Today’s post is one the last legs of our Eastern Europe trip. I gathered my Krakow photos for a post and then started remembering this part of the trip that I think was, for me, the main reason I wanted to travel this area of Europe. I wanted to go to Auschwitz/Birkenau Concentration Camps and see, for myself, this part of history. Today’s post gives you a peek into my thoughts and what our tour was like. I cannot even come up with words to express how powerful it was for me; to see and to walk in an area where others have endured such suffering, during the Holocaust.
When we arrived at our apartment in Krakow, we made our reservations for a tour of Auschwitz Concentration Camp, in nearby Oświęcim, 32 miles from Krakow. Having read that it is better to not to do 2 tours on the same day, we bought a tour package that included the Salt Mines tour a the day after Auschwitz Concentration Camp tour…good advice! Our tour picked us up at the Antique Apartments, where we were staying. The transportation was a shuttle bus, which was very comfortable and included a pre-tour video, giving us a background history of Auschwitz. Our tour group was handed-off to an Auschwitz Museum Guide, who led us around Auschwitz camp, through its buildings that housed the museum displays. All tourist had earphones so it was easy to hear, groups are available for all languages, so we were limited to scheduled English tours. All that is handled when tour reservations are made. A short time is given before going to the second camp, Birkenau, for eating a packed lunch and restrooms. In order to see the main area buildings, I believe, you must be in a guided group. The lines seemed pretty long for those people buying tickets. We toured both camps, which took about 3 hours. The whole day worked out to be a 5-hour day.
The tour began at the gate entrance of Auschwitz I, the gate reads, Arbeit macht frei (“work makes you free.” The guide explained that, of course, in a concentration camp, no one is free, that the only way out of Auschwitz was Death, sigh. On that cheery note…we began our day of seeing, not only of the grounds, buildings and gas chambers, but more importantly a horrifying peek into how 1.3 million people lived their last days, where we were now walking. My biggest impression was the size of the camps, and the systematic plan for accomplishing Hitler’s final solution, also remarkable, was coordination that had to take place between so many Germans to gather such a mass of people deemed expendable, from across Europe. Jews were 90% of the camps’ population, but also deported there were, Roma/Sinti (gypsies), Mormons, non-Jewish Poles, homosexuals, Soviet war criminals. That was the final solution, to totally wipe-out all those undesirable groups of people. Which brings me to this…I am conflicted about what word to refer to the people by. Jews certainly were the biggest group, but with all the other groups too, I hate to exclude them. I decided to use the words people and prisoners, mainly because I feel I am acknowledging a collective humanity who were certainly unable to leave, so prisoner works for me, too. Victim is yet another word, I feel works.
Our guide walked us, following behind other groups, through the Block buildings, then around the grounds. The displays were outstanding; huge photos of the prisoners as they arrived on the train and at various other stages of their life (or death) there. Several long hallway walls were lined 3 rows deep with individual mug shots of prisoners, men and women, never too young nor too old. The photos were large, so as I passed, row after row, I began noticing some of the emotions on their faces, or as in many photos, lack of any emotion, just empty eyes. A few, both men and women, had a defiant attitude that showed. I could not help but wonder what happened to them.
As we continued walking through the Block buildings we saw long glassed-in walls, with hundreds of thousands of shoes, or suitcases, or combs and brushes, etc, taken from the people after they arrived. It was chilling to see all their personal items (some treasures) in such mass quantity.
The video below is a first-hand account by Felix Opatowski, a jewish boy of 16 years, of his arrival and life at Auschwitz/Birkenau. Hang in there, the animation part is short and his message is powerful.
After touring the museum block buildings, we were taken on a long walk over to Birkenau, the second, and much larger camp area. The photo below was shot once inside looking back at the train tracks (toward the red roof entrance, I pointed out in the earlier map caption.) The trains brought the people to the camp. From where I stood, photographing, there were hundreds of barracks (some just the foundation) on both sides and behind me, in a far distance, were the gas chambers.
This is the camp that Felix, (in the video above) lived in. It was huge. After getting off the train people stood in line, male line & female line. When they got to the front of the line an officer or doctor told them to, “Go Left” or to “Go Right.” The Selection. If sent to the left they would go to a barracks, to the right, they went directly to the gas chamber…Life or Death. The old, sick. pregnant and under 14 years of age were sent to the right. They were not fit to work.
The photo at the very top of this post is titled “the way to death…” I took that photo of a huge displayed photo in one of the Auschwitz Block rooms. That original photo had that caption, “the way to death.” Look…it’s all young children and women walking toward the gas chambers. Our guide told us that they were told they were going to shower, so told to remove their clothing. Telling them a lie would help keep the prisoners calmer and controllable. Then up to 2000, at a time, were led into what looked like an innocent public shower room. The doors, and vents were sealed, as gas was pumped into the room. The victims did not understand when some soldiers told them, before entering, “breathe deeply,” meaning that they would die faster.
In Birkenau, we walked through a few barracks where people had slept. The conditions were so cramped and the people so ill, that many died from typhus, dysentery and disease that ravished their starving bodies. The usual count of people sleeping in one barrack was between 500-750. Stacked up.
After our tour, we loaded back onto our bus and returned to Krakow. That night we went, again, to our favorite Krakow restaurant, across from our apartments, and enjoyed dumplings and cabbage dishes along with excellent (low-priced) Polish wine. It was a nice place to unwind after a tour that would require a few days to even begin to process. (If you missed Part 1, of our Krakow trip you can read about it HERE)
The next day was a less grim half-day-tour of Wieliczka Salt Mine. Our transportation, again was a comfortable shuttle bus from our door steps. The Salt Mine, was a big employer of the towns people. Those employed there were paid very well. I am not sure why they carved so many art pieces into the salt, but it is definitely worth the price & time to tour it. Salt mines were real money makers, since, without refrigeration, salt was needed to preserve food. The mine is huge and far below ground.
Tour routes cover less than 2.2% of the miner’s routes, to see the rest would take 3 months! There are underground lakes and all kind of things to see. Lots of stairs and walking though. The big finale is the cathedral that is carved out of the salt. It is like going into a huge above ground cathedral but is way below ground level.
The height is soaring. Everything, from the tiled floor to the huge chandeliers, is carved from salt. The artwork looks like detailed marble carvings but is salt. It’s a Bucket List sort of place. For Wieliczka Salt Mine history and more photos click HERE.
We found the Polish people to be very friendly. At breakfast the second morning, we got in a conversation with the manager of the bar, where we were eating. I asked him, “What drink (alcohol) was Poland known for?” If you have followed our trip, you may remember our schnapps tasting in Germany HERE. So, does Poland have a “specialty” drink? Well…before we knew it, our new friend had left and returned with a platter of four Vodka bottles and shot glasses! We were now, at breakfast, tasting vodka! The consensus was that we preferred the Bison Grass vodka. Or at least my SIL & I thought that. Now, that is what I mean when I say, Krakow is Friendly,
Thanks for Meeting Me Lakeside, today.
Whew, aren’t you glad I ended on a more cheery note, like vodka shots? Off to Budapest, a 7-hour bus trip, but I can’t wait to see the countryside!