We recently visited Krakow, Poland for three days and booked a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps. I knew, what I thought, was a lot of information about the Holocaust and the things that occurred within the walls of Auschwitz, but after visiting the camp in person and listening to our tour guide, I realised that the information I knew before, was just a small fraction in comparison to what really happened.
If you are planning on visiting Auschwitz for yourself, I highly recommend that you pay the extra money to have a tour guide as you will learn a lot more! I would also recommend that you do not read this post as I am going to include a lot of the facts and information that we learned during our visit.
We booked our tour through Trip Advisor around one week before travelling. Two days before our tour we received a pick-up time (8:50 am) from our hotel. The bus arrived bang on time and we were greeted by a friendly driver. The journey to the camp took an hour and a half from our hotel, however, there was a small TV onboard which showed a documentary about the concentration camps. This was very interesting and it certainly made the travel time pass quickly.
When we arrived at Auschwitz, we were taken through to security, before meeting with our tour guide and being given headsets in preparation of the tour. The process was very quick and well organised.
We set off into the Camp, arriving at the infamous gates reading ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ meaning ‘work sets you free’. The horrible irony was that millions of people were worked to death, nothing that they did would set them free, the Nazi’s had no intention of letting them go.
The entire camp has been turned into a museum with many original artefacts to look at and interesting and shocking facts to read. Most of the buildings are still in their original form, our tour guide made sure to tell us as much information as possible in each and every room that we entered. He was very interactive with the group and would be sure so answer everyone’s questions to the best of his ability, we could not fault him at all.
The first building that we entered was filled with photographs of prisoners, similar to criminal mug shots. Under each picture there was writing which gave the following information; their name, their date of birth, the date that they entered the camp and the date that they died. There was over three hundred photographs handing on the walls of the corridor. Most of the dates showed that it was very unlikely for an individual to survive more than four weeks in the camp. One photograph of a young man showed that he only survived for one single day.
After documenting so many people on their arrival to Auschwitz, the Nazi’s eventually stopped this process. Many of us thought that this may be because they realised they were creating a lot of evidence against themselves, however, this was not the reason. The real reason was that it was too time-consuming for the Nazi’s. There were thousands of people coming into the camp and the process of killing them was being slowed down due to documenting each of them personally, so they stopped. This within itself is shocking.
We were shown the rooms that prisoners were forced to use as bedrooms. Rooms with nothing in them, other than hay spread across the hard concrete floor. Some rooms had three-tier bunk-beds, they were smaller than those we have today, more like children’s beds and prisoners would be forced to sleep up to six people per bed. When the camp first opened, there were no washrooms for the prisoners, these were added around one year later. They were small rooms with a couple of toilets in a row next to each other and long basins for washing their hands and their bodies. There was no privacy, prisoners were forced to go to the bathroom in large groups and strip off their clothing to wash in front of others. To make the situation worse, the prisoners were not allowed to use the washrooms freely. Instead, they were only permitted to use them twice per day, one in the morning before being sent off to work for the Nazi’s, and once at the end of the day (which would be roughly twelve hours later).
We were then taken to a prison, within the prison. This was a place where prisoners would be punished by the Nazi’s if they were to behave in any way in which the Nazi’s did not approve of. For example, one prisoner was punished for eating an apple when they should not have been eating. The cells that they would be kept in were shocking. One room consisted of three ‘standing cells’, each of them was around half the size of a standard toilet cubicle. To get into the cell, the prisoners would have to crawl through a small hole in the wall. The Nazi’s would place up to five fully grown men into one singular cell for up to twenty-four hours. If the prisoners survived the cell, they would be released the next morning and sent straight off to work.
Another cell, a larger room, was known as a ‘suffocating cell’ where up to one-hundred prisoners would be placed and they would be left there until they suffocated as a result of the lack of oxygen flowing through the cell.
We saw some harrowing photographs that had been taken of the prisoners by the Nazi’s. Pictures of children being separated from their parents, people crying as they watch others being killed and ill-treated and many more. We were also shown thousands upon thousands of shoes that belonged to those we lost their lives. These shoes ranged in size from tiny baby shoes to adult shoes. We were able to take pictures of this exhibit however it felt wrong to do so. There were also thousands of luggage bags with peoples personal details written on the front of them and an exhibit containing tons of human hair from the Nazi’s shaving the heads of the prisoners on their arrival to the camp.
There was one, collective grave at Auschwitz which held an urn on the top of it, filled with some of the ashes found after the liberation of the Nazi Concentration Camps. The number of ashes that were salvageable was just a very small fraction of the overall amount. It is very sad that this is the only grave to mark the death of millions of people. People who deserved so much more than the life that they had inside the walls of these concentration camps.
After seeing this monument, we were taken outside to ‘The Wall Of Death’. Here, over five thousand people were shot in the back of the head and killed, again this could be as a punishment for very small reasons. The prisoners would be lined up facing the wall and would be shot one by one in the back of the head. There would be other prisoners witnessing these cruel and heartless murders, waiting, knowing that they would be standing up there next.
