The infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau complex is the largest of all the concentration camps operated by the Third Reich of Nazi Germany and today remains as the most recognisable. An estimated 1.1 Million Jews, Poles, Romani and Soviet Soldiers were systematically murdered here as part of the Nazi Holocaust.
The camp sits in the Polish town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz in German), 65km from the city of Krakow and remains today as a museum, memorial and graphic reminder of this genocide.
I’ve always been fascinated by WWII and the insanity of it all. I grew up in 90’s Britain, in a world where war was something that happened in the strange and distant Middle East, Europe was united under the EU and my biggest problem was having to constantly blow into my N64 cartridges to get the damn things to work. Europe to me was a safe, civilised and wealthy place, where we went on package holidays and ate ice cream in the sun. It couldn’t have been more disconnected from the divisions and devastation of WWII Europe and yet I was born less than 45 years after the last bomb was dropped on Berlin. After the last person died in the gas chambers.
I think my fascination lies in it all being so recent and seeming almost unbelievable that this happened in the same Europe that I’ve grown up in. The Auschwitz concentration camp remains as perhaps the most gruesome reminder of all this, as it seems so impossible that the horrific crimes committed here happened so recently. So during our time in Krakow, we decided to take a day out to visit and see for ourselves what people are really capable of.
Spoiler: People are dicks.
We took the bus to Oświęcim from the main bus station, Glówny which leaves frequently, cost 14 Złoty each way and took around 2 hours.
Tip: Walking around the city you’ll see plenty of places offering tours to Auschwitz for around 130 Złoty, but you can save up to 70 Złoty, even after you factor in the cost of entrance, by just heading to Glówny and jumping on a bus yourself. You’ll also have the freedom to stay for as long as you like!
Entrance to the complex is technically free, however you are forced to take a guided tour (offered in many languages) if you visit between 10am and 3pm, simply due to the sheer volume of people visiting each day. So if you want to skip the tour, make sure you arrive either side of these hours.
These days I’m incapable of crawling out of bed before midday, so we arrived in the early afternoon and joined the next English language tour, costing 40 Złoty each and lasting 3hrs.
The first half of the tour took us around the Auschwitz I camp, which was the original camp constructed to hold political prisoners in the early years of the war. This is where the infamously ironic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate stands watch over the camp where so many thousands found that work only resulted in death. Most of Auschwitz I consists of identical brick buildings known as ‘blocks’, in which the prisoners were held, tortured, experimented on and ultimately murdered.
As you might imagine, there were plenty of points at which I had to stop for a breath to take in the reality of what I was seeing. A big pile of shoes shoes collected as the victims undressed, a holding cell where prisoners spent their last moments before execution and the ‘death wall’ against which so many thousands were shot. These are just a few of the things which still stick with me today.
The most disturbing part of the tour for me, was standing inside the only remaining gas chamber at Auschwitz I. I can’t explain quite how sickening it is to stand in that dank, concrete cell, the only light coming in through the small hatch in the roof and seeing the marks covering the walls made by fingernails clawing desperately for life. Fuck. In the room next door stood a few of the original ovens for burning the bodies of the victims. You needed no imagination here, this was the brutal reality of genocide and it was there plainly for you to see.
However, there was a serious problem with this part of the tour; there were just too many fucking people. I mean a ridiculous amount. I spent most of my time at Auschwitz I squeezing past long lines of other visitors, tenderly pulling myself out of their ass-cracks, in the narrow corridors of the buildings or straining to get close enough to my guide to see what she was talking about.
The radio/headphones system they use for the tour is not well suited to the small corridors and thick walls of the buildings. The signal was shit to begin with and would completely drop out whenever there was an underground section, leaving me to spend most of the time indoors fighting through crowds of other visitors, straining to hear a thing.
No doubt because of the crowds, the guide rushed through the tour faster than a prom queen goes through the entire football team. Any time I stopped to read a sign or take a closer look at something I was left behind to fend for myself and find the group again through the maze of identical corridors.
I had a big problem connecting emotionally with the horrific reality of what we were being shown, because as soon as our guide had reeled off her scripted line, I barely got time to squeeze out a fart before we were off on the move. As a visitor you need a moment to pause and soak in all of the information, especially when it’s so tragic. I wanted time to empathise. To read the names written on the suitcases and think about the real people with real lives, whom they once belonged to. To look at the piles of hair and think of the fear and horror of the victims final moments in this place where I was now stood.
I realise that this isn’t supposed to be a pleasant tour, but I came here to get a better understanding and some kind of personal, emotional connection with the reality of what really happened here. However, all of these problems combined just made the whole experience disappointingly frustrating.
After a short 20min break we all jumped on a shuttle bus over to the second much larger camp, Auchwitz II-Birkenau. This part of the camp is home to the infamous Auschwitz railway tracks and platform, where the prisoners were sorted ‘left’ and ‘right’ as they departed the train. Those on the right were to be camp labourers, those on the left were sent immediately to the gas chambers.
Not many of the original buildings remain intact here, as much of this camp was built from wood which has since rotted away. The camp is spread across a huge field and countless brick chimney stacks dot the landscape, marking where sleeping and working blocks once stood.
There isn’t much of the original gas chambers either, as they were blown up by the retreating Nazis as the Russians approached. The foundations and rubble still remain where the chambers, chimneys and ovens once stood, next to a memorial commemorating the victims.
This camp is much more open and spacious than Auschwitz I, so there wasn’t any problem with overcrowding here but our tour guide was still a problem. She seemingly couldn’t wait to get the tour over with and when we tried asking a few questions she answered with the sort of enthusiasm you might expect if you asked Charlie Sheen for help with your Sudoku puzzle.
We were given plenty of dates, facts and figures and told about the staggering number of people who were murdered in the gas chambers. But perhaps ironically, it was all too cold and efficient. There was nothing to help us connect to the real people who died here, we needed to be told some personal survivor accounts of what they went through.
There comes a point when vast numbers just become meaningless in our minds as we cannot comprehend their enormity. It’s sad but true that the murder of a single person is easier to relate to than the extermination of 1.1 Million.
After speaking to other people about their experiences at Auschwitz it seems like we may have just been unlucky with our tour guide. Ah well.
Think It’s Over? Think Again
It may sound like my whining is insensitive and callous considering the horrific things people have gone though here, but that’s exactly why I felt so frustrated about the whole experience. The whole point of maintaining these camps as museums is to display to the world the horrific crimes committed here in an engaging and accessible way. It’s important that they get this right, because if they don’t; people don’t engage with it, some of that emotional power is lost and the world loses interest. We must not lose interest.
Regardless of my relatively small gripes, I recommend you do visit, whether you have a specific interest in this period of history or not, purely to experience what happened here on a human level. In fact I think it’s important that as many people as possible visit a concentration camp at least once in their lives to remind the human race what we are all capable of when we become complacent. Don’t fool yourselves into thinking that these crimes are relics of a time gone by, just take a look at North Korea today. Or Rwanda in the 90’s. Or Cambodia in the 70s.
And in our current climate of growing support for right-wing and overtly xenophobic anti-immigrant / anti-Islam movements across Europe, it seems our world as a whole could do with a powerful reminder of what happened here.
I couldn’t say it better myself than George Santayana did, so I’ll leave you with this quote I found at the Auschwitz I camp.
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