You would be forgiven for thinking it was a quaint little university town. Golden trees, beautiful clear skies, uniform brick buildings, happy smiling tourists, many of whom would have been students following their guides around, all helping to build the atmosphere that this was a place of higher learning. You would be forgiven for making that mistake if it weren’t for the barbed wire fences, the replica gallows and the knowledge that this site was home to the most horrendous atrocities in the history of mankind. On a beautiful autumn’s day I made my way to Auschwitz, for an experience that hit me harder than I ever would’ve imagined…
We arrived into Oswiecim early in an effort to avoid the tour buses and made straight for getting inside the museum. The first thing you come across is the infamous Auschwitz main gate, “Arbeit Macht Frei”. This slogan welcomes everyone in and out of Auschwitz, roughly translating to “Work Sets You Free” which as we know for most who passed under these words was rarely the case. I snapped my only few photos here, a testament I think as to how much I was to be affected by my visit.
The first building we went inside was dedicated to the Polish resistance under the Nazi occupation and the terrors they experienced in their homeland. Photos of skeletal children, firing squad walls and some of the resistance efforts set the tone very early for what we were delving into. Already I was fighting back tears at the horrors these people experienced through no fault of their own. At one point in this exhibit is a massive room with the striped pyjamas stood up all by themselves to resemble a work squad. The sombreness and weight in just seeing this was enough but this room would soon affect me on a personal level; for in this room was a book. This book contained all the documented Poles to have been entered into Auschwitz, with only one possessing my mother’s maiden name, Kosla. Jan Kosla. My grandfather had escaped Poland during the Second World War by lying about his age to enter the army and eventually making his way to England. We know very little of his life back in Poland, apart from the town he was born in. However, my uncle’s middle name is Jan so we wonder if there is any correlation, such as a tribute to a brother who didn’t make it out. Kosla also does not seem to be that common a name in Southern Poland which I gathered after some post visit research. Nonetheless, it still got my mind wondering if I was related in anyway to this Kosla, and even if I weren’t, what it must be like for him to have gone through what he did.
Most buildings in Auschwitz-I are occupied by exhibitions. It would take days to explore them all but there are several key exhibitions that the tours fly through. By the time we had exited this first exhibition, the masses had arrived and were heavily occupying these buildings. These exhibitions varied building to building and I found at least one thing in each building that hit me incredibly hard. The famous rooms full of shoes, or the thousands of locks of hair stunning me into submission. I could do nothing but find a wall to lean against, holding back the tears at the thought that these were the last remnants of hundreds of thousands of people mercilessly executed. You can’t even fathom how many people that is. Every person who visited Auschwitz that day (and there were a hell of a lot of them) could’ve dropped dead instantly around me and it still wouldn’t have come close to the total number of people murdered there.
Another corridor shows some of the living quarters and the cells where prisoners were held. The walls adorned with photos of the men and women held captive here. It is easy to take it all in as one and keep moving down the hallway, but far more difficult to look each one in the eye, imagine what they went through and then move onto the next. Utterly harrowing.
The exhibition that finally caused me to shed a tear however was just a single wall, dedicated to some of the children of Auschwitz. It showed the standard three photos of Auschwitz prisoners but had some added details beneath them. These started with the name, the date of birth, the date of admission and finally what the future held for them. Looking at this wall, with probably 60 or so children adorning it, two were confirmed survivors of Auschwitz, with several others unknown but doubtful. Two. A sole two combined confirmations. Eight, thirteen, fifteen, age didn’t matter in this hell hole, each was subjected to their own nightmares in this place. Some didn’t last two months, others lasted several years, with one of the saddest cases being a young lad who died about two months before Auschwitz was liberated. To have endured such pain and suffering for so long and to die so close to rescue was heart wrenching.
We soon were to catch a shuttle bus to Camp II – Birkenau which became the main extermination camp, a killing camp boasting that notorious Nazi efficiency. This place fit my preconception of what a concentration camp should be, rather than confusing me the way Camp I had. A massive wide space, tall barbed wire fences, the infamous entrance and train tracks, barracks looking like barns; this I could imagine as a Hell on earth. Many buildings had been burnt with the Nazis trying to erase as much evidence as possible upon their surrender in the war but several of the wooden and brick barracks had survived. All four of the crematoriums here had been destroyed, with their foundations and rubble the only things to have survived. An international monument and plaques in more languages than I could count standing tall in testament to those who had been killed here.
Now I want you to try and do something I’ve been doing constantly throughout the last week. Picture the room you’re in at the moment filled with ten faceless (faceless in the fact that they resemble no one to you, just a random person) corpses. It’s horrific. Now try 50. And then 100. It’s pretty tough to even imagine this many bodies. Now try scaling that to tens of and hundreds of thousands, all slaughtered in the ruins lain before me. It is unfathomable. 1.5 million Jews were murdered in this place. 1.5 million… Many would’ve been murdered on a beautiful autumn day such as this day, clear blue skies, golden leaves, a day most would be outside enjoying. Standing here I watched tours off in the distance, marching along behind their tour guides. It didn’t take much to imagine these tourists as men and women who lived and worked and died at the camp. All you needed was to transpose the striped uniforms and you had your prisoners.
My visit to Auschwitz has so far stayed with me throughout the rest of the places I’ve visited in Poland. I still just struggle to comprehend how truly horrific an event and a place this was. I’ve been watching films, doing extra research and just thinking about it daily since I left and I think definitely contributes to my more sombre mindset over the last week. After my initial photos, I didn’t pull out my camera again, which is quite a big deal for me. I wanted to immerse myself as much as possible in this experience, committing it to memory rather than to photographs and to pay attention and respect to all those that had suffered here. We boarded the bus and said goodbye to this site of monstrosity, I know myself having changed forever because of it…
Doing Auschwitz on the cheap!
Now I do have some quick recommendations if you are to visit Auschwitz which I strongly recommend doing if you’re up for it. Most places in Krakow will offer you a tour there for around 110 polish zlotys ($40 AUD) and is a pretty full day. The tours will race you through most of the exhibits and not give you enough time to let much of it settle in. You can gain entry at 8am (leaving Krakow at 630am) having reserved a ticket online or being fortunate enough to pick one up before the tours arrive (like we did) that will allow you to wander around the museum freely. These tickets cost absolutely nothing as it is a museum. However, during peak season if you arrive after 10am, you will only gain admission through a tour. You can pick up a guidebook past the entrance for 5 zloty as well as gain information from the plethora of guides rolling through. So compared to the 110 zloty we would’ve paid for a tour there, we spent 40 ($14.30 AUD), 28 for a return bus ticket, 5 for the guide plus 7 on a magnificent zapiekanka, the polish sub of cheese, mushrooms and garlic sauce. So you manage to get in before the crowds, save money, aren’t herded around like cattle in a tour, take your time and are able to actually appreciate the place. Definitely sounds like a win for me!