Travel diary: Auschwitz-Birkenau Konzentrationslager
When I planned this vacation, I did it with a state of uncertainty due to the global epidemiological situation. However, with the carrier vaccine and the EU COVID Digital Certificate, we hoped that we would be lucky and be able to travel without major restrictions, which is what happened.
We were accommodated in an AirBNB near the center of Krakow. We left Romania by personal car so it was quite easy to plan the visit to Auschwitz. We arrived easily, the Auschwitz is only 60 kilometers away from Krakow.
If you arrived in Krakow by plane and still want to visit the camp, there is no problem. In Krakow you will find many places where you can buy tickets or tours to the museum. Personally, I advise you to buy tickets for the museum tour directly from the official website because part of the money on the tickets goes to the restoration of the museum that has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.
How to buy tickets.
You can book different tours as you wish. There are 3.5 hour, 6 hour tours, or 8 hour private tours with your guide. If you are lucky, for the private tour, you can also have a guide in Romanian. The museum is currently open seven days a week.
For the 3.5 hour tour, the ticket price is 90 lei / person, and for the 6 hour tour, the tickets cost 135 lei / person. For the 8-hour tour, an e-mail is sent in advance (preferably 2-3 weeks in advance) to book the day and the guide in the desired language, and only after receiving the confirmation will you pay the ticket. Its price varies depending on the number of people in the group. There is also no certainty that the application will be accepted, but then you can opt for the other options.
We were unlucky and could not book a private tour, so we opted for a 3.5 hour tour. When we were there, the museum was only open 3 days a week - Friday, Saturday and Sunday - so there was a huge number of visitors, and at the time of booking it was the only option available.
First impression and first feelings.
5 km from Oświęcim, a small and chic town - is the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The camp became a memorial museum two years after the end of World War II in 1947. Polish authorities have decided to do so in honor of the more than one million people who lost their lives there - a reminder of the crimes committed by the Nazis.
It was a place I wanted to visit, even if it is not a typical holiday destination. It is a museum that everyone should visit, at least once in their life. Maybe this way we will learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Throughout the visit I felt a pressure in my chest, which was felt immediately after I left Oświęcim and saw the train tracks. I got rid of my agitation when I watched the introductory video, when I started to cry. No information was presented that I did not know, but it brought to the surface my tears for the misfortunes that took place there. The pressure on my chest would hold me until the end of the tour and many hours after…
Auschwitz I - the administrative camp
We were picked up by our guide, Lukasz, and we started the tour in English which would last almost four hours. Lukasz is a passionate guide to history, who loves what he does, who puts his soul into it and who makes you feel. Our group was small, 12 people, and because of this, we also visited places where large groups did not have access.
The first thing you see at the beginning of the tour is the gate with the message "Arbeit macht frei." ("Work will set you free."). The best known message is the one displayed at the entrance to the Auschwitz camp, but the original idea was taken over by Rudolf Höss (Commander of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp since 1939 and the one who laid the foundation stone of the camp) from Sachsenhausen. The same message can be seen at the entrance to the Dachau camp. The sign currently mounted at the entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp is just a replica.
The original message was stolen in December 2010, but was recovered three days later. It was cut into three pieces to be sold on the black market. A Swedish citizen, a supporter of a neo-Nazi group, was guilty of theft. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison. The original sign has been refurbished, but is now on display in the museum.
An emotional and shocking experience.
We start walking among the first buildings of the camp, where we can still see the traces of bullets. Auschwitz-Birkenau - which is now a memorial museum - was a place of horror, of horror, but I thought it was superb in its ugliness. I don't know if I will be able to put into words what I felt during the visits, but I will try.
Between 700 and 1000 people could "live" in each block, in unhealthy and inhuman conditions. However, they were lucky compared to those taken to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The blocks were equipped with latrines, a place to wash, and some of the rooms even had straw mattresses.
Not all buildings are open to the public, only a few are landscaped. Block 5 is one of the most shocking places in the camp. There are no words that can describe what I saw. Block 5 also has an area where photography is forbidden, but when you get there, you will understand why.
The visit continued to Block 10, also called "Antechamber of Death". Block 10 was the place where Dr. Joseph Mengele conducted his medical experiments on women, those with various diseases, gypsies or teenagers, but his favorites were twins. The experiments ranged from testing the body's reactions to various substances for the study of the human body, to experimental operations and to amputations.
Immediately next to us is Block 11, his prison "Death Block" and the place where it was tested - for the first time - Zyklon B. The block was closed to the public for epidemiological reasons, being an extremely small space that did not allow to keep the distance.
Between Block 10 and Block 11 is "The execution wall" (execution wall), the holy place of the camp. This is where visitors come to pray or lay wreaths. It is a place of silence, of honoring the memory of the 5000 people who were executed here. It is a place of prayer and a place where no one speaks.
The windows between the two blocks are covered and have always been so. The Germans thought that no one could see what was happening in the yard and, in the event that he escaped (unlikely), he could not say what was happening between the two walls. However, you can't confuse the sound of a shot or the moans of tortured people…
Krankenbau (camp hospital) included blocks 19, 20, 21 and 28. The surgical department was located in block 21, and part of the ground floor of the block housed the dentistry. The 4 blocks were the most avoided by the detainees because they knew that if they got here, they would most likely die. Those who arrived here were killed or selected by Mengele for experiments and therefore preferred to die of the disease, alone, in suffering.
