Today is one of the days I have been looking forward and dreading at the same time. I have wanted to visit Auschwitz from the moment we decided on this trip but at the same time I am not sure what kind of impression it will have on me.
The ride from Krakow to Auschwitz is only one hour and we booked at guided tour at 1PM, so we decide to take a small detour along the Bledow desert, also known as the Polish Sahara, which was used by Rommel to train his Africa Corps. We have heard lots of talk about it but in the end it looks a bit disappointing.
We arrive at Auschwitz around lunch time and quickly have a bite to eat before entering the stie. it’s really busy and we now realize why it was so important to book the visit in advance if you want a guided tour. You can visit without a guide but you will not get the full impression of the place I feel.
Our guide tells the story incredibly raw and I would not like to be a German tourist in the group. We are taken first through the buidlings at Auschwitz I where we get a view on all the atrocities that were done to the people who were deported to Auschwitz.
We see piles of cans that contained the Zyklon B gas, piles of glasses, shoes, suitcases, brushes and combs, and the most gruesome of all: human hair.
Our guide also explains that Auschwitz was the only camp where they tattooed numbers on the prisoners. In other camps registration was done by pictures, but in Auschwitz people’s appearances changes so quickly because of the terribly harsh conditions that they could not be identified by their pictures in a matter of weeks. That’s when the tattoos were added to the mix of measures to dehumanize the prisoners.
The final barrack we visit is the ‘court’ where people, mostly Polish citizens, were give a 1-minute trial and were then shot to death.
Whenever someone tried to escape or when the Germans wanted to set an example, the gallows outside the kitchen block were used.
The tour of Auschwitz I ends at the gas chambers. These were the first to be used but soon proved to be too small and too slow for the plans that the Germans had in mind, so they had to ‘branch out’ to Auschwitz II. But since the gas chambers there were destroyed, this gives an idea of what it must have felt.
After a short break, we take the bus to Auschwitz II Birkenau where the tour continues. This is the more iconic image of the Auschwitz concentration camp that we get from documentaries and movies. The sheer scale of the place blows us away. I just cannot get my head around it. It’s just too much to process and I feel completely baffled.
At the far end of the camp, 2 big piles of rubble remind us of where the gas chambers and crematoria used to be, They must have been an imposing site reminding the thousands of prisoners in the camp that that was where they would end up if they were not taken there straight away.
A memorial with texts in all languages of the prisoners that were taken here, plus English, tells us that we cannot ever forget. But still, I find it surreal to see, knowing that history is repeated on a daily basis and there are plenty of similar holocaust examples in far and recent history showing that human kind will never learn from it’s mistakes.
We get a quick look inside one of the barracks and our guide points out that visitors are not always that respectufl. The walls are coverd in carvings from floor to ceiling, all done by visitors who felt the need to leave a marking of their presence.
Outside we also noticed tourists taking selfies, smiling in front of the watch towers and entry gate. I find it surreal.
We end our visit around 5PM and we definitely need some time to process the impressions of the day. I just cannot put it to words and it’s really quiet in my helmet on the ride out of Auschwitz and towards Bielsko-Biala. Judging from the silence I get from Jo, I feel he is processing the same thoughts.
We find a basic but nice campsite just outside Bielsko-Biala. From here on it will be a straight ride home.