At the top of my list of things to do on a recent trip to Krakow was to visit Auschwitz. I didn't realise at the time but at this year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of prisoners from this concentration camp and I'm struggling to find the words to write about my visit but, just as the journey through the gates of the concentration camp felt like something I needed to do, so is this.
|One of the blocks at Auschwitz surrounded by an electric fence|
The camps are are unique in the sense that the remaining buildings are individual museums dedicated to detailing the history of the Holocaust at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Even before you enter, there is a new memorial display next to the car park telling the story of 18 survivors with a short summary of their life beyond their experience and a photograph of them now (the interviews took place in 2017 and 2018). The camp was divided into three parts and the main tours cover Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II - Birkenau. There is an eerie atmosphere around both camps which I was warned about but nothing prepared me for the way in which I felt the sadness and sorrow inside of me, even before I walked under the gate that says "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" (Work Will Set You Free)
The guided tour is conducted with headphones that are tuned into a microphone held by your guide. The headphones put you into a strange limbo where all your senses are tuned into the experience. The commentary is very softly spoke so even if you take off your headphones, you can't really hear any other noise around you. Everyone is very respectful and only speaks in hushed tones, or is silent and reflective.
|Living and working quarters at Auschwitz|
I'm an emotionally strong person but seeing actual artefacts, personal belongings, photographs and record cards belonging to some of the prisoners hammers home the mindless pointlessness of these totally unnecessary mass killings. Not only that, but also the work that was expected of the prisoners whilst experiencing horrific living conditions, surviving off the minimal food that was supplied.
I took lots of photos during the tour but, somehow, it felt inappropriate to share them at the time on social media and I still can't bring myself to share them all now because you need to be there. But now I truly believe that everyone needs to know more about this and attempt to understand that (a) humans can be more cruel that you would ever imagine and (b) if they are able, humans are strong enough to survive the worst imaginable. Even now, I'm wary of how this blog post is going to be received. Also, I started reading "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" after my visit. It is so well written and I can absolutely picture all the blocks and the walk between the camps and the horrific conditions. It made the book even more emotional than it already was, especially as it is based on a survivor’s true account of his time there.
Would I visit again? I'm not sure. Maybe I would take an unguided tour round which would give me time to reflect on each part of the camps and wander around in my own time.
Note : We booked our visit via a tour shop near our hotel. The price was 125 zł (£25) each. We were picked up by a private driver and taken to Auschwitz where we met other people who had booked through the same tour company - we stayed together as a group for the tour. Once you have toured Auschwitz your driver then transports you the 3.5km to Birkenau where you continue your tour with your group. The whole experience is around 7 hours in total as it takes 1.5 hours to drive from Krakow to Auschwitz. There is also a lot of walking albeit at a very slow pace for most of the time. I clocked up at least 4 miles walking round both camps and the second part of the tour has a long walk from the gates of Birkenau to the memorial at the end of the tracks. Not all areas of the camps are easily accessible as the majority of the displays are in the original blocks which have steps up to the door or have rough flooring and narrow passageways. More information about tours can be found on the official website : http://auschwitz.org/en/ and there are some additional pictures on my Instagram highlight of Krakow.
|The ruins of one of the crematoriums at Birkenau that was blown up in an attempt to destroy evidence when the liberation of the camp was taking place.|
|One of the transportation carriages at Birkenau|