“Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”George Santayana
To say I was apprehensive before my visit to Auschwitz would be an understatement. The day before the trip I really started questioning why I ever thought it was a good idea to visit a place where some of the worst crimes against humanity in human history were committed. But seeing the George Santayana quote on the wall when we arrived, I quickly remembered why I was there. We cannot allow ourselves to forget the past just because it is easier for us to isolate ourselves from the knowledge that other humans are capable of causing such immense suffering.
The tour we chose was organised by DiscoverCrakow. We met them in their office, just off the main market square around 11am. I’d strongly advise having a big breakfast as there are pretty much no opportunities to eat on the tour. We were on a bus with about 10-15 other people. The drive from Krakow to Auschwitz took just over an hour. A documentary about the Holocaust was played on the bus.
The tour starts in the main camp, Auschwitz I. Built as a Polish military base, it was originally made up of just 22 pre-war brick buildings. Each of the buildings have now been converted into separate exhibitions, expanding on various historical aspects of the camp.
The guide was careful to emphasise that Auschwitz had two functions. At the beginning, from the founding of the camp in 1940 to the start of 1942, Auschwitz functioned exclusively as a concentration camp. The first prisoners of the camp were Polish political prisoners, often academics and people who were deemed a threat to the Nazi regime in Poland. As a concentration camp, the prisoners were forced to work in inhuman conditions, often leading to death through starvation. From 1942 to it’s liberation by the Soviets on the 27th January 1945, Auschwitz served an even darker purpose. Not only was it a functioning concentration camp, but it was also the largest centre for the immediate mass killing of a large part of the Jewish population of Europe.
Inside block 6, lies an exhibition emphasising the lives of the prisoners when Auschwitz was functioning solely as a concentration camp. The hallway is lined with the identification photographs taken of the prisoners when they first arrived at the camp. Everyone looks visibility exhausted from their journey which would often involve days shut inside a cattle train. All the women’s hair has been cut short. There is fear behind all of their eyes, determination behind others. The guide told us that the use of photographs as identification was scrapped as people were unrecognisable after being at the camp for a short period of time. The Nazi’s replaced the photograph identification method with numbers tattooed on the prisoners.
Another exhibition shows personal items taken to Auschwitz by the prisoners and found by the Soviets when they liberated the camp- a stark reminder that some people arriving at Auschwitz really believed they were there to start a new life. Another glass display in the same building contains a pile of human hair, and shoes of every type and size. We walked through this building in silence, no words were needed to explain the horror of what was being seen.
Block 11 was probably the most harrowing part of the visit to Auschwitz I. Block 11 was effectively a prison within a prison. Prisoners would be punished for disobeying the orders of the SS. The most frequently punished acts were attempting to acquire additional food, various forms of working in an unsatisfactory way, smoking, relieving themselves at a time deemed improper by the guards, wearing clothing that was non-regulatory, or, attempting to commit suicide. The punishments were arbitrarily chosen, with different punishments frequently being used for the same crimes. Block 11 contained starvation cells, standing cells, dark cells and a shooting wall. Block 11 was also the place of the first experiment with mass killing using Zyklon B.
To end the tour of the main camp, we were taken into the first gas chamber a crematorium. No words could be said here.
After a quick stop to use the toilet we got back on the bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The majority, probably about 90%, of the victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp died in Birkenau. This equates to approximately a million people. More than nine out of ten, were Jews. We walked along the railway tracks to the selection ramp. In this place, the fate of thousands of terrified people was decided… were they fit to work or, should they be sent straight to the gas chamber? This was often the last place that people ever saw their family and friends.
The scale of Birkenau is unimaginable, just one of the many buildings could be home to around a thousand people. We were shown around one of the buildings where the children slept. The building was dark and cold.
At the end of the railway track is the remains of the gas chambers. The gas chambers were destroyed by the Nazi’s before the end of the war in an attempt to cover up the evidence. There is also a memorial, which is open to artistic interpretation.
It’s impossible to really imagine the scale of human suffering that took place on the Auschwitz complex. I think it’s incredible that just two years after the war ended the camp was converted into a museum by the survivors.
I definitely feel more emotional looking back on these photos and writing this blog post that I did immediately after the trip. It’s not the normal fun and exciting thing that you do on holiday, but I think it’s an incredibly important place to see. In school you learn the facts of the Holocaust, but standing in the place it happened, you begin to understand the story slightly more.
Advice for your trip
Wear comfortable shoes. There will be a lot of walking/standing involved and some on the ground is uneven. If you’re visiting in winter like we did, wear as many layers as possible. You may feel like you’re overdressed, but even in thermals and a ski jacket we were freezing. Most importantly, be respectful, despite being told at the start of the tour not to take photographs in certain areas and not to take selfies anywhere, we still had a number of individuals on our tour group doing just that.