We went to Krakow specially to visit Auschwitz, something I believe everyone should do in their lifetime.
“Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
It’s hard to describe Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. There is an element of impressiveness alongside horror and sadness. The place is overwhelming. Unlike when we went to Sachsenhousen a few years before, when my knowledge of concentration camps was limited, I was very much prepared for what we were going to see and hear. There are plenty of books and films that do a good job of telling the story about the atrocities, but it isn’t until you are actually standing there looking at the sheer enormity of it that you realise just how bad it was. And unfortunately, humanity has not learnt from the experience.
What is Auschwitz?
Auschwitz was the largest of the Nazi concentration camps and extermination centres, established in 1940 to cope with the sheer number of Poles being arrested. The local prisons could simply not cope with the demand. Although it started off as a regular concentration camp, by 1942 it had become the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem”. In other words, an extermination camp where more than 1.1m Jewish children, women and men would lose their lives. In addition a further 200,000 people were also murdered there, these were predominantly Roma gypsies, homosexuals and Soviet POW.
Auschwitz is divided into two camps. Auschwitz I, which was the first one to be set up and which held up to 20,000 prisoners, and Auschwitz II – Birkenau, which was the largest of the two camps holding up to 90,000 at any given time.
Although the focus has always been on Jews when we talk about the Nazi era, Auschwitz was actually set up to hold Polish prisoners. After the Nazis liquidated the Polish state, the goal was to exterminate the polish population and ethnic minorities, making Poland a purely Germanic country. However, there wasn’t the same rush with the Poles as we would later see with the Jews. As a concentration camp the idea was to maximise work output whilst causing a slow death through inhumane conditions and starvation.
In mid 1942 the mass arrival of Jews started to take place and although Auschwitz I remained predominantly a concentration camp, it did also become an extermination facility, with the addition of a gas chamber, for the fast destruction of Jews. However, the true death camp was in fact Auschwitz II Birkenau.
Auschwitz II Birkenau
Construction of this much larger camp 3 km away from the original site started in 1941 and opened its doors in 1942. With 4 gas chambers (vs the single one in Auschwitz I) and on site incinerators to dispose of the bodies, Birkenau was definitely set up to kill. It is therefore not surprising that 90% of all prisoners (that’s 1 million people) died in Birkenau in just it’s 3 years of operation. An average of 913 people a day!
As new Jews arrived in Birkenau they were separated into two groups, those who could work and those who couldn’t. Those who were of no use (children, the sick, and the elderly) were sent to the gas chambers immediately under the pretext of them needing to shower, whilst the others were set to work under even worse conditions than those at Auschwitz I. They were, after all, only good until they were too weak at which point they’d be killed. And lets face it, there were plenty more to replace the workforce! The average lifespan at Birkenau was 5 months for men and 3 months for women.
Life at Auschwitz
Auschwitz I was made up of 28 two story brick barracks which today make up the museum exhibits. Each building was designed to house 700 prisoners, but in reality more than 1,000, sometimes up to 1,200 were crammed into these spaces. There was so little space that prisoners could only lie on their side on the rough straw stuffed mattresses that they were provided.
In Birkenau there was a mix of brick and wooden barracks. Only a few of these remain now, however the scale of Birkenau still took my breath away (and not in a good way!). The barracks here were more basic (if that is possible), with no heating and no running water or electricity (at least at the beginning). For the first year the only barracks to have water were the kitchens, so prisoners had to walk around dirty. It is no surprise that infectious disease and lice ran rampant within the damp cold housing.
And if they were not dying of disease then they were dying of starvation. Prisoners received three “meals” a day. Coffee in the morning, soup for lunch and some bread and margarine, maybe a sausage if they were lucky, for dinner. With less than 1,000 calories consumed a day, inmates became completely emaciated, nothing more than a pile of bones. This brought with it its own risk, not just of death by starvation but also of selection for the gas chamber for being too weak to continue contributing to the workforce.
Work will set you free
The working day was long, a minimum of 11 hours, longer in the summer. Prisoners would be woken up by a gong before a second gong would sound for roll call. Roll call would continue until all prisoners were present, and was often used as punishment making inmates stand for hours on end. If anybody collapsed they faced an almost certain death.
If you want to get a better understanding of life in Auschwitz, I strongly recommend the book “The boy who followed his farther into Auschwitz” by Jeremy Dronfield. It gives a brilliant account of life and death within various prison camps, as well as the extent to which prisoners went to survive. Did you know that there was in essence a prisoner mafia within Auschwitz? Sex trade? A black market?
I feel like my account so far hasn’t even began to touch on the true horrors. The gas chambers and starvation were in a way the least of their worries. The SS guards were the ones to watch out for. The Jews were there for their amusement, if they wanted to play a game with them they did, if they wanted to psychologically torment them they did, if they needed someone to take their anger out on then they had several thousand to pick from. However, the worst surely had to be the doctors, the people who had signed an oath to never do harm, the one person the prisoners should have been able to trust.
