I visited the camps with a tour group arranged by ePoland to avoid the hassle of figuring out the bus routes and tickets for each campsite. On our way there, we watched a short documentary about the events that took place between 1940 and 1945. I could feel tears welling up at some of the clips of small children and other survivors. They were nothing but paper thin skin stretched across brittle bone.
A few things to note about Auschwitz and Birkenau:
- These are two separate camps with a free shuttle bus that runs between the both of them
- Entry after 10am includes a compulsory tour. It obviously costs more but it helps with the management of large volumes of visitors. Plus, you get an in-depth guide around the area, instead of reading off a few information boards here and there.
- You’re only allowed one bag per person according to these dimensions: 30cmx20cmx10cm. I decided to just carry my purse, passport, phone and water bottle. Also, do bring some coins along in case you’d like to use the toilets, it costs 1 zloty per entry.
- Flash photography is not allowed throughout the camp. There are also a few exhibits where photography is strictly prohibited. Although no one really enforces these rules, I think obeying them is the least one can do to show some respect to the victims here. Also, I found it a little insensitive when people took selfies with large smiles when really, this was anything but a happy place. It’s the same as taking a selfie at a cemetery or a funeral. Perhaps I’m overthinking it, but read on and (hopefully) you’ll understand why.
- There are also a few vending machines and a buffet-type restaurant by the entrance to Auschwitz, but that’s as far as food and beverages go.
Now that the logistical details are out of the way, let’s focus on the camp and the experience of walking through such a historic place.
Before this, everything I knew about the German Nazis and World War 2 were mostly from movies, like “The Boy in Striped Pyjamas” and “The Pianist”. (This is awkward, I’m writing this in John Paul 2 Airport in Krakow, opposite a Jewish man. Is it weird that I want to bombard him with tons of questions? I’m getting distracted again.) Auschwitz was the “better” camp, the concentration camp where people weren’t immediately gassed. Prisoners here lived in brick barracks, even if they were overcrowded and had horrific sanitary conditions. It has since been refurbished, with its insides turned into well-thought-out exhibitions about the camps, the lives of the prisoners here, as well as their ends. I learned about the beginnings of the camps, the medical experiments that went on to determine the most efficient methods for mass murder and sterilisation, the deception that many victims experienced right up to their last seconds before the doors to the gas chambers were shut, the Germans’ attempts at destroying the evidence of their cruelties, and the sheer mass of stuff that was collected from the victims and sold back into the German economy.
I learned that a majority of the victims here weren’t just Jews from Hungary or Germany, but also Poles. A majority of the people here were Polish (didn’t matter if they weren’t Jews) and the country saw a large number of it’s population disappear in these camps. Other victims included people who questioned the regime and those who didn’t “fit” in society like the disabled or mentally ill. I took a few pictures here and there but for the most part, I was so overwhelmed by my surroundings I decided to be as present as possible to soak it all in.
The exhibits not only highlighted the ridiculous number of people who went through the gas chambers, but also the resourcefulness of the Nazis. Gold teeth were pulled out from dead bodies (by prisoners who might be friends or relatives of the dead) and sometimes jewellery that was hidden in bodies were plied out, melted down and sold to oblivious German citizens. The same went for glasses, prosthetic legs, shoes, bags, clothes, combs, anything that could be pawned off for profit really.
Apart from their possessions, hair was used to weave blankets or stuff pillows, probably slept in or on by numerous people. Ashes from the cremated bodies were used to make roads, bricks and the barracks that the other prisoners slept in. When there was just too much ash, it was simply poured over the campsite.
Prisoners were often sentenced to the most horrific punishments that usually led to their deaths, with a “trial” lasting about a minute long. You see, it sounds better to punish someone for breaking the most arbitrary “laws” of the camp, rather than calling it what it is, murder. This took the form of starvation, standing cells where one was most likely to die of exhaustion (that is, standing all night and working for about 16 hours and repeating the whole cycle again), or a shot in the head (the most humane way to go under these circumstances). In one of the starvation cells, there is a memorial for a priest who took the place of a young man who was sentenced to death for offering his portion of bread to another prisoner who was being starved as punishment. The most harrowing experience was walking through the gas chambers in Auschwitz. We walked through the showers that were never used, but were installed to deceive victims into believing that they were merely going in for a shower. Guards would even tell victims to remember which hooks they used to hang their clothes, so that they would be able to find them after the shower.
In Birkenau, the size of the camp was enough to take your breath away. Today, it’s calm and serene, with patches of green grass and tall trees growing every so often. I think the millions of visitors who have walked through what was formerly known as the “gates of death” have each taken home a piece of sorrow and sadness, something probably very apparent here only 70 years ago. There is a sense of sadness that still lurks in the air, you’ll see evidence of this from the dried roses left in some of the barracks and ruined gas chambers. It felt like a heavy blanket that didn’t suffocate you but made it’s presence known through the soft winds that blow or the rocky paths that guided many to their deaths.
The women and children’s camps were mostly made of bricks, but the men stayed in overcrowded wooden barracks. Back then, the area was swampy in the summer and unforgivingly cold in the winter. A drastic difference from what was before me. There were three levels to each bunker, the lowest one being on the dirt ground. Fuel was scarce during the winter. There was only one latrine per 100 or so people. If hard labour didn’t kill you, diarrhoea probably would. It was common for people to not make it to the toilets in time, meaning that they would lay in their bunkers next to 9 other people covered in their own excrements that would also drip through the thin matresses, down to the bunker below.
We were also guided through the latrines and the sinks, a barrack for each facility. Apparently, working in the latrine and emptying buckets of excrements was the best job on site because it increased one’s chance of survival. While regular prisoners got to shower only once every month or three months if they were lucky, latrine workers got to shower everyday. Furthermore, the stench clung to their skin from a day’s work meant that people often avoided them, including those who were sick. Their isolation was their biggest chance of survival. Nothing was what it seemed in this place.
As I walked out of this place, I crossed the train tracks that used to bring people into the camps, for the second time. I am grateful to be able to learn about this, grateful to not have to live through it, grateful that I am in a place and position where I will never have to experience this, grateful that I have a warm bed and a roof over my head and family and friends who are, well, alive.