I just want to clear one thing up before I start, I don’t want to use this post as a means to teach you everything about Auschwitz and the Holocaust because I don’t claim to be an expert. I want to use it is a way to portray my thoughts and feelings walking through a place of such suffering, violence and emancipation; and also explain why it is so important that you visit in person yourself. After all, this is the point of this blog: to spread the word.
Initial Thoughts & Feelings
We organised a guided tour through our hotel. I had researched public transport to and from the camps, but thought since it was our first time that we would be more comfortable being guided. I also didn’t know how I would react to the the camps.
Overall, the tour lasted around 8 hours, with around 1.5 hours spent travelling to and from the camps, 3 hours at Auschwitz I and 2 hours at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was a little wary that I would become tired and drained from such a long day and little break, but the day went in so fast.
On our bus out to the camps, out tour company showed us a documentary about Auschwitz which highlighted graphic details, images and interviews with survivors of the holocaust. When the documentary finished, I was felt quite sick at the thought of experiencing Auschwitz in person, I didn’t think I could handle it. I thought this documentary is only the tip of the Iceberg.
But I was wrong. Walking up to the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work brings freedom”) gates, I felt a strange sense of familiarity and calmness. Maybe it was because I had seen these gates before in films, books and on the internet. But it was a feeling I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. I later realised after visiting Birkenau that it was in fact a feeling of peace, and the sense of freedom (whether in death or liberty). (Similar to my experience in the Killing Fields in Cambodia).
We continued on through the gates, and for the next three hours we followed our guide across the grounds of Auschwitz I and into the buildings of the barracks, prison cells and gas chamber. Our guide was detailed and even told us personal stories about her family’s connection with the camps. It then that I began to feel overwhelmed by the severity of the torture and humility that these prisoners experienced. Later I would learn that this behaviour was conducted on an even grander scale at Auschwitz-Birkenau (II).
Riding on the bus home, I thought I would have been upset or even cried at some point during the tour. But I didn’t. I think anger suppressed all other feelings. Anger at such a thing ever happened (and really not that long ago!). Yes I was shocked at the atrocities that took place in Auschwitz, but I came away from the experience more educated and with a purpose. And a determination to spread the word, to make sure something remotely similar to this genocide never happens again.
(I also came away from the tour teaching everyone that “Auschwitz” is actually the German translation of the Polish word “oswiecim”. )
What’s the difference between Auschwitz I & Auschwitz-Birkenau (II)?
Auschwitz I: This camp was initially set up to hold Polish political prisons before being a hub for Jewish prisoners. This was the first camp to be build and was the headquarters for the SS. Prisoner number reached 16,000.
Auschwitz-Birkenau (II): Located 3km away from Auschwitz I. This is the largest concentration camp constructed to house more prisoners after Auschwitz I became crowded. Approximately 1.1m people died here (mainly Jews).
When we arrived, the sky was overcast and the clouds a thick pencil-lead grey. One of those days you think, at any moment the heavens will open and the rain will thrash down in a flash-flood style storm. Thankfully, the rain only came down in small dribs and drabs as we walked outside, making our way between the double barbed wired fences.
Auschwitz I was the initial headquarters for the SS and was the first site for political prisoners (Polish and Soviet) and eventually non-political/military Jews. It was also our first place to visit. Auschwitz I is actually named as a museum. Parts of some of the barracks are actually dedicated to housing historical artifacts, personal stories and prisoner belongings to educate visitors.
One of the main aspects of the tour that struck me hard was seeing the personal belongings of the prisoners, including mountains of hair, shoes, kitchen utensils and clothes. It was just endless, highlighting the true extent that Jews were duped into believing they were actually starting a new life here at Auschwitz.
Auschwitz I was also one of the first major camps to murder prisoners using gas chambers. The pesticide Zyklon B was used to drop into the chambers filled with hundreds of Jews who believed they were going for a shower.
As well as showcasing the evil that humans are capable of, the tour also shed light on the sheer strength of the human mind and spirit. In particular, one prisoner Maximilian Kolbe who sacrificed his life for another prison who then went on to survive the holocaust.
After a short break our tour bus took us along the 3km stretch of road that leads to the second Auschwitz site, Birkenau. By this point in the day, it was around 5pm and the clouds had parted to bring an orange glow across the camp.
As we walked up to the main building, the first thing I could see was the red brick building that is all so familiar. The next thing that came to vision was the single train track that once led millions of prisoners to their death. It was clear from here this was a one-way train. Nobody was leaving.
In Birkenau, our tour guide lead us down the train track towards the Nazi’s largest crematoria (gas chambers). As we walked from the top to the bottom of the rail line, on our left and right were rows upon rows of housing barracks – all identical. We later learned that these were not actually build in a way to house prisoners, but rather crush them together until it lead to their death.
This camp was also a site where extensive tests and experiments were undertaken on prisoners, mostly twins (children) and women. Josef Mengele conducted hundreds of deadly experiments on living humans to measure and analyse the affects of certain drugs and “new” medical methodologies. Some include seeing if he could change the eye colour of humans by injecting their eyes and killing twins (because it was very rare to have two identical twins die at the same time in the real world.)
The tour took us down to the very end of the train tracks where we witnessed the demolished gas chambers. At this site, there is also a monument erected to honour the victims, as well as a small memorial stone set up for all those prisoners bodies and ashes were buried and scattered on the surrounding ground.
On the way back up we walked amongst the barracks and were even given the opportunity to go inside. At this point, the sun had started to go down and a low fog started to roll over the camp. An eeriness crept up on us as we padded through the pitch-black barracks with our torch lights on.
The tour concluded with our group huddled together outside one of the barracks as the sun and temperature lowered. Our guide gave us a small talk on the importance of the learning and teaching others about Auschwitz, and a little advice on trying not to let the experience bring us down for the rest of our evening.
As a travel blogger, I think it’s important to share my honest and real experiences. It’s a tough place to go and a very sensitive subject to write about, but I’m glad I did it and glad I’ve plucked up the courage to write this post. Hopefully it has provided a little information on Auschwitz and inspired you to read more into the subject if you didn’t know much about it already.
Feel free to pin this post and spread the word!