Auschwitz originally consisted of 20 buildings, but the camp grew enormously as the number of prisoners that the Nazis deemed “unworthy of living” increased. In 1942, Auschwitz became the center for extermination of the Jewish race and other inferiors that Hitler considered undesirable.
Touring Auschwitz: On a day trip, one usually tours the Auschwitz (or Auschwitz I) grounds first before moving on to the sister camp called Birkenau, also referred to as Auschwitz II. I chose not to take an organized tour, preferring to walk around by myself with my own thoughts instead of being surrounded by the chatter (and annoyance) of a tour group. Many of the exhibits are well documented in English, and if they are not, one can mostly grasp the concept, such as the room filled with human hair shaved and collected from the prisoners. I did not need a descriptive poster for that room.
The Auschwitz I grounds are a tidy assemble of brick buildings, eerie and empty under melancholy heavens. Visitors enter the premises under the famously ironic wrought iron inscription of Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Shall Set You Free). From here, the immaculate stretches of high fences, barbed wire, and simply oppressive, hopeless conditions nearly take ones breath away.
Many of the barracks are open, and those in the first row have been transformed into National Memorials, created by the home countries of the camps victims. From Block 15 (Poland) down a lonely path to Blocks 21 (Netherlands) and 27 (All Jews), one can learn more about the prisoners from their respective country or any that suit an interest.
The barracks lined up near the rear of the camp hold the museum exhibitions. Here, one learns about the horrifying atrocities of the camp, from how the prisoners were transported to Auschwitz and how they were fed and worked nearly to death to the gruesome experiments and exterminations that took place here.
One building houses some of the material evidence of the crimes that took place at Auschwitz. Room after room filled with human hair, eyeglasses, combs, shoes, and prosthetic limbs taken from the victims provokes feelings of shock and repulsion.
And another room displays a mountain of luggage lovingly packed and carried by the victims when told they were being relocated to a safer place.
I was especially overwhelmed by the exhibits about the children and adolescents of Auschwitz. Small dresses, tiny pairs of shoes, black and white images depicting their frightened postures, and stories of their demise – it was soul crushing.
The lynching post and crematorium still stand on the grounds.
Whew! It was a lot to process.
After some deep breaths and a much needed coffee to warm cold fingers and revitalize my brain, I took the free shuttle two miles towards Birkenau, or Auschwitz II.
Touring Birkenau: Realizing that their first camp was too small for their extermination purposes, the Nazis built Birkenau in order to produce a more efficient method of killing. This desolate wasteland of 40 acres held nearly 300 barracks. Though much of the camp was destroyed when the Nazis dismantled the camp in 1945, some of the barracks, the guard tower, the latrines, and the dividing platform have been reconstructed.
Walking through the stark landscape, or killing fields, one can only try to imagine what life was like for the prisoners here. I say almost because of course, we have no idea. The day I visited was cold, windy, and might I say, downright miserable, weather. I honestly would not have preferred any other type of atmosphere though. If I was freezing in my thermals, hat, and winter coat, I cannot fathom the incredible level of discomfort felt by the prisoners.
The barracks had virtually no heat, of course, and the bitter cold wind whipped right through the poorly constructed sleeping units. Between 400 – 1000 prisoners were housed in each building.
What struck me was that this camp was actually built with the premise of being a killing factory. When the railway cars arrived under the SS watchtower, it came to a stop at a place called the dividing platform.
Here, a Nazi doctor evaluated each prisoner and either sent him\her to the right or to the left. Right led to death by gas chamber and left led to a few more days, weeks, or months of starvation, exhausting labor, beatings, and pain.
The inconceivable heartbreak and anguish that took place at this spot, the dividing platform, where families were literally ripped apart was…just very, very sad. I have had incredible losses in my life, but nothing remotely compared to this morose agony.
Spending a day touring Auschwitz-Birkenau was a day of extreme emotions. Sadness. Sympathy. Anger. Confusion. Shame. Frustration. And humility.
It was a day not to be missed.
How to tour Auschwitz:
Cost of Auschwitz: The camps are free; however, donations are accepted and appreciated. In the busy season (May – Oct), visitors must join an organized tour for about 40 zl. If going alone, you must register your visit online at www.auschwitz.org. You can pick a time under “visitors without an educator”, fill out your name and home country, and print off your receipt. When you arrive, just show the info desk your reservation, and you will be free to walk around the grounds at your own pace. Alternatively, you can take public transport to and from Auschwitz, and then organize a tour in your native language upon arrival.
Getting to and from Auschwitz: Private tours run from Krakow’s center and anywhere from 70 zl – 200 zl including transport and a guided tour. Local buses run directly to the museum’s entrance nearly every hour, but it is best to check times and book your ticket at the bus station a day or two prior as the bus can fill up quickly. A bus ticket costs approximately 12 zl each way. For the local bus ride home, you can catch the same bus across the street from where you were dropped off.