Brace yourself guys, this is going to be a long one…
In March, I went to Krakow in Poland with two wonderful friends. We are all interested in history, and particularly, the Second World War. We decided we had to see Auschwitz, the death camp where around 1.1 million people were systematically murdered. None of us could predict the scale or the emotion of the place.
We arrived in Krakow in the morning and made our way to our hostel in Krakow Old Town. Our hostel was called the Dizzy Daisy Hostel, it was so beautiful and was the best hostel I have ever stayed in! It had high ceilings and marble floors, and we had a huge three-bed room in a separate apartment with a shared bathroom.
We made our way to the Main Square in the evening for dinner, ate pizza and sat with blankets across our laps watching the buzz of the square and the horses pulling carriages past as the sun went down and the sky turned purple. Kraków is really stunning!
The next day, we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We took a bus from the centre of Krakow to Auschwitz. It didn’t take long to get in, even amongst a few hoards of school kids, and we were walking up to the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Sets You Free) sign, none of us really prepared for how much it would affect us. When you go through the gates it seems a bit like a village or a complex of houses, they are built quite tall. It was bizarre because we had the cold winter sun shining over the houses, and in an eery way it was quite pretty. You could view inside most of the houses, where they had exhibitions. These were the most haunting part of the site. I won’t go through all of the rooms, but the ones that stood out the most were the shoes, glasses and the human hair that had been taken from victims. Hair was shaved off because the Nazis could sell it for it to be turned into carpet or insulation. Somehow, a lot of the hair was saved in bags and lasted years. To be honest, when I walked into this room I just felt sick, I couldn’t cry or get angry, I just felt completely numb. It was surreal.
Another of the most heart breaking rooms was the mother and children room. It had clothes of infants, that had been made by their mothers, next to a woman’s clothes. I thought that I wouldn’t have been as affected by this, not being a mother myself, but the idea of systematically murdering innocent children really shook me to my core. Unfortunately, the Holocaust was not the first genocide our world has seen, but it was on the largest scale. It was so hard to comprehend humans, Nazis, who probably had children, were killing other people’s children (232,000 children). That, for me, was the most difficult thing to process, I feel like killing a child goes against every fibre of the human body.
The exhibition made a point of showing the different groups of minorities who were murdered at Auschwitz, including the Romano Travellers. They had boards of experiences written up, which, apart from the mother and child room, left me in tears.
Whilst walking around the camp, we passed the place that prisoners were hanged. A few metres away and we walked into one of the gas chambers. There was a sign outside asking people to remain silent inside the chambers, out of respect. A lot of other tourists ignored this, chatting away and taking pictures, which really annoyed us. The gas chamber on the Auschwitz site was more like a prototype for what was to follow and it was much smaller than we had imagined.
We had underestimated the scale of Auschwitz and how long it would take us to get around the site, so we had totally forgotten to bring lunch (an insignificant, first-world problem when you’re visiting a death camp, so we shared a large bag of paprika crisps out in the sun and tried to reflect on what we’d just experienced).
We got on a bus from Auschwitz to Birkenau, even though it was about a 15-minute walk up the road. This route was the one taken by prisoners every day to work. At Birkenau, there was the end of a train track. This was the track that came from across Europe bringing prisoners. In my next post about Berlin, I talk about track 17, the track where German prisoners were deported to Auschwitz. It was a bit strange to think that I had visited both ends of the track and that Track 17 in Berlin had so many respectful mourners and tourists, whereas, at Birkenau, there were tourists posing on the train track. It was disgusting that they were using the place for a fashion shoot, which really, really annoyed us. Birkenau was developed later than Auschwitz but had been designed to contain more prisoners because Auschwitz was so overcrowded. Over time it became an extermination camp rather than a concentration camp. It is estimated that 1.3 million people died here, 1.1 million being Jewish.
I don’t know if you’ve heard the rumour that birds don’t fly over Auschwitz and that they don’t sing. This is someone’s idea to make Auschwitz that bit more horrific, and it’s b*llocks. Whilst we were there, the sun shined, birds flew over and they sang like mad in the trees at Birkenau. It is important for us to acknowledge that however much evil took place at this site, nature is far more powerful and will mend the human races faults. We can’t view Auschwitz as this almost supernatural site, because that would be romanticising it in some way, instead, we need to look at it from a raw perspective, that it had unthinkable, evil and horrendous things happen there, but it is now a place to educate the future generations on our mistakes. I felt it was unfair to feel personally hurt by Auschwitz, and it put life into perspective for me, but I don’t think it is right for us to cry and declare how awful we feel about this horror on our world’s history. Instead, we must vow to learn from these mistakes and ensure that history never repeats itself by creating a safe, loving world, whilst appreciating the pain that those who were murdered went through.
It was a difficult place to visit but it was necessary to understand the full extent of the horrors during the war. If you get the chance to visit Poland, I would. It is gorgeous and full of character. Auschwitz probably isn’t for those that are easily upset, but it is an incredible experience and it really does help to understand what happened during WW2 and what we must try to prevent happening in our future.
As well as our trip to Auschwitz we did some touristy bits; visited some museums and walked around the Main Square and went for cocktails in the daytime. It was the perfect way to have a few days relaxing after a long Spring Term, however, Auschwitz really did exhaust us mentally!
If you read all of that, thank you. Would you visit Auschwitz? Let me know if you’ve been and your experience.