Auschwitz-Birkenau – My Impressions
Oswiecim Poland, December 2010
Auschwitz Concentration camp is in the new area of the town…so it’s not obvious you’ve actually arrived until you’re almost upon it.
Full day trips are run from Krakow, with many operators offering inexpensive tours. I chose one that was small, a mini bus that had 12 people in the group, and you can also select your preferred language. You can also go there independently. However, the cost of the guided tours run by Poles are low and are excellent value.
Remember, Katyn, Krakow, Poland
On the day I visited, 20 December, 2010, there was deep snow on the ground, it was -15C degrees, and as soon as we left the mini bus, the atmosphere instantly became charged.
The site has been very well preserved and improved upon by the Poles, and its a World Heritage site now…it wasn’t busy, which was a relief. There is an area to purchase items, I wouldn’t class this as a gift shop, and rightly so.
Gallows at Auschwitz Main Camp
I guess I know a little about this place and have studied, read, and digested a lot of information on Auschwitz….but nothing can prepare you for actually being there…..the atmosphere literally does come alive! Auschwitz is completely intact, unlike Birkenau….and you can literally wander around at will. Seeing the “Arbecht Macht Frei” sign above the camp entrance is unbelievably emotional. The irony of the sign, “Work Makes you Free”, is not lost on anybody!
Work Makes you Free
I did take a number of photos across the site as the snow on the ground added to the sombre mood. Although, I couldn’t take photos in Block 11, which was where executions took place and prisoners were held in cells for torture and eventual death. Even though I thought I knew the history and background, it just makes you cry….the way it’s been left untouched, especially the external wall in the courtyard, where 25,000 people were shot. When you descend warily into the basement, the atmosphere changes completely…this is no cliche; it was a very strange feeling and not imagined either. Here, it’s colder, darker, damper…and just full of death…the dead almost seem to whisper out from the walls. This was also the first experimental gas chamber used by the Germans.
I also ventured into the purpose-built gas chamber and crematoria too…a horrible place, an extremely tiny space, it’s incredible to imagine what people endured here. Of the group I was with, many didn’t enter, but I felt that it had to be done…a personal choice for the individual to make.
Birkenau in the snow
Then onto Birkenau, about 3km away from the Auschwitz main camp. These days, you can simply drive up to the infamous arched railway building and park right outside. When you arrive, there is nothing else around. The surroundings are very non-descript. But, once you’re inside the remains of the camp, this is when you’re struck by the immense size of how big Birkenau was, and still is. You really have to see this area to believe how vast Birkenau was/is…it’s massive and was mainly destroyed by the retreating Germans before Russian troops arrived and liberated the camps in January 1945. Again, the size takes ones breath away!
From the entrance where the trains arrived, it’s impossible to pinpoint the destroyed crematoria in the distance; it’s that far away. Nothing has been spared in detail. Some of the destruction has been left as it was originally found by the Russians in January 1945, and nothing can prepare you for the sheer scale of what occurred here, and the slaughter involved. Some of the accommodation huts have been recreated and show the horror that these people actually endured.
Wire at Birkenau
Just as an aside, I was sharing the minibus with a group of English-speaking Europeans, a pleasant enough group, and we got on well enough together during the journey and tour. There was only one issue that arose at the Birkenau camp where, to be fair, it was very very cold, around minus 18 degrees. A French couple wanted to leave as they were too cold and sat in the minibus. However, the rest of us wanted to stay for an extra hour or so in order to take some photos and walk the railroad tracks, the full length to where the demolished crematoria lay. I’d have to say that for the sake of a little chill and discomfort you’d want to try and make the effort.
The remainder of the group did choose to make the most of an emotional journey…and I can safely say we think we did the right thing!
Dusk at Birkenau
This Twentieth Century Historic site is more than worth the effort to visit. It is a must do! It’s not a fun day out, however, it’ll ensure you are firmly grounded when you pass through the infamous gates as you leave.
2015 Revisit and Update
I had the chance to visit the Krakow area again in April 2015 and took the opportunity to once more venture to Oswiecim. The tours from Krakow still operate and the prices have slightly risen, but its still an affordable trip from the centre of Krakow.
On arrival at the the main camp, its clearly been extended and is now very much a tourist destination of choice. Even though its April, its not high season, but the whole place is rammed with people. Large tourist buses and mini buses jostle for the few remaining parking spots left and crowds that flock to the entrance are huge. There is now a higher level of security when entering the site and the experience is much more rushed and certainly less personal.
However, I would say that the female Polish guide who accompanied us to both sites was professional, knowledgable and excellent all round. The only issue is that although the route through the sites at both the main camp and at Birkenau are basically the same, the time spent there is more rushed and the crowds have less respect for their fellow guests and more importantly, the place for which they are visiting.
Its still an extremely moving place to visit and see. It does give you some sense of grounding and reflection of whats actually important in life. However, I would strongly recommend only visiting this site out of season, so that there is more time to take in what actually occurred here in the past.
Transport train wagon looking back towards the main gate, Birkenau
Guard Tower at Auschwitz Main Camp
Wire upon wire at Auschwitz Main Camp