How do you even begin to write a blog about visiting Auschwitz?
When people find out that you are travelling to Krakow, they will inevitably ask if you plan on visiting Auschwitz. Originally I remember thinking that I did not want to visit however the more I read and the more I learnt, I realised that I owed it to the millions of people that perished there to learn about their story and remember them and the atrocities that happened there. However leading up to our visit, I was a little nervous about visiting and it took me a little while to fall asleep the night before as I could not stop thinking about what we were going to be seeing and hearing the following day.
Even though you can visit free of charge by yourself at certain times of the day (very early in the morning or late afternoon), we both decided to book one of the English language tours with an Educator directly through the Auschwitz website. The tours do sell out very quickly (especially the English ones) so I booked our date and time nearly three months before our visit which cost 45zł (£9) each.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is located in the town of Oświęcim which is approximately 70 kilometres west of Krakow. Even though it is possible to take both the train and the bus directly from Krakow city centre, we decided to rent a car for the day. It was a very easy and straight forward drive and Oświęcim is clearly signposted from the A4 motorway. The drive took just over fifty minutes and the car park at Auschwitz I cost 8zł for the entire day.
It was incredibly busy in the car park at Auschwitz I with tour buses and large groups of people. It was a little difficult at first to work out where we needed to go as there were so many people everywhere but we then spotted the building we needed to head into. They scan your tickets (we had printed ours at home but also had them ready on our phones) and check the size of the bag you have with you as any bags over a certain size are not allowed. You then have to go through security before being handed a headset (take your own ear phones as the ones they have are not very good) and walking outside into the courtyard and waiting a few minutes to meet our Educator.
At this point I could see the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free) sign across the grass. and there was a definite sense of apprehensiveness amongst everyone.
As we walked through the gate underneath the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, our educator explained that Auschwitz I had originally been a Polish army barracks before becoming a Nazi concentration camp. For the next few hours at both Auschwitz I and II, the information she told us was horrifying. Even though we were all standing in the place where this actually happened, part of you was thinking that there was no way this could be real and yet you sadly knew it was whilst the other part of you thought how could this all have even been possible?
The first building we entered was Block 4 which contained information, photos, maps and various models of both Auschwitz I and II. There was also a display of Zyklon B pellet cannisters which were used in the gas chambers as well as an urn containing some of the ashes that were found of the victims. This block is also where the room of hair is located – it’s a horrible sight to see. You thankfully cannot take photos in this room.
In Block 5 is where there are displays of the belongings that were taken from the prisoners as soon as they arrived at Auschwitz. It was horrifying to know that they had brought all their possessions with them as they believed they were going to be starting a new life.
We next visited Block 6 where we saw walls of photos with the faces of only a handful of the prisoners that entered Auschwitz – later they stopped photographing everyone. Each photo had their name, their date of birth, the date they entered the camp as well as the date they died. Some survived only a few days, some a few months, some a little longer. The images of their faces will stay with you forever.
The next building we visited was Block 11 which was also known as the “Death Block” – this is another area where no photography is allowed inside. This block was where prisoners were tortured and punished for attempting to escape or other various offences. It was also in one of the cells here where they first experimented with killing people using Zyklon B. In between Blocks 10 and 11 is the wall where they lined up prisoners to be killed by firing squad. The silence here was deafening.
Our next stop was the bunker which had been coverted into a gas chamber after the experiments with Zyklon B in Block 11. In the next room was the crematorium where the bodies were burned. Not a word had to be said here. Once again you could not stop thinking how could this all have happened?
Next to the gas chamber was where the camp Gestapo was located and place where Rudolf Höss who was the commandant of Auschwitz was hung in 1947 for his crimes.
This was the end of our tour of Auschwitz I which had taken an hour and forty minutes. We did not need our headsets anymore so handed them back in. We then had a much needed break where we could use the toilets (you have to pay for these so make sure you have some coins ready) and get something to drink before meeting back with our Educator and catching the free bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau which during September was running every ten minutes.
A few minutes later we arrived in Birkenau and one of the first things you see is the infamous gate house with the train track running through it. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was built as an extermination camp when Auschwitz I became too crowded. The first thing that shocks you is the size of the place – you cannot even see where the camp ends in the distance and we only saw a small area of it. There are rows upon rows of now destroyed barracks.
We walked along the train tracks towards the selection ramp where after getting out of a train car which they would have been travelling in for days and sometimes weeks, people would be lined up and be selected to work or to go straight to the gas chambers – that’s if they even survived the train journey to get there.
From the selection ramp, we walked the where the remains of the gas chambers are located. They were destroyed by the Nazis in an attempt to hide the evidence of their crimes.
Between the remains of the gas chambers and at the end of the train decks is a memorial to all those who lost their lives at Auschwitz as this would have been where their ashes were dumped. But you soon realise, there are ashes everywhere at Birkenau. This is the reason they have left the camp as it is – as a memorial to those who were killed there.
After finishing our tour, we were told that we could also go back to Auschwitz I and explore at our leisure. After a little longer exploring some of the buildings at Birkenau, we decided to call it a day (we both felt mentally as well as physically exhausted) and took the bus back to Auschwitz I where our car was parked and drove back to Krakow.
Immediately after leaving Auschwitz I wondered what was wrong with me as I was not feeling any of the emotions that people told me I would. I felt absolutely nothing and I wondered why. I kept on thinking had the rainy miserable weather or the crowds and having to wait to get into the buildings in Auschwitz I altered my experience at all. Even a few days later I was questioning myself as to why I was feeling nothing.
Then however the more I started to think, the more I realised that my visit had affected me. I feel more emotional now seeing photos of Auschwitz and feel tearful reading different stories and accounts from during the Holocaust. I wonder if I was to visit again, whether I would experience different emotions again? If I did visit again, I would go early in the morning and take the time to walk around myself and see all the exhibits that are available.
This has been the most difficult blog post I’ve ever written because how do you put into words what you saw and heard that day. Visiting Auschwitz is depressing and not a fun day out that you would usually plan overseas however it is somewhere that everyone should see in their lifetime.
As for advice on visiting Auschwitz:
Wear comfortable (and weather appropriate) clothing and sensible shoes due to the amount of walking you’ll be doing throughout the day and take an umbrella as you will definitely need it if visiting on a day like we had.
But most importantly show respect and do not take selfies like I saw this person and a few others doing – it is just not acceptable behaviour for where you are.