Auschwitz Concentration Camp
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
– Elie Wiesel, Night
There is nothing quite like the experience of visiting the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau and no words will ever be able to express how much of an honor it was to visit this memorial. Being at this specific spot in person is a little indescribable actually. There are concentration camps all throughout Europe, but Auschwitz was the biggest and arguably the most murderous of the camps. This is where Hitler carried out his “final extermination” upon the Jewish people. I think this is a very important part of history that is not to be forgotten nor downplayed and a place that I believe everyone should see in their lifetime.
Auschwitz was in operation from May 1940 to January 1945 and originally started out as a holding camp for Polish political prisoners of war. In 1941, it became an extermination camp of nearly 1.1 million Jews. It is estimated that 1 in every 6 Jews murdered during the Holocaust were killed in Auschwitz. It was liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945. There is two main parts of the camp – Auschwitz I, where the prisoners were initially taken under the guise of it being a work camp, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, that became the central extermination camp. Birkenau was actually constructed by the prisoners of Auschwitz when the first camp became too overpopulated and would function as the primary death camp where prisoners from all over Europe were transported to be killed. Auschwitz I is a much smaller, compressed facility, while Birkenau is spread out on a much larger area with more open space and land mass. Auschwitz I did have a small gas chamber/crematorium that we walked through, while Birkenau had 4 main gas chambers spread out on the property. You are essentially walking through a massive cemetery, so there are a few areas that you cannot photograph in respect of the victims. I’ll be honest, a lot of the things you will see here completely knocks the wind out of you and I was very emotional before, during, and after. Be prepared to not want to do anything after your time here. Give yourself time to digest the atrocities and feel all the emotions after being in such an evil place. It’s such a different thing learning about the Holocaust and Auschwitz and actually being there in person. I felt the same way in Washington, D.C. at the Holocaust Memorial – which is actually the second best place to see the artifacts and learn about the Holocaust next to being there in person. So if you can’t make it to Poland, I definitely recommend the museum in D.C.
Auschwitz is located near the town of Oświęcim, about an hour and a half west of Krakow. We were staying in Krakow at the time and came by bus, although you can also take the train. If you come by train the tickets are about $4 one way and will take you into the main train station of Oświęcim. You will have to either walk the 30 mins to the entrance of Auschwitz or take the public bus that will take about 10 minutes. I think the bus option is easier because it drops you right at the entrance and takes the same time without the extra stop. Tickets are about $5-7 roundtrip and can be purchased before hand or sometimes directly from the bus driver if it isn’t busy. You can check the timetables here.
tickets + tours
They run guided tours all day everyday, in every language imaginable, that are about 3 to 4 hours. This is the best resource on learning about the site and buying tickets. The grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau are actually free, but the guided tours are $10 for students under 26 or $13 for regular admission per person. I think that getting the guided tour is essential to learning information on Auschwitz. There are signs and info around the grounds if you don’t want the guide but the tour went more in depth and our guide was very informative on things that might not have been common knowledge. You will definitely want to reserve your tour in advance as they get full quickly and you cannot buy them the day of at the entrance.
Make sure you know what days Auschwitz is closed, what exhibits might not be open to the public and the operating hours. We ended up being there on a really special week – the day we were there was the day before Holocaust Memorial day (Yom Hashoah) and the grounds would be closed that day for what’s called the March of the Living. The March of the Living is when thousands of people travel to Poland (and also Israel) and walk the mile between Auschwitz and Birkenau as a tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. Probably the most unique and inspiring thing about the MOTL, is the survivors of the Holocaust that travel back to Auschwitz and speak to the participants about their time at the camp. We actually had the privilege of listening to a survivor speak in a barrack that he had lived in during his time at Auschwitz.
Double walled fence in Auschwitz I just past the entrance gate, where a guard patrolled with a gun to shoot prisoners who mustered up the courage to escape.
Each cell block now houses different displays of artifacts instead of housing the prisoners they once did. All of them are equally hard to get through, but the ones in particular that stuck out was the torture block and experimentation block.
Upon arrival into the camp the prisoners were stripped of their possessions, clothes, and hair. They were given a number and would take a mug shot like the one above. Notice his deportation date and death date – he didn’t even last 5 months in Auschwitz.
This cell block was also where Josef Mengele, nicknamed the Angel of Death, experimented on prisoners – specifically twins, dwarfs, and pregnant women.
The torture block (Block 11) housed an underground area where prisoners were taken for days at time in a small locked cell, without light and one tiny hole for breathing. In between this block and Block 10, there was the infamous “Death Wall”, where thousands of prisoners were executed.
Also in this courtyard is “the post”. Prisoners wrists were bound together behind their backs and hoisted up to the post where they hung for hours. Often times their tendons in their shoulders would rip, immobilizing their arms – making them unfit for work and susceptible to being sent to the gas chambers.
From here, we made our way through Blocks 4 and 5. This is where the prisoner’s possessions are on display – such as clothing, shoes, glasses, shavers, suitcases, and baby toys.
One room that was absolutely the hardest room to walk through was the room full of human hair. I’m not sure the exact measurements of the room, but it is huge and sickening. The floor to ceiling is filled with all the hair that was shaved from the prisoners upon arrival. There is even pictures of the SS guards using the hair as warmth during the winter – stuffed in their clothes, used as pillows, or under their mattresses. You can’t take pictures in this room for respect of the victims, but it’s something that will forever be engrained in my memory.
