As I said in my previous post, this is a place I had wanted to see years ago when I was living in England. I felt with this trip, being on this side of Europe again, I knew I had to get here. Thankfully Mum and Dad wanted to go as well, or I would have gone solo.
The best way to get to the camps, honestly, is through a tour. I know some of you may not like the idea of being herded along with a large group, but it is hassle free. No need to rent a car or find public transit. Not having to stand in line for tickets is great. Viator tours has many options catering to your needs/wants from a tour. You can book private tours or group tours. Whatever you’re looking for, they’re likely to have an option for you! Check out Viator here
Our tour was picking up guests from a few locations across the city. Our pick up was at a nearby hotel, just a five minute walk from our apartment. We had to be there for 7am. It was right on time, and the bus was relatively full. I’d say there was about 30 of us on this tour. When you book through Viator, they tell you what to expect for the day. Our tour was 7 hours long and they advised bringing snacks or a lunch because there would not be time to stop in between the camps. We had packed a decent lunch and bottles of water.
The drive to Auschwitz was about an hour and a half to two hours. The coach we were on had tv’s, and so the guide put on a documentary about Auschwitz and Birkenau. It sort of set the tone of the day, not that there was a feeling of excitement on board. To be frank, you should never visit sites like this if you suffer from depression, or have a tendency to feel ‘blue’ as they say. It is not a happy place by any means, and you feel sort of heavy, for lack of a better term, while visiting.
It was a crisp, cold day but the sun was shining. Despite it being so sunny, I never felt warm walking around this place. I had been to a concentration camp before — you can read about that here., but being in Auschwitz was not the same experience or feeling from when I had been in Sachsenhausen. They are two completely different camps, this one being the most deadly.
The tour takes you into several buildings where the personal belongings of millions of Jews are being held. There are rooms upon rooms with items like luggage, prayer rugs and human hair resting behind glass. Some rooms are off limits to photographs, where others are not. Be mindful of those rooms where pictures are not allowed. You can read about what happened here a hundred times and never fully understand it until you see it for yourself. It’s heartbreaking to see what is left of entire generations of families. They hadn’t a clue what was to happen to them when they arrived here. Packing everything they had because they were told they would need it when they arrived. I cannot begin to imagine how scared these men, women and children must have felt after being stripped away of all their possessions and separated from each other.
We spent a good amount of time in Auschwitz. We never felt rushed or anything from our guide. It isn’t a place where you can be rushed either. We had been given about 15 minutes after exiting for washrooms and a coffee. The three of us got back to the bus so we could eat our lunch before arriving at Birkenau. Auschwitz is about 2-3km from Birkenau, so the drive wouldn’t be long. Once everyone was back on board, we made our way to our second stop.
Birkenau has an entirely different feeling from Auschwitz. For the most part, it is pretty barren looking. There are brick chimneys that pop up from the snow covered ground and a few buildings remain intact. We start our tour walking along the train tracks. Our first encounter with these tracks were at the Gate of Death. Prisoners knew that when trains pulled through the gate, they were here to die. It left a pit in my stomach just thinking about how many people came through that gate unknowingly to their demise.
Our guide then took us toward the trees. She said this is where the crematoriums were, but the Nazis tried to destroy them so all that was left are ruins. She told us how the Jews were told they were having picnics in the forests, but would need to shower first. Even telling them to remember where they hung their clothes so they knew where to find them after their shower. Unbeknownst to them, this would be their final resting place. They were murdered here not long after arriving at Birkenau. The Nazis tried to blow it up to hide what horrors they were committing here, but did not succeed.
If I hadn’t already felt cold, that chill down my spine certainly didn’t help. If there was another word for heartbreaking or devastating, I would use it. But I cannot seem to convey how I felt that day without using either one or both of those words.
The tour took us to the bunkers, the women’s bunk to be exact. From the pictures you can see they were not the greatest conditions. They slept dozens to a bed. If you were lucky, you got the top bunk because you were less likely to get eaten by rats there. The bottom bunk was the floor and if it rained, you were likely to drown where you lay. Some say you were luckier still if there was no room at all and you got to sleep outside. But in the winter you were likely to freeze to death. There is no good ending to these stories in this place. It showcases the cruelest part of humanity.
Having experienced these places leaves me feeling sad, yes, but grateful that I live in the time I do. I have never seen, nor likely to see, such disregard for human life in my lifetime. History is important and should never be forgotten. That’s why places like these, although sad and terrible, should never be off limits to the world traveller.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”George Santayana
Our tour is done and we make our way back to Krakow. It’s nearly dinner time by the time we reach our apartment. We didn’t feel like making a fuss about dinner, so we just walked into the Hard Rock Cafe for a quick bite. We were all feeling a bit emotionally drained from the day we just had.
The night soon came to an end. Tomorrow would be another early morning to try to see the Oskar Schindler Factory Museum before it got too busy.
Stay tuned for another fantastic day on our Christmas Adventure!
Until next time…