Everyone I know has heard once in his/her life about Auschwitz, one of the most horrifying places to be as a Jew during the Second World War. I always knew I had to visit this place once to understand the stories that I have heard during history classes. To understand the world a bit better, I don't travel only to fun places. Do you? I finally got the chance to go there in August 2021 and boy, I was so nervous!
What to expect in this article
History class from teacher Seyamaila
Let’s first start with the history, because it might be possible that you actually have never heard of this place before, which I can imagine. As many Dutch Jews were deported to Auschwitz, we have heard many crazy things about this camp during college.
Auschwitz was the largest concentration of the German Nazis. Over 1.1 million men, women, and children lost their lives here, during 1940 – 1945. Adolf Hitler, the chancellor of Germany, was determined that `all problems´ would be solved with the elimination of every Jew along with artists, educators, Romas, communists, homosexuals, and handicapped people. You can imagine how cruel it was to live during these years.
Camp 1: Auschwitz
Did you know that there are 2 camps that you visit when you buy tickets online?
You will first be going to Camp Auschwitz 1. Here you will see many barracks (buildings where the prisoners slept)which you can also enter. Just like you will enter one of the gas chambers and you will see statues with pictures from that time.
Inside the barracks, you can see many many things, pictures, lavatory, and stuff that was left. Shoes, glasses, and the requirements of handicapped people are examples of that. One of the things that hit me most was a room filled with women’s hair. It was crazy to see that and at that moment I realized that these were real people in the past. How weird that might sound. Even when I saw all the shoes in one of the rooms I still felt like it was just a story, but seeing the real hair, brought this to life for me. It was a very strange feeling that I can’t explain.
Camp 2: Auschwitz - Birkenau
After a short break, you can take a (free) shuttle bus that takes you to the other camp in 10 minutes. This camp is like how I did imagine it would look. It is like you always see in the movies (like ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ – have you not seen it yet? Go watch it now!). You see the train rails and it seems very deserted.
The ambiance here was even more suffocating than in the first camp. It’s mostly just bare land, the distance between all the different barracks (houses) was long and the train rails were in the middle, so you could see it from anywhere.
The tour guide told us that whenever the people got out of the train, they directly would have to stand in lines. Of women, men, children, and what else. The weakest people would be killed straight away.
The gas chambers in this camp are just ruins now, as they were destroyed right after the liberation.
At this place, you will visit the monuments and also enter one of the bunkers/barracks. In here you could see the sleeping conditions, there were 700 prisoners in just one small bunker, how did they manage to find a free spot?
After visiting the barrack, the tour has come to an end and you can go back to the first camp, Auschwitz 1, where the official entrance is. You can go back by shuttle bus.
It is free to visit Auschwitz, but you will have to buy your tickets at the entrance. They only allow a certain amount of people, so you will have to be early if you want to enter for free.
Next to that, you can also buy tickets online for a guided tour. This is what I did and this costs 85 złoty (18 euros) per person, or if you are a student 75 złoty (16 euros).
I do recommend booking some weeks in advance as it can get crowded.
I would also recommend you book a tour. It is basically just bare land and here and there statues with explanations, so you might not get all the information.
At the same time, if you do visit it by yourself, you will have much more time to discover it all by yourself. You can visit all the barracks and dive into the stories of all prisoners. Compared to following the general tours and waiting for the groups in front of you, I would do this the next time. I would have liked to visit the Dutch barrack or the ‘hospital’ barrack.
The next question is how you get to Auschwitz. It is only 1 hour away from Krakau.
There are trains going from Krakau. I have seen a train station in the village. (I am not talking about the one in the camp, but an official one). It must not be so hard to find the correct trainline. I have noticed many people in Poland can speak English, so don’t worry about asking.
Another option is booking a tour from a tour company. In Krakow, you can see many options to do that. It is very easy if you want to be sure you have transport + you don’t have to stand in line for tickets and you have your own tour guide.
Lastly, you can also go on your own transport (car), as we did. There are two major parking sites, which you will have to pay for. In that case, you can also take your car to the other camp or you can leave it where it is, as the shuttle bus is free. To be honest, I did not see many parking spots at Auschwitz-Birkenau, so I would not take that risk.
- Be prepared for what you will see at both camps. We were exhausted afterward, not only because it’s a lot of walking, but also because of all the horror you see
- Be prepared to walk a lot, as most things aren’t close to each other and the paths are not all straight. My parents can’t walk fast and the tour guide did. You can imagine how the prisoners might have felt in the past, their ‘guides’ might also not have waited for them and they had to walk a lot during the day.
- Take good shoes with you and also an umbrella, as everything is located outside.
- Take food and drinks with you and eat before the tour starts. I thought I could eat during the tour, but we weren’t allowed to do that. Were the prisoners allowed?
- Next to food, make sure you went to the toilet before the tour starts. I have only seen one toilet during our tour in Auschwitz 1.
After the visit
It was not fun to visit this site, but it is important. To keep this horrifying part of history alive and so we won’t repeat it.
My family and I still felt tired a couple of days later and doing fun things helped us to process what we had seen. I didn’t even feel like visiting more museums of that part of history, while I normally did.
Before this trip, I wanted to visit Schindler’s factory in Krakow, as I have seen the movie (Schindler’s List? Another must-watch!), but just seeing the outside of this factory was good enough for me the days after visiting Auschwitz. I couldn’t stand to hear or see more stories, how weird that might sound, but I think I needed a couple of days to process everything I had seen.
I will take this experience with me for the rest of my life and whenever I hear a story about Auschwitz or WW2, I have a much better understanding.
A month later I did want to understand even more of WW2, so I went to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. She was a Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis in a secretive ‘backhouse’ and wrote in her diary about her experience, which was published as a book later.
She was also deported to Auschwitz (and later to Bergen Belsen, Germany). Now I had a much better understanding of how her journey must have been.
I have seen the train where she could have been in and how suffocating that must have been, there was barely any room to breathe. The Second World War is not just a story for me anymore, but something I can imagine very vividly of how it must have been for the Jews and other groups that were murdered in this place. I think this is the most important realization and lesson for me and very valuable for the rest of my life.
The next place I want to go is to Camp Westerbork, which is only 15 minutes from my hometown. I have been there once as a child but never returned. Now both Auschwitz and the Anne Frank House have mentioned this camp, I need to go there again.
Auschwitz was so impressive for me that I am not sure I would want to visit it again in the future. I don’t think I will ever forget everything I have seen here, so a one-time visit was enough for me.
Let’s finish with the words on one of the monuments:
''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
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