Also in one of theses blocks is a model of what the big crematoriums/gas chambers were like before the Nazi’s tried to destroy them when the Allies started to advance toward them.
This model shows the prisoners undressing before being jam packed into the gas chambers.
This picture shows the room full of dead bodies before being burned in the crematoriums.
I don’t remember the exact order of the Blocks that we saw, but we did see Crematorium I before leaving the grounds of Auschwitz I.
This bunker that would become the first crematorium was originally an ammunition bunker during pre war times. It was adapted to be a morgue, then that became the gas chamber. This was used until the big gas chambers were constructed in Birkenau.
Directly next to Crematorium I was where the camp Gestapo was located.
After the camp was liberated, the camp commandant, Rudolf Hoss was in hiding for a year before being arrested and found guilty of his war crimes. He admitted to killing more that 2 million Jews during his time as commandant and the gallows in the picture above were specifically made for his hanging on April 16, 1947. There is a plaque here that states,
This is where the camp Gestapo was located. Prisoners suspected of involvement in the camp’s underground resistance movement or of preparing to escape were interrogated here. Many prisoners died as a result of being beaten or tortured. The first commandant of Auschwitz, SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss, who was tried and sentenced to death after the war by the Polish Supreme National Tribunal, was hanged here on 16 April 1947.
When we finished with this area of Auschwitz I, we hopped on a bus that took us to Birkenau where we met up again with the rest of our tour group. Now let me just say, this area is SO beautiful. The grounds that Birkenau rest on is so diverse and calm, and there’s an eerie quietness to the land. The Polish forest that backs up to the camp has that same off-putting quietness that makes you feel a little uncomfortable. If you’ve seen the movie Defiance, you might know what I’m taking about here. You’re walking around on millions of graves and the atrocities committed on this land do make you feel like throwing up the whole time you’re here. It’s so distorted – the soil of the earth here was created for so much abundance and beauty, while what it holds now is ashes and bones of innocent lives.
That building in the distance is the entrance, and we walked along the dirt path that you can see on the right.
This bunker is still intact, but a lot of Birkenau is actually falling apart. Since it was hastily constructed by the prisoners, the bunkers have not withstood the weather nor the time. The museum is having a little bit of a moral conundrum about fixing the buildings. They have received some criticism from people saying they should let it rot instead of putting money into something that caused so much pain, but the survivors of Auschwitz believe that preserving it is important for history’s sake.
We got to go inside one of the bunkers, where we saw the living conditions of the prisoners. The cold floors were most often rife with rats and other rodents and the “beds” that you see were usually crowded with as many people as could fit.
This is one of four of the crematoriums in Birkenau that the Nazi’s tried to destroy before the camp was liberated. They also burned many documents and many of the bunkers to try and hide their crimes. This is another example why things are falling apart, because it has been purposefully destroyed by the Nazi’s. I am not sure if you can go into any of the other crematoriums on the grounds, but this one was the only we got to see in Birkenau. At all times of the day during the Holocaust, you could see the smoke going from the crematorium.
This part of Auschwitz was the one part that made me the most emotional. We walked down the path that the prisoners would not walk back from. This was where the selection process took place. Prisoners were brought in on the freight car, literally crammed in like cattle and selected for one side of the camp or the other. One side led to the “work” camp and the other, immediately to the crematorium. A team of doctors, most notably the doctor I talked about above (Josef Mengele) separated the new prisoners into men and boys, and women and girls. They examined the physical fitness of all, and would send the ill, the weak, the old, the babies, and anyone at will they chose to the gas chambers. These prisoners were told they would be disinfected and to undress, at which point they were gassed and cremated.
We were the only ones in our group who walked down the pathway that led to the gas chambers. You can see in the last picture on the left side the plaques that show people walking down this same path to their death. It was something so gut wrenchingly painful to look at the confused faces of all the families being ripped apart and sentenced to such a terrible fate. Sweet faces of little babies with their young mothers, little boys who would never grow up, grandparents who would never again be reunited with their offspring. I took a minute here to just imagine what this would feel like – we will probably never feel a fraction of what these poor people did, but could you imagine how terrifying this moment would have been?
We actually got to meet a survivor and listen to his story of being in Auschwitz. He was a fairly young boy when he was brought to the camp, and he truly felt that by the grace of God he was rescued from there. His whole family was murdered in the camp and yet, he talked about his hope and faith in God. This is one thing he said he would never let the Nazi’s take from him – they stripped him of his possessions, his family, his dignity, his will to live; but they would never take away his faith. He also talked about how people ask him where his God was when he was in Auschwitz, why He didn’t save them – to which he responds, “Where was man? Where were the people who knew this was happening and fell silent? My God never left me, but my fellow man did.”
We ended our tour there, on that note from the Auschwitz survivor, feeling all kinds of depressed and exhausted from such an emotional experience. We fell silent on the bus ride back to Krakow while we tried to digest all the things we saw and learned that day. We said goodbye to the little town of Oswiecim and soaked in the beauty of the Polish countryside before we got dropped back off at the train station. I recommend clearing your schedule after being in Auschwitz because you will need to decompress a little bit. It deserves a day all to itself so I recommend to plan accordingly.
That’s our recap and thoughts on Auschwitz-Birkenau, we hope you learned something!
Leave us your own thoughts in the comments below.
The Traveling Taveners