The original wall was knocked down and destroyed by the Nazi’s before the liberation of the camp to hide evidence. Therefore the wall that we saw at the camp during our trip was a reconstruction where the original wall once stood. We had a moment of silence whilst standing at this wall, and I must say a few tears were shed. It is such a haunting place, such a heartbreaking piece of history, it is hard not to get emotional standing there and knowing what happened.
There were bouquets of flowers at the wall when we were there. These had been left by survivors of the camp just two weeks earlier to mark 75 years of liberation. Knowing that some of the survivors of the camp chose to return to such a traumatic place to pay their respects to those who were lost and also to keep the memories alive, is incredible. It shows how amazing these people are, how strong and how brave they are and why no one should ever forget about the events that took place during World War Two.
After taking some time to pay our respects at The Wall of Death, we headed to the Gas Chamber that still stands at Auschwitz. When we reached the door of the chamber, I felt chills. Knowing that thousands of people were brutally murdered beyond those walls was devastating and shocking.
When we walked into the chamber, it was cold, colder than outside. No one spoke inside the chamber, other than the tour guide. It was as if everyone could feel the dark events that had occurred all those years ago, everyone was filled with some form of sadness. The reason that this Gas Chamber was not destroyed by the Nazi’s (like the ones in Birkenau), is because the chamber was already there before they set up the camp. It used to be an airforce bunker and therefore the Nazi’s felt as though they had nothing to hide in regards to that building.
Just outside of the Gas Chamber there were hanging gallows which has been specifically built to hang the longest-serving Nazi Commandant, Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Hoss when he was trialled and convicted as a war criminal in 1947. He admitted to being partially involved in the murder of millions of people.
He used to live in a house near the camp, where he could see the gas chamber. This house is not owned by the museum and therefore visitors have no access to it. In fact, a Polish family live there today.
This marked the end of our tour around the Auschwitz camp and we headed back to the front of the camp for a quick 10-minute break before jumping back on the bus and heading to Birkenau.
Outside of the camp, there were podiums with pictures of survivors on them and short stories from their time spent in the camp. We were surprised to see that the majority of survivors, when interviewed, were over 90-years-old. That is an incredible age to reach for any human being, let alone someone who has been through such traumatic events. Some of them went on to have their own children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (one of which had over 70 grandchildren!) The stories that some of them told were very sad, talking about being split from their loved one in the camp, others talk about how their religious beliefs got them through the dark days in the camp.
When we arrived at Birkenau, We were informed that Birkenau is in fact twenty-five times bigger than Auschwitz.
We could see the train track that was used to transport thousands of prisoners to the camp. There was one original train carriage there that we could look at. It was very small, yet up to 80 prisoners would be crammed into one carriage along with their bags and personal belongings.
When they got off of the train, there would be professional doctors there to take a look at them and simply point to the left or to the right, telling them which way to go. One way lead to certain death, the other lead to a life of being overworked and ill-treated. Children under the age of 14 were often killed immediately, along with elderly people, people with disabilities, or people with illnesses which made them unable to work. The doctors would decide whether or not the individuals were capable of working and whether or not they would be useful to the Nazi’s.
We then headed to one of the bunkers where the children were forced to sleep. This was a cold room with cobble floors. The children would sleep on wooden shelves, or on the hard bumpy floors. There would be six or more children sleeping on one shelf.
Each day the children would come out of the bunker and run to the fence to watch for their parents heading out to work so that they could wave at one another. This would be the only form of contact with their family members.
We were taken to the site of one of the biggest Gas Chambers in Birkenau. Altogether there were four chambers built within this camp. Though these were destroyed by the Nazi’s to hide any evidence of the killings that occurred. They felt as though they had to destroy these buildings as they were built purposely to kill prisoners. The ruins of the chambers are still there for visitors to see. Two-thousand people would be tricked into the gas chambers at a time. They would be told that they were going to the shower rooms to clean up before heading into the bunkers where they would sleep. They would be asked to strip off their clothes and leave them on a peg with their other bags and belongings, they would be told to remember the number of their peg so that they could find their possessions easily after their shower. However, that was never the plan. Instead, they were forced to strip off their clothes, and enter a gas chamber, installed with fake showerheads. Then canisters of poisonous gas were dropped into the chamber from holes and chimneys on the roof. The heat created by all of the people in the room would activate the gas, causing everyone inside to suffocate. Killing two-thousand people in this way would take just twenty minutes.
Pregnant women were often killed on arrival to the camp, however, the Nazi’s started to allow them to give birth and stay with their newborns. If the baby was born to Jewish parents, they would be taken away and drowned.
There was not a lot for visitors to see at Birkenau as the majority of the buildings had crumbled or had been purposely knocked down before the liberation of the camp. However the stories and the information that we were told whilst we were there was very interesting and educational.
Overall our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was incredible. It was heartbreaking, eye-opening, educational, shocking and true. I highly recommend that people visit the camps if they are ever given the chance to do so as reading about it and being taught about it in schools does not compare to actually being there. School never taught me about the full details, in fact, they barely scraped the surface. I left the camp feeling educated. I left the camp feeling sad and shocked at the horrible things that happened there. It is so important that we never forget about these events. These tragic events are a huge piece of history, millions of lives were lost, justice was never truly had. We owe it to those who lost their lives to remember, to educate and tell their story to others for as long as we possibly can.