Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland (In January)

Again, slacking on photos because I’m tired and kind of in a hurry. Oh well.

Jon and I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau on Monday. We had planned on doing Auschwitz and the Weiliczka Salt Mines in one day, but realized that without a car, it didn’t seem very feasible from Krakow. Since neither of us were that into the Salt Mines, we decided to skip that (even though I’ve heard they’re incredible).

We ended up getting a later start than planned since the milk bar we wanted to go to in Krakow opened at 9am. Turns out, they were closed on Monday so we didn’t even get to go! We grabbed a quick bite to eat at some little cafe in town and then took a bus out to Oswiecim from the main bus station in Krakow (which is in the very back of the train station, also Galeria Krakowska, which is the mall that it is all connected to). The bus runs pretty frequently, so we only had to wait about 20 minutes before catching the bus (/large van) out there.

We didn’t get there until about 11am, and it is so strange because Auschwitz literally is backed up to residential areas on one side. Can you imagine? While there is no entrance fee, this affects the tourism services offered. Unless you are part of a tour (any group over 10 must do a tour and I don’t know how that works), you can’t get an audio tour via headphones. Most places I’ve been to offer that and we had really planned on doing that, so it was kind of a let down. We had to tour on our own just by reading, but you really need hours to do that. We had five hours total for both camps (Auschwitz and Birkenau are separate). I could have easily done 8 or 9 hours, but the only food available is at a snack stand outside of the main gate, so if you do allow that much time, take plenty of snacks and water.

Auschwitz is so well maintained. We went to Dachau, which was neat to see, but not nearly as impressive. You can enter into a ton of the barracks there. Most are set up more as museum sections with photographs and plaques. They had photographs of the prisoners of Auschwitz on the walls in quite a few of the barracks, and you know that so many more people were unpictured.

I’m not a very emotional person. Unless I actually have to see family members grieving over a loved one, I’m pretty distant from death (even with my own patients- if I never see a grieving family member, I am completely unbothered by having patients die). However, a few things managed to move me:

-In one of the barracks, there is typing on the walls of trains that arrived in Auschwitz, including the date, the number of persons on the train, and how many were gassed immediately. There were days in a row where over 900 people arrived to Auschwitz, and only 30-40 weren’t immediately gassed. 30-40! Within a 3-4 day period, over 3,000 Jews lost their lives.

-They have a lot of the belongings from prisoners displayed. Some of the clothes are hanging up or set up in an upright position. There were two outfits of toddlers. Obviously since I’m all soft after having my own child now, I just cannot imagine going through those times with a child. Jon and I actually discussed how being gassed at Auschwitz seemed like it would have been a relief after working labor intensive days in minimal clothing, with no shoes, in this frigid weather. We wondered why you would even want to live. The kids were killed immediately frequently since they served no purpose, and they were probably whisked away from the parents without them knowing where their child went. Maybe they hung onto hope that they’d see their kids again. Regardless, I can’t imagine how many little kids lost their lives and how many families were torn apart.

-One of the displays was human hair. After gassing the prisoners, their hair would be cut off before they were cremated. The hair was sold to textile mills, and forensics found human hair coated in Zyklon B (the gassing agent used) in the textiles sold during that time period. When the camp was liberated, sacks of hair were found waiting to be sold. That hair is now displayed and the amount of it is unreal.

We were getting short on daylight and knew we wanted to take the museum bus over to Birkenau. You can walk it, but we didn’t really have time. I wish we had allotted more time, because I felt really rushed through Auschwitz. There was so much stuff I still wanted to read. Also, a fun fact is that the “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free) was stolen back in 2009 by Neo-Nazis. Apparently they were going to sell it and use the money for terrorism, but it was found two months later in the woods a few hours north. The sign now is not the original, but the original has been restored (it was cut into three pieces) and is supposed to go back on display.

Anyway, we took the bus out to Birkenau. This is where a lot of the famous photos are of the long building that the train goes through. While this camp was nowhere near as preserved at Auschwitz, it was massive. When you walk through the gate and look to the right, it seems never-ending. The wooden barracks were made to house 52 horses each, and instead ended up being used to hold 400 prisoners each. They each had a brick chimney and cement floors. Most of the barracks are no longer standing, but the railroad track remains and housing to the far side. We ended up not walking around as much, since our bus was coming back and we wanted to catch it, but I don’t believe any were set up as museum style. You could enter a few of the buildings, but they were all the same.

Upon trying to get back to Krakow, we realized we should not have bought a “return trip” in the morning on our bus. It was freezing cold and three other bus companies came first, but wouldn’t let us ride on their bus to Krakow since our return tickets were with another company. We had no idea that even existed since we just paid for a main public bus (we thought) in Krakow. Had we not paid ahead of time, we could have paid cash on the bus when we wanted to leave.

All in all, it was really shocking to see the place where over 1 million people lost their lives. It’s hard to imagine anybody living through those conditions, especially if they didn’t know where there family was. I have wanted to visit Auschwitz for as long as I can remember and it’s hard to believe I finally made it. It was more than I ever could have imagined. Since I am already loving Poland, coming here to visit Auschwitz is something that I think would be completely worthwhile.

I’m also glad we visited in the winter. I have heard that it is unbelievably crowded in the summer and Jon and I got stuck in a tour group when we were going through a basement to see where “prisoners” (you know, the actual bad ones who committed crimes, not just the ones who were prisoners because of being Jewish or Gypsies) were held and it was definitely way too packed in the tour groups to really enjoy taking your time. On the flip side, they probably got a lot more information than Jon and I did, so I guess you have to decide if you like getting more history, or if you like to move at your own pace. Even though it was cold and there wasn’t really any place to warm up, it was worth it us to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau in January and to not do a tour there.

Jon and I heard of people saying they needed to step outside because they were queasy at the sight of some things or that they needed something to lighten up after such a heavy day. Neither of us felt like that. It was definitely a moving experience overall and it was shocking to see, but it didn’t hit me that hard (but I didn’t expect it to). I am amazed that the extermination went on for so long without anybody realizing what was happening though. Two prisoners of Auschwitz escaped in 1945 and brought attention to what was happening in the camps, and after that, deportation slowed down (and then liberation happened). But for so many years, thousands upon thousands of people were being killed. The videos of Hitler and Goebbels in the late 30s and early 40s discussing their “Final Solution” plan and everybody saluting them leaves me speechless. How did an entire nation believe and support this? How did a man like Hitler ever become chancellor?

PS- This post would be way better with photos, but if you’re curious, just Google them 🙂 Haha. Sorry.


2 thoughts on “Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland (In January)

  1. I was just 16 when we visitied Auschwitz on our school trip and I cried like a baby. We had been studying WWII in History class so had read everything that happened and seen all the pictures, but being there just made it all feel so real. Its so horrific to think what they suffered. I did not know the gate was stolen in 2009, what?!!

    • I was trying to find out how much of Auschwitz is actually still original (since a lot of Dachua isn’t) and I found that out. I didn’t find anything about when they plan to put the original sign back on display. Although, if you were 16 a the time that you went, you got the original one! I wish I had brushed up more on WWII before coming here. It was so long ago and I had NO interesting in history back in high school, but now I feel like I want to go home and start looking at more stuff. Poland has SO much history than I never even thought or knew about. We saw the European Solidarity Center and it went into the martial law in the 1980s and I was so surprised!

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