Even darker bits of history

After our day near the mountains, we were set on getting face to face with one of the darkest time of European history and visiting the concentration camp of Auschwitz (Oświeçim in Polish). Like everybody we had heard and learned a lot about the labour, concentration and death camps of the Nazis but we could not go to Poland without visiting this major site. Of course it is not enjoyable but from an educational point we highly recommend it.

We stayed on the grounds of the Auschwitz prayer and dialogue centre about 500m away from the museum entrance. It cost us 79 Złoty which isn’t cheap but the place was nice and quiet, had all facilities in great condition and free wifi in the reception area. Campers can also stay on the museum car park (about 40 Złoty plus 10 for electricity which we had included) but toilets are only available in a restaurant.

We got up early and were the 5th and 6th people (Ted didn’t need to see this) in the ticket queue at 7am not because we were keen, but because we were worried about getting tickets and a guided tour. The museum opens at 7:30 and some tickets are sold online and some on the day. Our tour was at 10.30 which left us with just under 3 hours of free time. Entrance to the museum is free but guided tours cost 45 Złoty. The tour covers both Auschwitz I and II (Auschwitz-Birkenau). The camps are 3km apart and connected by a free shuttle service. Auschwitz III (Monowitz) has been razed and nothing remains.

Entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau

We very strongly recommend arriving there as early as possible to avoid being trampled by hundreds of tour groups after 10am. About half of the 20 blocks in Auschwitz I contain exhibitions about different aspects of the camp, the organisation behind the ‘final solution of the jewish question’ and the fate of jews and roma from different countries. Due to the number of people and lack of time you only get to see a few of them on the tours. The items displayed try to illustrate the fact that the Nazi transported 1.3 million people to the camps (90% of them jews). Around 1.1 million of them did not survive.

Visitors can see about 80,000 shoes, almost 2 tonnes of human hair (destined to be sold for the manufacturing of fabric by Hugo Boss among others, as our guide openly told us) as well as huge piles of combs, brushes and crockery people brought with them. That and a lot more had been stored in vast warehouses before being sent back to the Reich. Before the Soviet army liberated the camp on 27/01/1945 the Nazi apparently tried to cover their traces by liquidating the camps, evacuating those able to walk to Germany (‘Death marches’) and burning the stores and records. The ‘Canada’ warehouses where the belongings of prisoners were stored burned for four days!

The probably most infamous gates in the world

It was a very emotional moment when we walked through the famous ‘Arbeit macht frei’ gates, knowing about all the others who did the same and died there. The whole atmosphere is very grave and eerie (before the tour groups arrive) and you can really feel the history here. Eventhough we knew about what happend here actually going there and seeing it put a whole new dimension to this part of history. The whole experience was very emotional and difficult to describe.

Our tour in Auschwitz I lasted for 1.5 hours and after a 20 minute break we boarded the bus to Auschwitz-Birkenau II. The second camp dwarfs the original by a factor of 20. Birkenau could hold up to 90,000 people at a time in 300 barracks whereas Auschwitz I only had space for about 5,000. Only 50 brick buildings survived with only 2 being safe enough to visit. One of these buildings is a women’s barracks used to house sick and weak women before they were marched to their deaths. One scary fact is that this camp was never actually finished. Plans existed to double it’s size to 600 barracks.

Reconnaissance photo showing Auschwitz I and II

Auschwitz-Birkenau was both a labour camp and death camp. The majority of people transported to the camp were killed in one of five gas chambers using the pesticide Zyklon B. The scale of these chambers meant that 7,000 people could be killed in half an hour. Disposing of the bodies after they had been stripped of their clothing took much longer and was the job of the ‘Sonderkommando’ (special command; a group of Jewish men who had to empty the gas chambers and cremate the victims). The only uprising in Auschwitz was one group of Sonderkommando who rebelled and destroyed one of the gas chambers leaving it unable to be used and possibly saving a few people’s lives. The other four gas chambers were destroyed during the liquidation of the camp and the ruins of two of them are exhibited either side of the memorial to those who died. The memorial includes plaques in 23 languages, all of which were spoken by people transported to the camp.

Official memorial with all the 23 plaques

Visiting Auschwitz is understandably not for everyone due to the events that took place here but as a memorial and museum it is a reminder to the world that such persecution should never be repeated. For us, it brought history into perspective but it’s impossible to truly comprehend what life and sadly death were like for the people transported to this camp. The option of wandering the museum alone is the best way of learning the stories of the people that were taken to Auschwitz but there is a lot of information to read to get the most out of a visit. We also bought a guide book (15 zloty) which we used as a self-guided tour. If reading isn’t for you the guided tours are very good and mostly by guides from the area who have accounts from friends or relatives to share. 

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