand but there are so many reasons why we should visit Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Basic facts of Auschwitz and Birkenau
In the years of 1939-1945, the Nazis deported at least 1.3 million people to Auschwitz, of which 1.1 million were Jews and the rest were either Poles, Roma gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war or prisoners from other ethnic groups. The shocking truth is approximately 1.1 million people died in Auschwitz, approximately 90% of them were Jews, the majority were murdered by the SS in gas chambers.
Haunting visit to Auschwitz I
Once all guests were collected from their hotels, ‘The liberation of Auschwitz’ film was played which was footage by Vorontzov, a Soviet cameraman who documented events throughout the war but he was not prepared for what he found at Auschwitz. This video in itself was shocking and the emotional mood was set for the day ahead.
Beginning at Auschwitz, we walked underneath the infamous signage “ARBEIT MACH FREIT” meaning ‘Work will set you free’. How wrong can this statement be?
We were led through Blocks 1-10 where women were housed, some were kept upstairs, injected with Typhus and used for medical experimentation conducted by Josef Mengele. The scale of the Extermination plan becomes apparent as the museum shows piles and piles of shoes (15-16 million pairs of shoes were found in the ledgers), personal belongings and human hair which was used to make felt for socks given to the forces in the submarines A total of 293 sacks of human hair was found at Auschwitz. Just shocking!
Sounds strange but Auschwitz isn’t a bad looking place if you ignore the barbed wire and high fences. It has tree-lined streets and little bricks buildings which isn’t what I was expecting which is probably owing to the fact that Auschwitz began its history before the German Occupation as a Polish military barracks.
The harsh reality is there is nothing lovely about it. You are shown the living conditions were not the best, some were given better rooms as they had responsibilities to watch over prisoners. The torture chambers were horrific. One cell is now a shrine to Father Kolbe who is hailed as a martyr. When the Nazi guards selected 10 people to be starved to death in punishment, Kolbe volunteered to die in place of a stranger. He survived 2 weeks in the cell but was finished off with a lethal injection.
Between blocks 10 and 11, you will find the Death Wall where prisoners were shot against the purpose-built wall so the bullets didn’t ricochet. This was punishment for political prisoners or those who were charged of offences such as attempting to escape or sabotage in the Auschwitz factories.
The final part of Auschwitz I was the Death Block where people were gassed. Quite rightly so, no photos are allowed here to show respect to those that perished in such an inhumane way. I felt a bit numb in there, it seems unfathomable to think how each and every person must have been feeling. You are shown the ovens where the bodies were cremated, additional ovens were added to be able to keep up with the number of deaths.
I left Auschwitz feeling numb, shocked, disgusted, horrified… so many words to describe the emotions but it was time to catch your thoughts and head to the horrors of Birkenau, Auschwitz II.
Chilling experience of Birkenau
We were transported by bus to the Birkinau camp where we saw the iconic and horrific view of the train tracks, this immediately sent chills down my spine. The sheer enormity of this operation is mind-blowing. This place was far bigger than Auschwitz I, the scale of death becomes apparent.
Transports of Jews deported to Auschwitz arrived at the special railway ramp at Birkinau. Two queues were formed, men in one, women and children in the other. SS doctors carried out a selection process of each deportee taking a few seconds to decide if you were fit for work – only 25% made it. To avoid panic, the rest were assured they were going to shower, so they were led naked to their death in the gas chambers where fake shower heads were fixed to the ceiling. Pregnant women or women holding children were not desirable but sometimes whole trainloads went straight to the gas chamber without any selection process.
For those that made it through the selection process, they were not blessed by any means. The living conditions here were even more primitive, the barracks were originally built to be stables, some with no proper floor, just straw. People slept 6 or more to a bunk, some without mattresses. Most could only last up to 3 months in these conditions, the deportees became emaciated and were no good for work, they were led to their death and replaced with new deportees. These barracks were just a place to exist until you were sent to death, the Nazis’ would not enter these barracks as disease was rife.
There were 4 crematoriums at Birkenau which have been destroyed with dynamite by the fleeing Nazis as they abandoned the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. Krema II was 210 square metres in size and is still partially intact. Mass murder was made much more efficient at Birkenau but the Nazi’s struggled to dispose of the bodies and the evidence.
As I stood here in -6 degrees in more layers than I wore to summit Kilimanjaro and still cold, I could not get the awful vision of the children out of my head that were ordered to stand from dusk until dawn in the snow with no shoes on, the severe frostbite caused irreparable damage.
So why should we visit Auschwitz?
Following the liberation, some of the survivors went back to Auschwitz-Birkenau and agreed that it should be turned into a museum to tell the world what atrocities happened there, this opened in 1947 to the public.
I learnt all about the WWII period of history at school and found it shocking and interesting at the same time, especially considering it was fairly recent. However, going to visit the sites of Auschwitz was a harsh wake-up call and nothing that any schoolbook can teach you.
Whilst I have no family links that were affected by the concentration camps, the emotions I felt walking round the camps is one of disbelief and disgust, in fact, sick to the stomach and welled up constantly throughout the day as the stories unfolded… how was it actually possible that this Nazi regime was allowed to nearly wipe out a whole race. The Nazi operation ‘The Last Solution’ was barbaric on an unimaginable scale. Whilst this is a form of dark tourism, it’s different than visiting Chernobyl as that was an accident, the Holocaust was an act of pure evil.
I was interested to discover some of my friends said they could never go through with visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some people have told me that they wanted to visit the camps for personal reasons as family were imprisoned there and some have vowed never to enter the sites as it is just too painful. Some have told me that they have visited twice as they couldn’t take in the information the first time. I was horrified to see some people making light of it and taking selfies in the most inappropriate places, if this is you, I strongly recommend you do not go, it is massively disrespectful and you clearly do not feel the severity of what happened there.
I truly believe that we have a moral duty to educate the all generations, current and those to come, about the atrocities of Auschwitz – this racism on a grand scale is NOT OK and we need to ensure there is never a repeat of this. The roller coaster of emotions I had whilst visiting Auschwitz-Birkinau concentration camps is something that will never leave me.
Do comment below your thoughts on whether we should visit Auschwitz-Birkinau. Have you visited? If so, how did you feel? If you haven’t been, would you avoid at all costs? Or would be interested to go?
Auschwitz tour – the essentials
When to visit
The tours run all year round, but bear in mind the Birkinau part of the tour is all outside and the weather in Poland will be minus degrees then.
Organised tours from Krakow
I would recommend using Krakow Shuttle, I found them through Get My Guide. They were on time collecting from the hotel in Krakow at 8.30am, super organised throughout the day and supplied a packed lunch on the way to the Salt mine. The bus dropped us back at the hotel around 5.30pm.
Making your own way to Auschwitz
Take a bus from Dworzec MDA (MDA Station) just behind the Main Railway Station of Krakow, to Oswiecim. The bus stop in Auschwitz is about 10 minutes walk to the museum. There is a free shuttle bus to the Birkinau complex.