When I visited Krakow in 2016, I knew a day trip to Auschwitz/Birkenau-Auschwitz II was a non-negotiable.
I originally wrote about my experience traveling to the Auschwitz concentration camp and Birkenau-Auschwitz II extermination camp while I was in Poland after I returned and the citizens of America elected a narcissistic moron to highest office in the land.
We live in scary times when there are “fine people” among neo Nazis (according to the president) so it’s important to remember what happened to millions of people during World War II.
The famous gates that say “Work will set you free.”
I hopped on a bus outside the Old Town wall early one morning and made the trip an hour and forty five minutes to Oświęcim, Poland, with a tour group and guide. It seemed appropriate that it was pouring rain, and freezing, that day. I think for most of the year, you aren’t allowed to travel to Auschwitz without a tour guide so definitely check out what the rules are if you’re planning on making the excursion.
In Auschwitz, there are various brick buildings, former SS buildings, that have different exhibits about who was brought to the camp, when the camp was built and why, how many people died, among many other things. There’s one haunting room with a glass case the size of my apartment filled with human hair of some of the 1.5 million victims. The Nazis sold this hair to companies to make stockings and socks, and this was the hair that hadn’t been sold after the camp was liberated. There were also cases filled with glasses and shoes of the victims.
We walked through the barracks, seeing the claustrophobic bunks where political prisoners were kept before being executed, and then we viewed the execution wall, which is adorned still with flowers all these years later. We also walked through a gas chamber that was reconstructed with the remains from a gas chamber at Birkenau, since the Nazis started trying to cover up all the evidence of their actions once they knew the war was the lost and the Allies were coming. Understandably, we were asked not to take photos inside out of respect for the people who lose their lives.
One of the crematoriums and remains of another.
Afterwards we were bused a mile or so down the road to Birkenau-Auschwitz II extermination camp. This camp was built, obviously, after Auschwitz and it was an extermination camp more than a work camp. Eighty to ninety percent of the prisoners who exited the trains at Birkenau went straight to the gas chambers. Birkenau was mostly destroyed by the Nazis so a lot of the camp is eerily quiet with grass, barbed wire, and wooden guard stations along the train tracks.
L-R: A wall where prisoners where executed; the barbed wire in Auschwitz; where prisoner housing used to stand at Birkenau before the Nazis tried destroying the evidence; a still-standing prisoner’s house.
At Birkenau stands the International Monument, in memory of the 1.5 million victims who perished there. The monument is black stones of various shapes with plaques in every language that was spoken by prisoners at the camp that say, “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and child, mainly Jews, from various countries in Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945.” It’s located in between the ruins of the second and third crematorium at the end of the train tracks where most people disembarked the train to die.
For our last stop, we walked through one of the prisoner’s quarters that several hundred Jews were packed into at a time. They were dark, damp, cold, and dirt floored.
When we exited the brick gates of Birkenau, our tour guide told us that now since we’d visited the camps we were witnesses of the crimes and atrocities that were committed during the Holocaust. He was very passionate, pressing us not to let anyone try to lie and deny that the Holocaust happened because if we forget, or deny, history has a way of repeating itself.
If you ever have the chance to visit Auschwitz, I highly encourage it. As hard as it is to never forget these atrocities, we have to remember so history doesn’t repeat itself.
Visit Auschwitz’s website for more information on how to visit the camp.