Auschwitz – Birkenau. A Day Trip From Krakow Everyone Should Take.

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana. 

I could never call Auschwitz-Birkenau a ‘highlight’ of Europe. It is distressing, it is horrific, it is disturbing. It is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, it is a museum, it is the resting place of an estimated 1.1 million people, murdered. It is, however, something  I would recommend all people see if you get a chance.

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Auschwitz was the Nazi answer to the Jewish question. I’m not going to go into the how and why or the history and minute details of what happened at this memorial, plenty of scholars and some of the few survivors have written about it, I only want to tell you about my experience visiting. I’m not going to post pictures of the remains of the gas chambers. I am not going to post pictures of the empty gas canisters used to kill people. I am not going to post pictures of the collected victims suitcases, their eyeglasses or their hair. And you will certainly not see a selfie of myself anywhere at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Auschwitz I

I’d booked this day tour from Krakow and was picked up at 8am from my hotel. After our tour guide explained the 70 kilometre journey would take about 1 hour, she played a documentary about the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz. Suddenly the jovial ‘I’m a tourist on a sightseeing day trip‘ feeling took a darker turn and the reality of where I was going started to sink it. I am visiting Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp and Auschwitz II- Birkenau, a concentration and extermination camp. Yes, extermination.

Arbeit Macht Frei – Work Sets You Free

The first stop was Auschwitz I where the infamous ARBEIT MACHT FREI (Work Sets You Free) ironwork is emblazoned across the entry gates like most of Nazi concentrations camps operating in Europe at the time. Auschwitz I, a former Polish Army barracks, near the town of Oświęcim in southern Poland received its first inmates in May 1940. The guide explained how it was rebuilt and after liberation in 1945, was reopened as a museum in 1955. Of course in a group sightseeing trip there is always one, that one loud person who asks dumb questions.

“So, did the Nazi’s have this until 1955?”. 

The guide explained the liberation again.

We start by walking through several buildings, some of the former barracks with set ups of how those first prisoners were kept in the early days of the camp and the offices of those in charge. It felt almost normal for a prison of it’s day until you start to learn the reasons for these peoples imprisonment. Polish political, Polish resistance, local Jewish or Gypsy prisoners.

Soon, we find ourselves in a barracks where the walls are adorned with the very early prisoners of the camp. I can’t help but study some of the faces, their names, I’m stunned at their young ages and I can’t help but wonder what they were like, what family they had, if they survived. It was like turning the pages of a book over and over again without reading a story, yet there would have been a story behind each of the photos.

Our group re-boarded the bus and take the 5 minute ride over to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Everyone is quiet. Auschwitz II – Birkenau is where some of the more horrendous crimes took place and those selections upon arrival. We walk from the parking lot along the railway tracks, the tracks where so many would have made their last journey,  I get a chill down my spine. We walk past a carriage, one carriage that would have brought over a hundred people to the camp, to their fate.

We visit the remains of the gas chambers and the lake where most of the victims ashes were spread. It’s almost a surreal and ethereal moment, broken by some people with selfie sticks talking pictures of themselves. I felt so saddened at that moment. From here we headed to some of the wooden barracks. Inside they are damp and dark and I think of how putrid it must have been with over a thousand unkempt and broken people crowded inside. There is a small wood fired stove which I imagine in winter would only slightly warm the hut from near freezing. We learned how they work from dawn to dusk and the daily calorie intake for the prisoners was 200 kilojoules when the minimum is 300 kilojoules for a human to sustain life. Then came another question.

“So, if they wanted them to work why didn’t they feed them enough?”

The guide explained, this was a not only a death camp but they had new able bodied arrivals everyday.

Auschwitz II – Birkenau

I’m feeling thankful that I am only here for a day as a visitor and no members of my family had to endure such horrors. I am feeling thankful I have leant more about this place and its history. As we neared the end of the tour the guide asked if we had any questions. There came one final question from our friend.

“You’ve mentioned the Jews, the Gypsies and the political prisoners, what about the homosexuals?”

My ears pricked up, I was really interested in the guides answer.

“There were no homosexuals in Europe at the time”…….

I walked back to the bus, turning back several times to look at the camp almost overcome with emotion. Maybe questioning isn’t always dumb, maybe some answers are.

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana. 

FreakyFlier paid for his tour independently.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Hyfee says:

    Interesting but sad.

  2. Great post FF and yes no selfies there (honestly what were those people thinking?).

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