Destination: Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland

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Train tracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau (April 2017).

During my stay in Krakow (more on it later), I made a couple of day trips to nearby places in southern Poland. One of them was the Auschwitz concentration camp, which is where millions of people– Jews, vagabonds, criminals, homosexuals– were persecuted and killed during World War II.

To say that my visit to Auschwitz was “great” wouldn’t be the ideal description to reflect the place and what it represents. After all, people were tortured, starved, and ultimately killed under the Nazis, so to write that I “enjoyed” my time in Auschwitz would be rather strange to write home about.

I suppose, then, that *more-appropriate* adjectives to describe Auschwitz are “heavy,” “depressing,” “educational.” It was very interesting to set foot on the site I’d learned about throughout my primary and secondary schooling in history class. Reading about it wasn’t the most joyous experience, to say the least, but to be at the actual place, breathing the same air that those persecuted seventy years ago, made it all too visceral.

Getting to Auschwitz wasn’t difficult, for there were public buses running every half-hour from the main bus station in Krakow (adjacent to the train station). While I could’ve opted for an organized tour with my hostel, I actually decided to go on my own, having read up a bit about how to visit independently and for cheap. I reserved my ticket online about a month beforehand, and it was actually free: during peak season starting in April, visitors can enter Auschwitz on their own if they have a timed ticket, which allows entrance before 10h00 and after 15h00- otherwise, it’s required to book a tour. I set the ticket for 9h00, so I ended up only paying for the bus to and from Krakow (about 28 zloty, or 7 euros round-trip). It was about a 90-minute ride, and at 8h40, I arrived in front of Auschwitz I.

Before going, I’d expected that tears would be shed on-site, and I’d mentally prepared myself for them. Strangely, though, it didn’t happen when I was at the actual site: aside from one moment that I had a lump in my throat at the Netherlands exhibition (read about children getting separated from their parents, then shot when they tried to jump out of the train to escape), the rest of the time I was completely numbed. Going from exhibit to exhibit and reading the same words over and over (“tortured,” “executed,” “gas chambers,” “extermination”), it was a lot to take in.

Perhaps, however, my numbness was either a defense mechanism to prevent emotions from taking over, or that I was just desensitized to all of the egregious information I was reading. Either way, it terrified me, because I felt that my passivity reflected that of the people during the Holocaust who did nothing to help those persecuted from escaping the Nazis. It’s a dangerous mindset, and really, things would’ve been so much different if people weren’t passive to begin with. Kind of reminded me of today with all of the crazy things going on in politics and society, but I’m not going to get into those in this post (it could take pages).

In any case, I spent the morning visiting Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp where people were sent or transferred from other camps to work to death and/or otherwise die. After passing under the well-known “Arbeit macht Frei” gate (ironical in its translation “Work sets you free”), I arrived at the barracks which once housed the persecuted. Some of them have been converted to exhibitions of different countries who’d been ruled under Nazi Germany, and it surprised me to discover that so many of the European countries were taken over: Poland, Belgium, France, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and the list goes on. The exhibitions had plaques on which I read up on the history of the respective country, and how it came to be under Nazi rule. It also described how the Jews and other “degenerates” were rounded up, which all appeared to be the same, tragic fate. Again, very heavy stuff.

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Passing under the “Arbeit macht Frei” gate.

Along with the plaques, I also saw plenty of photographs and relics from the victims. Shocking and disturbing, to say the least. There were images of emaciated bodies and defeated faces, along with “doctor’s notes” from Dr. Josef Mengele (who killed patients through his “experiments”) and leftover clothes from those who died, including the famous pile of shoes contained behind a massive glass case. If reading about it weren’t bad enough, then seeing the actual evidence in front of my eyes was even more tragic.

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Very true.
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Pile of shoes.
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Site where victims were publicly executed.

Finishing up my visit of Auschwitz I around noon, I exited the camp and sat outside for a quick lunch break before taking the free shuttle over to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, located about 2 to 3 kilometers away and is basically an extension of Auschwitz I after the original site couldn’t contain the massive influx of prisoners in the early 1940’s. It’s where the appropriately-named “Gate of Death” is situated, and where its now-defunct train tracks brought in hundreds, if not thousands, of victims every day. From the dreary rain earlier that morning, the camp ground was uncomfortably soggy, with plenty of mud and dirt that I could imagine would’ve been terrible for the victims to walk through, especially with the inadequate uniform and shoes they were forced to wear. It was also super windy and rather cold, and I could also envision the harsh conditions that the prisoners had to go through, from the unbearable winter freeze to the intolerantly hot summers. What a horrible place to have lived in.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau is much larger than Auschwitz I, with acres of barracks and empty space where gas chambers used to be (many of which were destroyed after the war, as means of covering up any evidence of what had happened). Also toured a couple of barracks with the original bunk beds, often fitting three people to one (and the unfortunate soul having to sleep on the very bottom in the dust and dirt).

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Bunk beds at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

I completed my visit at Auschwitz II-Birkenau around 15h00, as well as with my day to Auschwitz. Caught the shuttle back to Auschwitz I where I got the 15h30 bus back to Krakow, returning around 17h00. I was drained, physically and mentally, but all the same felt grateful to have made the visit.

Respect was all I felt while in Auschwitz, for those who had died, unnecessarily so, because of their religion, their ethnicity, or their sexual orientation. I couldn’t help but be critical of visitors that day who weren’t being respectful of the site, some of them not even realizing that they were being disrespectful. For instance, I saw a boy, around ten years old, complain to his mother that he was “tired” and “wanted to sit down” in the middle of a tour, and he was being very whiny about it. I can understand that being on your feet all day is tiring, but to make a loud fuss about it while touring is super rude. I also saw another child (no more than five years old) at Auschwitz II-Birkenau running around and at one point threw a stick into a ditch along the train tracks while his mother looked on.

Both of these instances irritated me: even though I know that they’re children and that it can be difficult for them to hold up on tours, it surprised me that they were allowed into the site in the first place. I’d read online that Auschwitz isn’t recommended for children under 14 years to visit, just because of some disturbing images and history, and I would think that they shouldn’t be allowed to visit because of that, along with the fact that they’re too young to understand the significance of it, let alone appreciate it.

I also saw an adult woman when I was at the “Arbeit macht Frei” gate posing for a photo, with a big smile on her face. I’d heard about these things happening, of people taking smiley photos at memorials and sites that aren’t really meant to be happy places to be at. Such photos have been dubbed “Yolocaust,” and it was so surprising to actually see it in real life.

Any case, that was me just ranting about the little, not-so-great instances while visiting Auschwitz. Aside from that, I found it to be a worthwhile day trip, and it’s definitely a place to visit when in Poland.

A *more light-hearted* post to come soon. Next: Zakopane, Poland!

— Rebecca

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