Recently I took a trip to Krakow and while I was there my sister and I went on a tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau. The reason we chose to go to Krakow was mostly because we wanted to visit here. For those of you who may not know, Auschwitz and Birkenau were concentration camps opened during World War 2 to house and exterminate Jews from across Europe, Romanian Gypsies, Twins, Homosexuals, Prisoners of war and more.
Our apartment provider arranged our tour for us with SeeKrakow which cost 155zl which is roughly €36. This covered our transport there and back, as well as our guided English tour in Auschwitz and Birkenau. The camps are located about an hour and a half of a drive outside of Krakow City Centre so be prepared for a long day with a lot of walking. Some of this is indoors but there is a lot outdoors also so make sure you dress appropriately (we didn’t!)
The tour starts at Auschwitz I – the main camp which was operational for five years between 1940 and 1945. The first prisoners to Auschwitz were 728 people from Poland who were mostly prisoners of war. From here the camp grew strength to strength throughout the five years and eventually had a capacity of up to 20,000. Here, they were marked on their striped uniform with a symbol outlining why there were sent there. Jews had to wear the notorious yellow star of David, while homosexuals had to wear a pink triangle, and so on. Every prisoner here was also tattooed on their arm with their camp number. Names didn’t really matter here, they were all just numbers to the Nazis. They actually took head shots of each prisoner when they arrived first but because they were so malnourished they bore no resemblance to their picture from the beginning they chose to tattoo them instead.
When you first enter the camp you cross under the main gate which in German translates to ‘Work Sets You Free‘. This actually made me sick to my stomach as this ‘motivational’ sentence basically meant that you will be worked so hard behind these gates that you will die. The average lifespan for those in Auschwitz was roughly three months due to the harsh living conditions, lack of food and intense labour they were put through. In the tour of Auschwitz I you learn about the mass transports that made their way to these concentration camps, you learn in detail about what these people went through and worst of all, you get shown their possessions. Rooms filled with thousands of pairs of shoes of those who left them behind in the ‘changing room’ before being sent to the gas chamber. Other rooms had suitcases with names printed on them so they could easily be returned to them once they got off the train – but these were never seen again. It is definitely not an easy place to walk around and puts into perspective, for me at least, how lucky I am to have a safe home to go to every night in a country that didn’t even take part in that war – one of the few that didn’t.
At Auschwitz I you get to enter a gas chamber where up to 2,000 people could fit at a time to be killed by Zyklon B gas. You then get to see some of the original furnaces which turned these people into nothing more than ash. There were no death certificates signed for each individual person, just one certificate along with the number of people who had just been killed.
I actually found Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II) harder to take than Auschwitz I. On the tour you have to hop on your bus to be taken to Birkenau a few kilometres away. When you arrive you get to walk along the train tracks that brought each transport into Birkenau. This camp was one of six ‘extermination camps’ set up during the war. While many people died at other concentration camps this was mostly due to starvation, extreme fatigue and illness. At Birkenau people arrived by the thousands and died by the thousands on the exact same day.
You get to stand exactly where the trains stop and the SS physicans stood and put people into a line in the left or the right based solely on their appearance. They were so ruthless that they did not see the need for children in the camp and generally killed children under 15 along with their mothers. It’s difficult to even know which fate was worse – to be kept alive and worked to the bone until you died, or to be sent to your death straight away with no forewarning?
Auschwitz I acts much more like a museum but at Birkenau you are mostly walking outside through the camp and are shown the different buildings such as the Crematoria (which are now destroyed). Auschwitz gave me chills but seeing the sheer size of Birkenau hits home a lot more. While Auschwitz I could hold up to 20,000, Birkenau could hold upwards of 100,000 prisoners at one time. Birkenau was the largest death camp run by the Nazis during the Holocaust with their sole vision being to kill every prisoner there and with four running gas chambers and crematoria they had the ability to kill roughly 8,000 people every 30 minutes.
Most of what you are shown are the original buildings apart from one monument which was erected at the back of Birkenau as a tribute to those who had died. More people died at Auschwitz I and II than any other concentration camp during the war – with an estimate of over 1.5 million people during its four years in operation. From the images these buildings actually don’t look that bad. Their red brick is actually kind of cute and the trees surrounding it make for interesting scenery. But as you look around you will notice utter silence, no birds or animals and you get a weird, explainable feeling. This place doesn’t look deadly, but I suppose the most deadly of things never do.
I didn’t cry while I was there but I was definitely very close on more than on occasion. What is worse is that you stand on the grounds where these crimes happened and wonder how the world could ever let something like that even happen – but then you think about Myanmar, Cambodia, Israel, Syria.. the list is endless on the amount of wars that are raging and genocides that are still happening throughout the world. The extent of WW2 is obviously the worst in history but we are foolish I think, the think that we are better than that today.
While I sit here in my little bedroom in a village nestled in the middle of Ireland, a safe little haven, there are thousands of people out there dying because of who they are – not because of anything they ever said or did.
I would highly, highly recommend visiting Krakow if only to see Auschwitz and Birkenau because it will truely open your eyes on the events that took place and how many people really died.