Destination: Auschwitz concentration camp, Poland

While in Krakow during this past April vacation (more on it later), I made several day trips out of the city to nearby places, one of them including the Auschwitz concentration camp. If you know anything about it (which would really surprise me if you didn’t), then you would know that it’s the site where millions of people– Jews, vagabonds, prisoners of war, homosexuals– were persecuted and killed under the Nazi regime before and during World War II.

To say that I had “a great time” at Auschwitz would sound quite strange, just because it’s not the place to say that, really. After all, people were murdered there, and beforehand subjected to harsh labor, torture, and other atrocities afflicted upon them. A better way to describe my experience, then, would be: serious, humbling, and educational. After years of reading about Auschwitz and the Holocaust in school, it was definitely a different experience to go out and actually visit the site of where it all happened.

Getting to Auschwitz on my own was extremely easy: there were buses running every hour from Krakow’s main bus station, just adjacent to the train station. When taking the bus, though, it’s important to note that it doesn’t take you to “Auschwitz,” as it would read, but rather “Oświęcim,” which is Polish for “Auschwitz.” In any case, it takes about an hour and a half to get there, and it tends to be super packed on the bus, to the point that some people need to stand in the aisle! It’s not surprising, though, just because it’s a popular tourist site, after all.

I caught the bus early in the morning at 7h00, arriving in front of the Auschwitz I concentration camp around 8h40. To get into the concentration camp, you have the option of booking a tour (which I didn’t, because I was cheap) or reserving a timed ticket online (for free) to enter before 10h00 or after 15h00 to explore on your own (which I did). With a ticket timed for a 9h00 visit, I showed it to the entrance guard and was let in.

“Arbeit macht Frei” entrance gate. Translates to “Work sets you free.”

For the next two or so hours, I wandered the rows of barracks which once housed the victims, some of them now converted into exhibitions representing the countries which were affected by the Nazi regime (basically, almost every country in Europe). I went barrack to barrack, reading about the Jews, political prisoners, and ethnic minorities from Poland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands (including Anne Frank and her family), the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. It boggled my mind that so many people were rounded up and brought to the concentration camps: for lack of a better word, it takes a lot of fuckery to want to exterminate millions of people who aren’t considered part of the “Aryan race,” especially if you aren’t a part of it to begin with (I’m looking at you, Hitler!).

Barracks at Auschwitz I.
Truth.

Before going to Auschwitz, I had expectations that I would be incredibly moved, even emotional, when visiting the site. Strangely enough, that didn’t prove to be the case: true, I was moved, but aside from one instance of almost tearing up, I was more numbed than anything. Spending two hours going from barrack to barrack and seeing the same atrocities afflicted upon people from all parts of Europe started to blend together, with words like “execution,” “hunger,” “torture,” “death” on every plaque that I read. After a while, you sort of become desensitized to it, which is absolutely frightening, because it shouldn’t be like this: if anything, being desensitized is comparable to being passive, just like how many people did nothing to help those persecuted, thereby just as guilty as the Nazis who killed them. To say that my numbed, desensitized self was a sort of coping mechanism to prevent myself from crying and/or getting upset isn’t the best excuse, and unfortunately, it was just what happened that day.

Pile of shoes from the victims.
Site where people were publicly executed.

I finished visiting Auschwitz I close to noon, exiting the site and having a quick packed lunch outside of the entrance before taking the free shuttle over to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, an extension of Auschwitz I located about 3 kilometers away. Auschwitz II-Birkenau is much bigger than Auschwitz I, for it features the train tracks which had brought the Jews and others from all over Europe. It also has many of the gas chambers, all of which have been destroyed and now lay in ruins: they were destroyed after WWII, when the last of the Nazi regime blew them up to eliminate any evidence of what they did. Much of my visit at Auschwitz II-Birkenau was just touring outside, following the train tracks down to the memorial and popping into a few more barracks which housed bunk beds (three people to one, the unfortunate soul having to sleep pretty much on the floor).

Train tracks at the entrance of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Bunk beds.

Around 15h00, I was done visiting Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Took the shuttle back to Auschwitz I where I then took the bus back to Krakow, returning around 17h00. I was drained, not only physically, but also of what I’d learned there. Again, it was an educational experience and while it was difficult to take it all in, especially in a few hours, it was an important thing to do.

A couple of things that I want to note (or rather, rant about) was that, even though Auschwitz is a serious visiting site and that it’s best to be somber and respectful of that, I couldn’t help but notice a few people who didn’t behave appropriately. “Appropriately” in the sense that I saw a kid at Auschwitz I, probably no more than 10 years old, complaining to his mother during a guided tour that he was “tired” and that he wanted “to sit down.” I can understand that being on your feet for a long time while traveling sucks, but he was really being whiny about it, right in the middle of the tour, which was definitely not cool. I also saw another kid, no more than 5 years old, at Auschwitz II-Birkenau goofing off in the middle of another tour, running around and throwing sticks into the ditch beside the train tracks. True, he probably didn’t know any better, but his mother, who was watching him, did absolutely nothing to stop him.

It interested me that, although there’s a strong recommendation the children under 14 years of age do not visit Auschwitz (because it can definitely be disturbing at times), children still come. Now, I think it’s up to the parent’s judgment if they want to take their kids, but personally, I think children under 10 years of age are way too young to fully comprehend just how bad it was, let alone respect it.

Finally, I also saw a woman in front of the “Arbeit macht Frei” entrance gate take a photo of herself smiling, which also unsettled me. Sure, it’s natural to want to smile for photos, but doing so at such a somber site isn’t the best place to do so- in fact, it’s quite disrespectful to the people who died there. I’d seen a trend on the Internet concerning this, known as “Yolocaust” in which people smile for photos at places like Auschwitz and it caused a huge backlash in the travel community. Perhaps the woman I saw didn’t know better, but all the same, it surprises me that some people– adults and children alike– do this sort of thing.

…anyway, rant over. Long story short, I learned a lot that day in Auschwitz and it was a much-needed reminder of how not all people are lucky to be born into privilege, let alone be protected from racial, gender, and sexual discrimination in society, past and present. All we can do is just learn to be tolerant and accepting of differences, to make sure that, indeed, history does not repeat itself.

— The Finicky Cynic

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14 thoughts on “Destination: Auschwitz concentration camp, Poland

      1. Depending on the weather, I think it has something to do with protecting themselves from the sun, especially if it’s quite hot. I can understand that, actually. Or maybe it’s for style, I don’t really know.

  1. Sobering would probably also be an appropriate word for visiting Auschwitz; visiting it instead of just reading about it likely adds to the gravity of a place with such a horrible history.

  2. Seeing it in person made me realize the disturbing efficiency used to kill people and the sheer magnitude of it all. Worth visiting once, but I don’t think I’ll go to another concentration camp site.

    1. I completely agree with you. Seeing the site in-person is a whole different experience than reading about it in textbooks. I’d been to other Holocaust-related places before Auschwitz, e.g. Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, so it wasn’t as if I wasn’t accustomed to visiting these places with dark, harrowing history. I might go to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany someday, but we’ll see.

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