Experiments were carried out for personal academic progress, on behalf of pharmaceutical companies and by orders of the Reich as a way to understand how best to prepare soldiers for war, all with no regard as to the patient’s safety. These tests ranged from testing mass sterilisation of women by inserting a chemical that would bind their fallopian tubes together, to rubbing toxic substances into wounds to recreate the diseases that were being seen in the soldiers on the front line. The fate of the victims was of no concern to the doctors who would often kill the subject to be able to perform a post-mortem on them after.
Everyone should visit Auschwitz at least once
History was always my least favourite subject at school, potentially because I had a terrible teacher who never managed to bring the subject to life. Although I remember studying WWII at some point through my schooling, I was relatively unaware of the extent of what had happened during the Nazi regime. It wasn’t until I visited my first concentration camp, on the outskirts of Berlin, that I the enormity of it hit home. Sachsenhausen for all intents and purposes was small in comparison to Auschwitz which is why we decided that we would make a special trip to Poland to visit the largest extermination facility in Europe.
It is not a joyful outing. It is sombre, and humbling and upsetting. But more than anything it is a reminder of what humans are capable of. Just like when we visited the Killing Fields in Cambodia or the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, I can not help but be amazed and horrified at the callousness of our race. Of the pain we are willing to inflict on others. Of how we treat those we think to be inferior to us.
They say the more you learn the more you see. That is definitely true in my case. Travelling the world and visiting historic places has made me much more understanding, forgiving and tolerant of others. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that, which is why I think everyone should visit Auschwitz at least once in their lifetime, so that similar events are never repeated again (sadly it already has been).
How to get to Auschwitz
There are no shortage of tours from Krakow to Auschwitz which include the transport and entry fee as well as a guided tour. Many of them also tag on the Salt Mines too. We were travelling with a wheelchair user and therefore group tours were out of the question and a private tour was too expensive. Instead, we opted for renting a car for the duration of our stay in Krakow. Not only was it cheap (£36 for the weekend) but it also afforded us the flexibility to explore further afield and avoid Auschwitz rush hour.
Something else to consider is that even if you do book a tour, you will still be doing the same tour as everyone else once you get to Auschwitz, so you are essentially just paying for the transport. And personally, the idea of going to the Salt Mines after having spent 4-6 hours in my darkest deepest thoughts sounds exhausting. We were too shocked on the journey back to Krakow to even talk.
Auschwitz has now been turned into a museum where you will be taken through the story from start to end whilst visiting a number of different exhibits. One of the most impactful displays was that of 2 tonnes of hair which was left behind when the SS fled in 1945. It was cut and used to create textiles and rope. The hair, piled up in the room, belonged to 50,000 people; that’s only 5% of the total hair that would have been collected during the camps existence.
Access to Auschwitz is free, however it is not worth entering without a guide as it’s the stories that bring the horror to life. There are several guided tour options ranging from 2.5 hour tours to 6 hours tours. We opted for the 3.5 hours option which cost us £10 each. They get booked up pretty fast so do reserve your tickets at least a month in advance. Please note it is pretty chaotic at the entrance and we actually managed to lose our group to start with. This was partly because Doug’s camera bag was too large and he had to run back to the car to drop it off. Only tiny bags are allowed so best leave them behind!
Tour Stage 1 – Auschwitz I
The tour starts off in Auschwitz I and takes you through a number of the barracks which have now been turned into exhibitions depicting all the wrongdoings that went on. One of the most memorable moment for me happened as we were waiting for the group to finish taking photos in this one particular spot. Even though I didn’t know where we were, I had a feeling, an overwhelming sense of I’m not sure what. Maybe it was the slightly different smell, or the eerie quietness. Unbeknown to me I was standing metres away from the entrance to the gas chambers, and I could feel it.
Tour stage 2: Birkenau
Once we had finished in Auschwitz I we drove over to Birkenau where the tour continued through a number of the original barracks, the unloading platform and the remaining ruins of the gas chambers and incinerators. Once completed we were allowed to explore further on our own if we wished, however it had been a very emotional and gruelling 4 hours so we settled for a silent ride home.
Is it for me?
It is worth noting that it will not be a pleasant visit. It covers some very distressing topics, and it tells a very horrific story. However, it is our history, and as I’ve said above, I think everyone should visit. Will it be upsetting? Yes! Will it be enjoyable? I’m not sure. I did enjoy it, the museum is well laid out, the tour was good, I learnt a lot. It wasn’t enjoyment that brings joy as such, maybe appreciation would be a better word. Would I recommend it? Yes. Would I go back? Yes. Would I take my kids (if I ever have any)? Yes, when they are old enough to understand it.
“Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.