This is a hard one to write about. What do you write about the most infamous concentration camp in history? Over 1.1 million people died here. Most of them were Jews. In fact, one out of every 6 Jews who died in the Holocaust died here. The numbers are so staggering it’s almost incomprehensible.
I studied the Holocaust in university so had a pretty good background as to what happened here, yet being here, finally, in person was a little overwhelming and distancing at the same time. It’s a bit distancing in a couple ways – first, there are so many tour groups (mostly high school students) going through here it really did prevent me from seeing some of the exhibits (at Auschwitz). I also found the displays to be …. I don’t know, clinical (not the word I’m looking for) in its presentation. But then again, standing in front of piles of eyeglasses, or suitcases, or shaving brushes hit me in the face (even if they were behind glass).
I didn’t do a group tour here. I’m not a big fan of being herded around in large groups, even if the information is interesting. For this place I wanted time to think in places, to be in the moment when I could. As I toured around Auschwitz in the opposite direction of most groups, that usually allowed me to have those moments.
The strongest moment I had was standing in front of the gallows at the far end of camp. This was a specially-built one where Rudolf Höss, the former commandant of the camp for the majority of its operation, was executed for crimes here. It’s situated next to the first crematorium that the camp used, although that stopped once the bigger ones were constructed over at Birkenau.
I think when people have an image of Auschwitz, it’s of the station and the tracks leading to the crematoriums. That is, in fact, Birkenau (Auschwitz II – Birkenau), the second camp built a couple of kilometres from the main camp at Auschwitz (a third camp, Auschwitz III – Monowitz, was a labour sub-camp). Originally, when Auschwitz was converted from army barracks to a concentration camp, it was mostly for political prisoners. But by early 1942, until late 1944, when the “final solution” started to be implemented in camps around Poland (and elsewhere), Auschwitz-Birkenau was the final stop for most Jews being transported here from all over Europe. There were four crematoria in use here, although none remain standing (they were destroyed by the Nazis and not reconstructed).
Birkenau is far larger and more spread out than the main Auschwitz camp. There’s also very little here. It’s mostly (a row of ) reconstructed barracks and then just the foundations and chimneys of many, many more. In fact, even though there was less here, I found it more impactful. Walking along those train tracks was difficult for me. What was worse was being at the far end of the camp, looking at groups of tourists being herded around those tracks, made me think of images, still, or from movies and documentaries, of the same happening to all the people brought here to be exterminated. I know it’s an unfair comparison, but it was hard not to see the similarities.
This was a cold, windy, gloomy day for a visit, and somehow appropriate I think. A blue sky sunny day would have had a much different impact on me I think. That said, no matter what the day, no matter how busy the season, this is definitely a place every person should visit. I find it appalling that so many people, young and old, in various countries, don’t seem to know anything about the Holocaust (or Auschwitz in particular) at all. Especially in today’s political climate, it really is worth remembering what can happen when we label others who are different to us (by religion, culture, race, sexual orientation, political beliefs, etc.) and at the same, think that we are somehow better. Hate is not the answer. I don’t know if love is either, but certainly openness and understanding, and a willingness to accept differences, is important for everyone.
Site: Auschwitz II-Birkenau (Konzentrationslager Auschwitz)
Active: May 1940-August 1945
Location: Więźniów Oświęcimia 20, 32-603 Oświęcim. You can take the train or several bus lines from Krakow to the either the town or the camp. There’s a free shuttle bus that runs between Auschwitz and Birkenau (every 20 minutes).
Hours: Opens at 07:30 everyday, but closes at different times during different parts of the year. Closes at 14:00 in December, 15:00 in Jan/Nov, 16:00 in Feb, 17:00 in March/Oct, 18:00 in April/May/Sept, and 19:00 in June/July/Aug. Please note that you can stay up to 90 minutes after the last entrance (times above).