Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp
You would never know on the bus or train ride from Kraków to Auschwitz what you're about to see. The surrounding land is beautiful and serene with bunches of houses throughout the rolling hills. There are forests that consume the land everywhere there isn't a building or road. It's honestly a very peaceful area.
When got my first glance at Auschwitz, I was shocked...because it actually looks fairly nice. The barracks are brick buildings, everything is orderly, it's fairly small, there are grass and trees and birds chirping... But the thing is, that's what Auschwitz is 70 years after it was occupied. There aren't dead bodies lying around. The grass hasn't been eaten by the starving prisoners. There isn't the smell of human feces and burning flesh everywhere. There aren't people crying or screaming. No one is getting shot. No one is being tortured or experimented upon. The gestapo and SS Police aren't watching over you. It's actually a fairly peaceful place. I take comfort in this though, because that means that there aren't spirits lingering around, forced to spend any more time in this now unholy land.
At the entrance to the camp is the famous sign that reads: ARBEIT MACHT FREI, which roughly translates to "Work Makes You Free." Ironically, if it wasn't the gas chambers, it was the work that killed so many there. The only people who were "lucky" with their work were those who worked in the kitchen, because they got enough to eat, didn't have extremely hard labor, and had the ovens to keep them warm during the winter.
There are some fairly shocking sights to see here, though. In one of the rooms you will find 80,000 pairs of shoes; the crazy thing is that only represents 5% of the people who died at Auschwitz. The shoes literally pile up to the ceiling. There's another location that has thousands of children's shoes too.
In another room, there is an incredible amount of human hair, mostly from women, that was shaved off of their heads after they were murdered. Another spot has hundreds of pairs of glasses. Another has suitcases with names written on them. Another has shaving equipment and brushes. Another has cook wear and other household necessities that the mothers brought for their new "homes." All of these belongings that were found here after the camp was liberated is an incredible sight to see. It proves that the Jews who were relocated here were under the impression they were merely coming here to work and had no idea the horrors they were about to witness and experience.
In the living quarters, you can see how the living situation changed over the years. Initially, prisoners slept on straw that was on the floor. Then, they got "mattresses" made of fabric and straw that lied in the ground. After word was received that the Red Cross was going to be inspecting Auschwitz and other camps for living conditions, wooden bunk beds with mattresses, pillows, and blankets were shipped in to make it seem like the living conditions were more bearable.
Prisoners who tried to escape, anyone found trying to help the prisoners, etc. were sent to live in block 11. Block 11 was where the trials took place to justify the murdering of any non-Jews, who were then taken to the area between blocks 10 and 11 and shot. In the basement, there are several torture rooms too: one is a standing room where 4-8 prisoners stand in an enclosed room where there is hardly enough room to stand, much less consider attempting to sit or lie down, and they wouldn't be let out until the morning, at which point they would receive no food and would have to go to work for their 10 hour shift and return to the room again; one room is where they would stuff dozens of people where the only air input was a small hole in the wall, and they would all suffocate to death; another is a starvation room where people would be placed and wouldn't receive any food or water for days. In most of these torture rooms, everyone would eventually die. There is one remarkable story about a man who had a wife and children living outside the camp; after a prisoner escaped, 10 people were selected to be killed in the starvation rooms to deter any others from attempting to escape. When the man was selected, Father Maksymilian Kolbe volunteered to take his place. After surviving for 2 weeks in the starvation room, the Nazis knew they couldn't let him live, so they murdered him so he couldn't bring hope to the other prisoners. The young man who he volunteered for survived the camp, returned to his family, and died at the age of 95. Pope John Paul II later made Father Maksymilian Kolbe a saint for his actions.
In the building next to block 11, block 10, experiments were conducted on women and twins to attempt to discover ways to help the German troops. Many died as a result of these experiments, and those who lived were not in very good physical condition anymore. Children were sometimes shot in the shooting area between blocks 10 and 11, which the SS knew could cause an uprising, so they would do it during the day when the prisoners were at work. Ironically, the prisoners in blocks 10 and 11 could hear the shootings, but they weren't supposed to live very long, so the Nazis didn't care about them. Also, anyone caught trying to help persons in the camp had a trial (which everyone lost) and were shot here. Many survivors want to visit this spot first when they return to Auschwitz to pay homage to those who actually tried to help them. They say that these people paid the ultimate sacrifice because they didn't even have to try, but did, and lost their life because of it.
Also in Auschwitz is the original gas chamber and crematory of this camp. The fact that 700+ people were killed at a time here is truly unfathomable. However, it is important to remember that Auschwitz was originally a military base for the Polish army, so that is why it is as "nice" as it is. Birkenau, however, is another story.
