As I walked past the harrowed gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp, I could feel the numbness in the air around me. I could hear the voices in my head of the hopeful Jews telling their children as they pass through the gates holding their finger, "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" - "Work will set them free". Little did they know that they were about to become the victims of the most heinous mass crime committed in the history of mankind.
Visiting Auschwitz - Birkenau concentration camps is an overwhelming experience. I had a certain perception and imagery which I had developed through the history books, stories of World War II and movies like Schindler's list, but being at the very place where these mass murders happened, all my previous knowledge seemed too distant. It appeared to me that I didn't know anything. Just knowing the facts doesn't mean you know the story. Being present at the place where that story unfolded gives you an immersive experience that no book, movie or documentary can provide.
Auschwitz - Birkenau Concentration camp consists of two sites Auschwitz I which has several barrack buildings which now have been converted into museums and Auschwitz II (also known as Birkenau), where you can actually feel the scale at which this death camp was setup. Spread over an area of over 150 hectares Birkenau contained prisoner barracks, gas chambers and 4 crematoria. It also has railway track inside the camp; this is where the selection of mass transports of Jews was carried out.
Reaching Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp
Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp is about 70km from Krakow. below are the three most preferred ways you can reach the museum.
1. By Train (Regional train operated by REGIO)
Price: Train - 10 PLN for Adult one-way ticket. Bus (optional) - PLN 2,7.
Travel time: 1.5-2 hours
Distance to Museum after stop (Oswiecim station is about 2 km from the museum): 20-30 mins by foot, 5-10 mins with bus
2. By Bus (By far the most convenient and still cheap)
Price: 12-15 PLN for one way ticket
Travel time: 1.5-2 hours
Distance to Museum after stop: 10 mins by foot
All the Auschwitz bound busses depart from Central Bus Station in Krakow located at 18 Bosacka Street. No need to booking tickets online. There are buses every 20-30 mins
3. By Private tours
Price: Anything North of a 100-150 PLN (might include tickets too)
Travel time: 1-1.5 hours
Distance to Museum after stop: Pickup at hotel and direct drop off
Entry into the Museum
Interestingly, entry to the museum is FREE of charge. You are only charged if you want a guided tour. Both type of tickets (Free or Charged) have to booked in advance along with the timing slot. Book your tickets here. The tickets bought at Auschwitz provides entry to Birkenau too. There are frequent free shuttles from Auschwitz I to Birkenau for easily commuting between the two sites. Please be advised, visiting both the museums takes at-least 4-5 hours, hence carry some snacks and a bottle of water.
As you start moving towards the gate, the reality starts to settle in. I was not a part of a guided tour as I didn't want to be driven around the place, but wanted to absorb this entire experience at my own pace.
The first sight I encountered after entering into the camp was those barbed wire fences. It is saddening to think how a human can crush another human's spirit by curtailing his/her freedom. Imagine the poor prisoners who would have gotten so sick of the torture and would have considered committing suicide by getting electrocuted to be a better option.
The entire Auschwitz I site consists of several barracks, initially for the prisoners to be kept in, have now been converted into museums. Among these barracks are the ones with heaps of human hair, broken spectacles and other belongings which the prisoners were stripped off, once they entered the camp. They were not just stripped off their belongings but of their humanity.
Barrack after barrack I was shaken to my soul, thinking that this sight might be the worst but I hadn't seen the worst. Below is a re-creation of a picture that was drawn by a child.
These kids knew what death means at an age when there should be toys in their hands. This thought ran chills down my spine. How many deaths would these children have witnessed to draw this. I can't imagine what effect it would have had on their minds.
Auschwitz II - Birkenau
While Auschwitz I is all about details, Birkenau is all about scale. Spread across 150 hectares of land, surrounded by barbed wire fences and watch towers, this was the land of experimentation on human killing methods, the infamous gas chambers and congested dorms where prisoners were made to live in the most unhygienic conditions.
Right in the centre of the camp is a railway track using which thousands of Jews were transported in the camp. It was here that they were sorted into who would be useful as a labourer in the camp and who would be directly sent to the gas chambers.
As I walked further inside, I passed by the rubble which were the remains of the gas chambers and incinerators which once stood there. They were destroyed in a futile attempt to hide their inhumane acts when the Soviet army invaded.
Birkenau, unlike Auschwitz is not a museum. Here one is left alone with their thoughts, to soak in what this place represents, and make sense of what all has happened here. Some of the sights might be very disturbing and traumatising, and entry of kids below the age of 14 is not recommended.
The entire 5.5 hours of my visit to Auschwitz- Birkenau had changed me. Experiencing a plethora of emotions post seeing some very disturbing sights one is bound to ask oneself, what if I was one of those prisoners? Would hunger, disease, trauma have devoured me before those deadly gas chambers or would I be those few fortunate ones who would have made out alive from the clutches of death.
So would I say that this is a must visit place? The answer is not that simple. Auschwitz should not just be visited for its touristic value, but as a human being it is our duty to know and understand the extent to which humans actions can stoop. It is for us to make a promise to ourselves and to the mankind that such heinous acts will not be repeated ever until the end of human existence.
As far I am concerned, this experience is very hard for me to forget. I hope humanity never has to witness such act again. My prayers are with those who lost their loved ones.
This visit is a part of my month-long Solo Euro trip that I took in 2018. Click here to read more about it.
Click here to read about my adventures in Krakow.
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