Crematorium 1 - hundreds of thousands of people killed by a madman.
Behind the fence, less than 50 meters from Crematorium 1, is the house where he lived Rudolf Höss (the commander of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and the one who built the camp), together with his wife and 5 children.
On March 11, 1946, Rudolf Höss was arrested by the British, and two months later he was handed over to the Polish authorities for trial. In prison, on the advice of the prosecutor, he wrote his memoirs. His trial began on March 11, 1947 and lasted 18 days. On April 2, he was sentenced to death by hanging.
The gallows was mounted especially next to Crematorium I of the Auschwitz-Birkanau camp, the crematorium where most of the victims were burned. After being shared and confessed by a Catholic priest, the sentence was carried out on April 16. The body was cremated, and the ashes were scattered so that his soul could not find eternal rest… His only request was for the wedding ring to reach his wife with a farewell letter!
The moment I stepped into the gas chambers and crematorium I fell silent. It was a difficult time to describe. The feelings I experienced, the smell I still felt, the feeling of overwhelm you have… I can't even imagine what the Sonderkommando went through every day as thousands of bodies had to burn. Take them out of the gas chamber and set them on fire in the crematorium next door. The smell…
Auschwitz II - Birkenau
The distance from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II - Birkenau is 3.5 kilometers. The distance is not covered on foot. There are buses that run on this road and leave from the two locations (Auschwitz I and Birkenau) every 10 minutes. Therefore, you should not rush. You can rest easy and take a look at the books you find at the museum store. The money you spend on books goes to the restoration of the museum.
The first stop is at the selection platform, where those who arrived here by train were selected: left - to the gas and crematorium chambers, right - to the entrance to the camp and ordeal.
The train car in Birkenau also has an emotional story. The wagon is an original one that has been refurbished by Frank Lowy, a businessman of Jewish origin, and donated to the museum in memory of the more than 400.000 Hungarian Jews who lost their lives in the camp in 1944.
Frank's father, Hugo Lowy, was deported from Hungary in a transport that reached the unloading platform in Birkenau. He was carrying a package containing ritual objects, tefilin and his talite. When he refused to leave the package behind in the car, SS soldiers beat him until he died.
Frank left his own package inside the car, in memory of his father.
The road to death.
Before starting the walk through Auschwitz II - Birkenau, we walked the distance from the selection platform to the crematoria, the same road that was made by hundreds of thousands of people before us, a journey of only 10 minutes.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated on January 27, 1945 by Soviet troops. On January 26, the Nazis wanted to destroy all evidence of the horrors they had committed in the camp and therefore bombed 4 of the 5 crematoria. Tens of thousands of documents were destroyed (burned), because we can say a lot about the Nazis, but we cannot deny that they were the best to keep records.
Behind crematorium number 5 are 4 commemorative tombstones that mark the place where the Nazis threw (or tried to bury) the ashes of the burned. It was a complicated action because of the swampy terrain.
"International Monument to the Victims of Fascism" was dedicated to those who died in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp between 1940 and 1945. It was unveiled in 1967 in the presence of over 200.000 guests: survivors, their descendants, royal families, politicians or mere visitors.
In front of it are plaques with messages of peace. The plaques are translated into all the languages spoken by those who were imprisoned in the camp.
The museum restores, visitors destroy.
The employees of the memorial museum try to keep all the buildings intact. However, due to the fact that there were no buildings built to withstand - due to the terrain and the harsh weather - they make this very difficult and very expensive. Major damage is also caused by visitors who destroy the heritage trying to leave their mark.
Restoring a single building in Birkenau can cost up to 3 million euros, depending on how damaged the building is. The money is obtained from private donations, tickets, or through NGOs that organize various fundraisers.
While Auschwitz I was considered the main camp where all the administrative buildings were located, Birkenau was from the beginning an extermination camp. The hastily and precariously built buildings and the 4 crematoria prove this. It was wanted that, through "Final solution", to systematically kill all Jews in Europe.
When work doesn't set you free…
Why Auschwitz? Why a camp built in a forest in Poland, in a place forgotten by the world? For a long time I wondered that too. As you can see in the picture - Auschwitz was in the middle of the territories and was the ideal place to build a camp "for work".
When we think of Auschwitz, we only know of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II - Birkenau, but the camp also had Auschwitz III - Monowitz. Monowitz was a labor camp built near the chemical plant IG Farben. Auschitz also had another 40 sub-camps built throughout Poland.
In addition to the function of labor camp and extermination camps, the detainees were also used by large companies. They conducted medical experiments on detainees without being held accountable in the event of adverse effects. All companies still exist and are successful.
If you don't believe me, forget the list of the most famous companies that exist on the market today.
Even if it is not a perfect destination for an ideal holiday, you must visit - at least once in your life - the Auschwitz camp. It is a sad, painful, shocking experience, but from where we can learn a lot. I made a promise that I would return there, at least once more, this time in the winter, to really experience it.
Temperatures can reach up to -25 degrees Celsius, but detainees worked barefoot and wore only pajamas…