Birkenau is more of what I think of when I think of when I think about a concentration camp. It's extremely large, the buildings go one for what seems like an eternity, and it is dismal. The train tracks lie right in the center of the camp, which is divided into sections; one half of the camp was for men and the other for women. There were also sections for gypsies, families, and others. The train tracks run until the end of the camp, which is where the "showers" were. After being stuck in the train cars for 3-7ish days, those who survived the journey were filthy, exhausted, and hungry. They were told they were going to get a shower to clean up, and then would be receiving some food. Well, we all know that wasn't the case. They went into the changing room, where they were instructed to remove their clothes; adults were instructed to make sure they keep their belongings together so they don't get mixed up with someone else's, and children were instructed to tie their shoes together so they wouldn't get lost. Then they moved into the "shower" chamber, where toxic gas was released in from the ceiling. After the last of the screams died out, which you could barely hear because they were underground, other Jews were instructed to collect any valuables off the dead, and then they were forced to move them into the next room, where their bodies were cremated. The ash was either used to fertilize the surrounding fields or dumped into rivers and lakes, meaning there are ashes from the Holocaust all around the world now.
Some of the healthy, strong men and women were selected to live and work for the Nazis, which may have been a faith worse than dying in the gas chambers, because they were starved, forced to do hard labor, had horrendous living conditions, and most eventually died. The barracks they lived in slept 700 to 1000 people per barrack, with 4 to 9 people per bunk. There were 3 levels per bunk. The prisoners could only use the restrooms once in the morning and once in the evening; at night, 2 five gallon buckets were left in the barracks for the 700 to 1000 people to use. Because of all the health issues, Those buckets filled up quick with diarrhea, so people often went in their beds, meaning you wanted to be on the top bunk so you didn't have crap literally falling on you. Not to mention, there wasn't any air circulation or conditioning, so during the summers when temperatures got VERY hot, it was nearly unbearable to stay in their because of the heat and the smell. Winter was also horrible because, due to building requirements, the Nazis had to provide heaters, but didn't have to supply oil to run them, so it got so cold people froze to death in their sleep.
Our tour guide was amazing. Her grandmother lived during the war and, while she wasn't Jewish and sent to a camp, she was affected greatly by the Nazi occupation. (Interestingly enough, she said the Russians who occupied Poland after the war treated the citizens worse than the Nazi Germans did, apart from the concentration and death camps.) Her father-in-law, however, is a Holocaust survivor, so she had firsthand experience and stories to share with us. She even told us about a young German boy who was the son of a Nazi officer at a concentration camp who used to play around the camp's grounds and had to wear a sign on him that said who he was and who his father was so the soldiers wouldn't mistake him for a Jewish prisoner and kill him. What's truly sad about this is that he could be mistaken for a Jewish boy, meaning he wasn't much different from them. What was the difference between that boy and the thousands, if not millions, of little boys and girls who were murdered at the hands of the Nazis? That especially, but the whole experience reminded me of the amazing movie "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," where a young boy, who's the son of a Nazi camp official, meets a Jewish boy at the fence of the concentration camp, befriends him, and while sneaking into the camp to play with him one day, the Nazis round up a bunch of the Jewish and put them in the gas chamber, the little German boy included, which devastated the mother, who was against the whole Nazi operation.
When we think of the Holocaust, even though we now know much of what too place, we can't imagine what the people in the camps experienced. Even the most horrible situations we could paint in our imaginations couldn't compare to the horrors that took place. Even visiting the camps today does nothing to do it justice. I thought it would be interesting to have a simulation where you are forced to leave your belongings in a pile, fancy phone and camera included, then go into a room and get undressed, file into a shower room, and have fog flow into the room. Obviously you can't get it to be exactly like what happened, but I think something like that would really hit home and resonate with a lot of people.
Overall, I an very glad I went and visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. While a lot has to be imagined because it's just so different than how it was, it is amazing to see. Visiting the camps is free too, which is amazing. However, if you want a tour guide, which help a lot and can answer any questions, it does cost like €8, which is more than worth it for the more than 3 hour amazing experience. Anyone who believes that WWII and the Holocaust didn't actually happen should go visit a concentration or death camp and tell their guide at the end of the tour that they think it's all a lie. I would love to be there and see that pan out.
The Market Square downtown is amazing to see! I have really taken to seeing cities at night. It brings out such a different side to the city when the locals are out having a good time and the tourists are in their hotels relaxing after a long day. It actually often feels like cities are more alive at night than they are during the day! Market Square is full of local, handmade products and food. If it weren't for Poland using a different currency and me only having Euros and credit cards, I totally would have probably bought a few souvenirs and tried some of the foods. There was even tools (real tools like a mechanic like my dad would use) that were made out of chocolate! There are also shops and restaurants all along the outside of the square, adding to the life. St. Mary's Basilica (Bazylika Mariacka) is also on the plaza, which is a gorgeous church. It would have been amazing to see the inside, but it was cool seeing it lite up at night too.
I was very surprised by Kraków. It's more of a small city than a large one, but I think that makes it more quaint and homey. It was gorgeous and there were so many people out having dinner, drinking, or just hanging out in the parks, etc., and it was a Monday night! The architecture and vibe were amazing. If it weren't for them using a different currency and very little Polish people speaking English, coupled with Polish being a hard language to learn and not very useful outside Poland, I would definitely consider moving here! At least for a couple years. I really did enjoy the city a great deal.