Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau

Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau

“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.” Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945

On our second day in Krakow, we did a tour to visit Auschwitz. We had originally wanted to do it on our own, but you can only visit Auschwitz with a guide, and all the Krakow tour operators buy out the tours and sell them to you in a transportation package, so we ended up doing that and it worked out quite nicely. We got picked up from our apartment early and took the minibus to Auschwitz I, the main camp. There we met our guide and started our 3.5 hour tour of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau).

Entrance to camp with the famous “work will set you free” sign
Double electrical barbed wire fences

Auschwitz I was primarily a prison camp, filled mostly with criminals and Poles, the “lucky” ones, who weren’t sent to Birkenau. If you were Jewish, you went straight to Birkenau and 90% of the Jews went straight into the gas chambers. About 10% were classified as “fit for work” and lived in very harsh conditions until they died from exhaustion or other horrible reasons.

At Auschwitz I, they have a very moving exhibit of what happened at the Auschwitz camps during the war. The parts that really hit home for us were the display of hair (which you cannot take a photo of) and the shoes. There were displays of personal belongings – talit (Jewish prayer shawls), glasses, hair brushes, pots and pans, suitcases. We also went into the only standing gas chamber and crematorium.

Empty cans of Zyklon B, the gas used in the gas chambers
Inside the only standing gas chamber

After our time at Auschwitz I, we headed over to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. This is what most people think of when they think of Auschwitz – this was built for the systematic killing of the Jewish people. I was shocked at the size of it – it’s like a small city. It was so large and vast, which really gave an idea of the amount of people who were killed here, especially if only 10% were held back to work and actually live. The photos don’t really convey the size, but if you’re interested, this drone footage helps to understand how large the complex is.

Example of a train car used to bring Jews to Birkenau

There were five gas chambers at Birkenau, all of which were destroyed by the Nazis to try to “hide” their crimes at the end of the war. You can see the remains of these there. There was a beautiful memorial near the gas chambers as well.

Destroyed gas chamber
Destroyed gas chamber

Many of the barracks are no longer standing, but there was one where we could go inside and see the living conditions.

Inside the barracks – about 5-7 people would sleep on each bunk, which is roughly the size of a king bed

The entire experience at Auschwitz was very moving. It’s important that we never forget what happened to not just Jews, but gays, gypsies, and other groups of people considered “different”. I feel as though especially in our current political climate, it’s important to reflect on what happened during WWII and remember that we can never let this happen again to any group of people.

If you visit Poland, I highly recommend visiting Auschwitz. Whether you are Jewish or not, the experience is not to be missed.

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