It’s not every day that I am left speechless. Those of you who know me well can vouch for that. However, a few days ago, I visited Auschwitz for the second time after my initial visit in early 2010. Both experiences were vastly different for varying reasons. The first time I went in solo whereas this time, I joined an English speaking tour group. Some 4 days on, I am still not quite sure what to make of things.
Firstly, it’s incredibly difficult to try and wrap your head around exactly what went on but, more importantly, how ruthless and utterly efficient the German’s were in how they set up all three camps within a small radius of each other. There is Auschwitz 1, Auschwitz 2: Birkenau and Auschwitz 3: Monowitz, which was a factory that the Nazi’s managed to destroy before the Soviet liberators arrived in the winter of 1945. Many survivors had to remain in the camps until the summer with Auschwitz 1 being turned into a makeshift hospital.
Along the way through camps 1 & 2, our tour guide informed us of multiple stories that rammed home just how horrific things were for not just the Jews held captive, but the political prisoners, gays, gypsies, blacks, disabled and social outcasts. One can read countless books on the camps and Nazi rule though it doesn’t really sink in until you walk the dark and eerily quiet surrounds of the camps. You see first hand and understand just how efficient the German’s were with their final solution. Interestingly, Hitler never visited any of the camps around Europe except for Dachau which is located just outside of Munich in Germany.
Upon arrival at camp 1, it is mandatory to join a tour group after 10 am due to the large numbers of visitors that attend. It took around 2.5 hours all up to buy a ticket. You have to submit your ID for registration these days due to problems in recent years with vandalism and theft of items from the camp. Sad but true. The entry fee is 50 Zloty which is only a few pounds with proceeds helping to maintain the camps and pay for other related costs. Once inside, you begin the slow walk where each point is explained in great detail.
Around 9 years ago now, the sign above the entrance to camp 1, “Arbeit Macht Frie” which translates to “Work Will Set You Free” was stolen and damaged, forcing a replacement to be constructed in its place. Currently, the infamous sign is being held at a storage base awaiting its future.
Over 1.3 MILLION people were channeled into Auschwitz with only around 200,000 surviving the camps by the time of liberation in January 1945. Camp commander, Rudolph Höss was executed by allied forces on site next to the camps crematorium on April 16 1947. Höss had previously attempted to return to a normal life as a farmer before his capture. Survivors were forced to burn anything they could get their hands on to keep warm during the remainder of the cold and harsh winter. Initial feelings from some survivors were to have both remaining camps completely destroyed however, it was later agreed that the camps should remain open as a reminder of why we can never allow this to happen again. Within two years of liberation, Auschwitz was opened up to the general public and now sees more than 2 million visitors annually.
One of the things that strikes you when walking through the camp is the potent smell that arises from particular buildings. Seeing the cramped confines and deplorable living conditions, you begin to imagine just how utterly hopeless and horrible life would have been for detainees over the 5 years that Auschwitz was opened. Some of the confined sleeping huts had over 1,000 people crammed into spaces that were built to accomodate only half those numbers. The winters were bitterly cold and summers stifled and hot.
Once you complete the tour of camp 1, a shuttle bus runs you to Birkenau or camp 2 as it is known. Things are far more open here with the camp being over three times the size of camp 1. The overcrowded trains would arrive here at Birkenau where the “selection process” would take place. From there, prisoners would be separated and sent off to their quarters or, in many cases, sent straight to the gas chambers for what they thought would be a shower and change of clothes. Many of the remaining prisoners would not see past a few weeks before also being exterminated.
Getting to Auschwitz can be done via train or bus from Krakow city centre with the first bus departing at 7 am and trains soon after. The bus runs direct to the camp and costs 14 Zloty each way taking just over an hour whilst the train is a more profound way to reach the camp costing 9 Zloty and taking just under 2 hours. If you do decide to take the train, it terminates at Osweicim and you can then walk to the camp in around 20 minutes.
If you travel to Europe or even live in Europe at any time in your life, make the effort to visit Auschwitz. It’s an important part of our history that should never be forgotten under any circumstances. In an age where we constantly moan and complain about insignificant problems in our lives, Auschwitz is a permanent reminder that, in actual fact, our problems aren’t really problems at all when you think of the 1.1 MILLION people that died within the confines of Auschwitz.