Day two in Kraków and after a lie in to regain some sleep, I went for another walk, finding the same underground snack shops and decided I quite enjoy Polish pastries. The same company ran tours to Auschwitz, and I joined up with some American students. Once again the bus ride out there was causing me to nod off, which is a shame as the video you normally watch on your own at the camp was being shown on the bus, and it was hard to pay attention.
Auschwitz is about an hour out of Kraków, and is actually made up of three camps – Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz. It also had over 40 subcamps in the area. Tours however, generally focus on camps I and II. Originally for political prisoners and Jews, it was later used for Soviet POWs, gypsies and criminals. It also has become a symbol of terror, genocide and the Holocaust, and as well as being named a UNESCO Heritage site, has become a place of pilgrimage for survivors, familes of survivors and others who want to learn about or remember the Holocaust.
We arrived at the gates and were assigned a tour leader. It’s quite smart how it’s done – considering the overall sombre tone, having loud tour guides talking in every language would be terrible. Instead, everyone is assigned headphones and the leader can talk softly into her microphone, for all of you to hear.
Entering in through the main gates itself leads to a terrible feeling of trepidation. The barbed fences remain, the buildings look bleak and uninviting. Oddly however, if it were anywhere else – the sun just breaking through on the buildings would be quite nice, but somehow it just doesn’t have any effect here.
We are taken through various buildings – starting with the evidence found of the Holocaust. Walking up the stairs we pass people leaving, some with tears in their eyes. The rooms ahead have several display cases – filled with the possessions of those killed – thousands of pairs of shoes, bags, combs. A display jar contains ash of many of the victims. Some cloth made partially from the human hair taken from the prisoners. And one final chilling room which I will leave for future visitors to see for themselves, for good reason – photos are not permitted.
Other buildings showed the awful living conditions, boards as beds shared by many, the limited bathroom facilities, and then on to the cells for the condemned, those being punished, and outside – the execution yard. Some people were bringing flowers here, others with flags from Israel. A sombre tone all around, with most tourists just walking around arms folded, tense, and with solemn expressions – at best.
The final sight was the gas chamber. A room where people were herded to ‘shower’, before gas pellets were dropped in through chimneys to kill them together. Next door – the furnaces where the bodies were destroyed.
Following Auschwitz we had a 15 minute break. It was quite chilly, despite the sunshine – the first day that I didn’t want to be in shorts, and found it added to the mood a bit. It’d be worse in winter, for sure, and can only imagine what suffering those who ‘lived’ here had to endure. As it turns out it was about to get worse – as we moved on to Birkenau. In some ways it was even worse – a bigger camp, with many, many ‘sheds’ for sleeping in – the camp split in two for women and men. A lone stretch of rail tracks comes into the camp, with a wagon sitting half way down. These are the wagons that the prisoners were brought in – often with 80-100 people crammed in for days at a time. At a certain point they were divided – those who could work, and those who – well, weren’t going to be around. From there they were taken down to the end, told they would shower – and in greater numbers – gassed as well.
At the end of the war the SS destroyed most of the documents and the gas chambers, and any traces that would provide evidence of the atrocities – before the Red Army marched in on January 27, 1945. The ruins of the gas chambers remain, however, and the stories of those interred in the camps, as well as some of those who worked there. The camps stand today as they did – mostly untouched (especially Birkenau) since the war, in some ways as a tribute, but to others a reminder, so that we may not repeat the terrible events.
The inevitable question upon your return to the hostel after this tour is “Did you enjoy….” usually cut short and followed with “err..I mean…what did you think?”. And generally the answer is something along the lines of “Depressing”. It is hard to fathom what people are capable of, how much humanity was lost – not just in the thousands of lives ended tragically early, but the people that did the heinous acts, as they cannot have lived out the remainder of their lives free of remorse, nightmares and fear.
I said this is a depressing tour, and usually that would prevent people from doing it. But if you are ever in Kraków, this is the one thing that just has to be done, if only to understand the world a little more.
That night however at the hostel it was a lighter mood, with hot dogs on offer from the staff. I had a chat with some South Americans, before turning in early – having moved rooms, I appeared to have a room to myself. This was changed at midnight as two Italians arrived, and promptly went off to hit town, returning in the early hours. Such a simple activity which could not have been possible 66 years prior in Kraków. Change is good.
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