【Travel】Auschwitz-Birkenau (Poland)

Krakow: 3 – 7 Nov 2016

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU

We set off extra early the next morning to Krakow Bus Station where we bought our tickets for the next bus at 830am. It was a mini bus that also functioned as a local bus for the town of Oswiecim, so there were constantly locals getting on and off along the way. The journey typically takes 1-2 hours.

However, we got a little confused when the bus pulled in suddenly at a carpark near Oswiecim (we had checked Google Maps) and we were asked to board another mini bus, signaled by the bus driver in gestures and phrases of ‘Auschwitz’. Confused but confident that many had taken this route before, we boarded the next bus. At least we knew from Google maps that the bus was headed the right way.

The bus finally stopped at a small bus stop where the driver said Auschwitz and pointed to the door, which we took to mean, ‘alight here for Auschwitz’. We got off anyway, with another 3 tourists. That was when we spotted this sign across the road and realised that the camp was still a 8-minute walk away. So if you can, try to catch the big coach instead of the mini bus, which will drop you off directly at the entrance carpark.

Tips:

  • Buy only 1-way bus tickets. The driver will persist in selling you the return tickets, but do refuse politely. This will allow you the flexibility of choosing any next available bus (they are all from different companies) when you are ready to leave Auschwitz.
  • Big bags are not allowed to be brought into Auschwitz I. However, a bag/luggage depository is available at a small fee. So if you have a backpack, leave it behind at your hotel.
  • It is advisable to pack some food for lunch as visiting Auschwitz is a whole day affair. However, if you are not fussy, there are snack kiosks selling sandwiches, hotdogs and drinks (with very limited options) where you can fill your hungry stomachs.

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[Auschwitz I]

Our first glimpse of Auschwitz I. This used to be where the new arrivals were sorted. Now, it’s the main entrance and security check point to the museum. Entrance is free if you opt to visit without a guide, but you would still need to queue for a ticket. We decided to go ahead on our own as the time to the next guided tour was an hour away.

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There are no printed maps of the camp, so take a photo of this board before you move on, and use this as your reference while walking around.

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Arbeit Macht Frei, work makes you free. The sign that marked the entrance to the camp and the sign that inmates would have to march through each day for long hours of slave labour.

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Block 24a is the first building behind the Arbeit Macht Frei gate. This building is said to have been the location of the brothel and the camp library; both facilities were for the use of the inmates.

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The area in front of the camp kitchen where prisoners were often lined up and shot.

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Electrical barb wires and watch towers everywhere.

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Prisoners would be made to march precariously between barb wires.

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It was on this site that Camp Commandant Rudolf Höss was hanged for his war crimes.

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Crematorium I at Auschwitz I was used between August 15, 1940 till July 1943 when the four crematoria with gas chambers in Auschwitz II-Birkenau were completed. I was afraid to walk in at first, thinking about the lives lost within the confines of the walls, but I knew I had to see it for myself. This was also the only undestroyed crematorium left in Auschwitz.

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Block 11 was where political prisoners and camp prisoners with offences were brought to and housed in the basement’s cramped standing cells. At the end of the courtyard is the death wall where prisoners were executed by firing squad after being convicted in the courtroom that was located in Block 11. Today, many visitors leave flowers and candles at the wall, in memory of those who had fallen there.

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6 million Jews were murdered, almost 3 million were Polish.

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The Book of Names. It was humbling to stand there looking at the staggering number of pages… of names, of the people who are no longer.

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What struck me most emotionally was the exhibition featuring the drawings by Jewish children. We walked through rooms of white washed walls and small pencil drawings, children’s drawings that had been faithfully reproduced in actual size by an artist. They showed happier times before the war, and in contrast, the gross scenes of Auschwitz seen through the eyes of a child.

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Many black and white portraits of prisoners taken by the SS for archival purposes now line the walls of the camp blocks. We noticed that some had flowers placed on the frames, most likely by their members of their family.

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The room of shoes. It was a really emotional experience standing there and imagining the number of people they would have belonged to.

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Prosthetics and crutches. Removing these would have removed all integrity from those who needed them to get by their daily lives.

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Enamelware piled up room high, representing the lives that were taken away.

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Names and dates of birth written on suitcases, their owners had expected to claim them back some day, but never did.

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After spending about 2.5 hours at Auschwitz I, we decided to move on to Birkenau as the sun would be going down in 3-4 hours time and our target was to be able to get back on the bus headed for Krakow city before dark. We were unfortunately not able to complete all the exhibitions at Auschwitz I, as each building was always crowded with visitors and it took more time to get through them.

[Auschwitz II – Birkenau]

We then headed back out to the entrance carpark and caught a shuttle bus towards Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Catching sight of the infamous railway entrance suddenly made me breathe a little harder.

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Only guided tours are allowed up the watch tower.

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Birkenau is now mostly in ruins, but the scale of the complex is huge. It should take you about 1.5 hours to walk through the camp. There were no birds there but crows and ravens.

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The pathway that brought many to their deaths or a struggle for survival.

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The type of cattle freight cars that the Jews were transported in for days without food, water or air, and standing space only, to the death camps.

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At the ramp, new arrivals would be sorted and those selected for death were marched down this path to the gas chambers.

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Ghostly brick chimneys like these dominate the landscape. They stand to mark the location of the wooden barracks that have been destroyed.

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The remnants of the crematoria & gas chamber that had been bomb blasted by the Nazis in a bid to cover up their crimes at the end of the war.

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An overview of Crematoria IV where the Sonderkomando revolt took place and it was also later destroyed by the Nazis at the end of the war.

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Inmates would be marched down this long path, told that they would be taking a shower, made to undress, then hoarded unknowingly into the gas chamber.

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Stones left behind by visitors in memory of those who have perished, in the hope that love will overcome hate.

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The sun was going down as we made our way out of Birkenau. And as the bus moved off, I glanced back at the railway gate house for the last time, glad that we had made this journey.

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Also read about our trip to Krakow, Poland:

【Travel】Krakow, Poland

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