Walking Tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau
Auschwitz. Is there any other word or place in the English language that can cause people to have such an immediate emotional reaction as this one? I have wanted to visit Auschwitz for many years and recently I took a trip to Poland (Krakow and Wroclaw to be specific). So I simply had to visit. Imagine being so close and not going. What would that say about me as a person?
My time in Krakow was limited and I also wanted to go visit the Wieliczka salt mine but If I wanted to see both places, I would have to do them both in one day. So I had to abandon my plans of public transport and go for an organised tour from Krakow itself with an early start.
At 8 am I was collected from my accommodation in a mini van and off we went. It would take about one hour to arrive and as I was travelling on my own, I had no distractions from the workings of my mind.
How bad will it be?
How many people will be there?
How will I react?
What will other people be doing?
These are just some of the question that were rattling around my head on the journey. Now and again I would look out the window at the countryside and get distracted from my thoughts for a while. Then I would wonder “What would this have looked like 70 years ago?” The signs for drive-through McDonald’s and KFC tell me that we are getting closer, as well as depress me. 15 minutes later we arrive to join the scheduled tours…
‘Auschwitz’ is technically two sites -Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Auschwitz I is considerably busier than Birkenau and I believe if you arrive early enough in the day, you can visit on your own but from 10-3 you must be on a guided tour. This is primarily because of the numbers of people that visit. I’m sure that there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of tour and I know that when I return, I will go early in the day on my own to get another perspective.
One of the most important block buildings at Auschwitz is Block 5, which contains possessions of the victims behind glass screens. The possessions include suitcases, spectacles, shoes and 2 tonnes of hair that was shaved from people and used for making clothes and rugs. Out of respect, photographs of the hair are not permitted but I can honestly say that it is a sight that you will not forget any time soon. I knew about the collection before going and a part of me thought it might be a bit morbid. However, it was all presented very well and the guide I had made sure that everything was presented in a respectful and sincere way. I have more to say about the guides later on.
In one of the halls there is a gallery of those that died. Each photo displays their name, the date they arrived and the date they died. Walking through here, almost everyone was dead within a couple of weeks of arrival. The longest I saw was about 6 months.
Towards the end of the war, as the Soviet’s were approaching from the east, the Nazi’s started to destroy evidence of what they had been doing at this and other camps. Several thousands of people died during transport back to Germany. A gas chamber has been reconstructed using the original materials which you can enter. Up to 2,000 people could have been murdered at a time and they were told that they had to be decontaminated with a shower. Some chambers also had false shower heads. Photographs are not permitted inside the chamber, but it is hard to imagine how 200 people could fit, let alone 2,000
Birkenau is different to Auschwitz I as it has been mostly destroyed. I do not know if there is a particular reason why Auschwitz has been restored but Birkenau is, to some extent, crumbling away. It is also more open than Auschwitz and there are far fewer crowds making it much easier to walk around on your own if you wanted to.
As I said above, Birkenau is largely a collection of ruins now. Below are a few pictures of what remains of the gas chambers here.
For me the most disturbing and moving part of Birkenau is the memorial in front of the ash pit. The ashes of those killed were buried here, though some were also used as fertiliser in the nearby fields. The Nazi’s didn’t want to waste anything.
The last part of the tour of Birkenau is to walk around the barracks building where people would have lived. Due to overcrowding a lot of people didn’t even get a ‘bed’ to sleep on and had to sleep on the floor. There was practically no heating to the buildings as well.
I can honestly say that I am glad I was able to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. If there is one negative about going on a guided tour, it is that you do not get enough time to view all the artefacts and documents etc… that are on display in the block buildings at Auschwitz. However, given the number of people that need to get through the site, this is understandable. This is one of the reasons why I would like to go again, early in the day, so that I am able to walk around at my own pace. I would still recommend the guided tours and think that everyone should go to see this place for themselves. My last words are for the tour guides. I don’t know how they can do this day after day. On my previous night in Krakow, I met a couchsurfer that worked in tourism and at one point they had to go to Auschwitz every day to take people on tours. It must take a toll on you mentally and she eventually had to leave to do something ‘easier’. The guides really know the history of the place and deserve our respect so that what happened at Auschwitz is never forgotten.