My trip to Krakow, Poland and tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau
So this post today is a sad one. A tragic one in fact. That said its an important one.
I hope this blog comes across as heartfelt and as authentic as possible. Its a difficult experience to describe. We were told by our tour guide to go home and share what we saw so here it is.
I have wanted to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau ever since I went to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Morbid yes but I believe visiting this place is important in understanding the horror of what happened to millions of people such a short time ago. Its even more so important when right now we are living through such divided times. If it happened once it can happen again.
That being said I am going to share my experience in Krakow as well, a truly amazing and welcoming city with so much history. We arrived early afternoon in Krakow and the first port of call was food. The best bit about this city is that every single restaurant we went in was incredible food at next to nothing prices. I took £120 for 4 days and lived like a king. Pierogi is a traditional polish dumpling and 10 pieces will sent you back around £3 I ate at least 50 of them in 4 days they are that good.
The city is beautiful, the main square and cloth hall in particular but its also very diverse with the old town and the Jewish Quarter and then the more industrial space as well. There are still hints of the war everywhere and you can still visit the Apteka Pod Orlem (The famous Pharmacy in the Jewish Ghetto) we also did Schindlers Factory which I would say is the best place to get all the information you need about the Nazi occupation in Krakow.
The second day was our tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau. If you ever go I encourage you to have a tour. The tour guides are deeply passionate and wonderful storytellers who will guide through the experience. As this place is an experience. Initially you feel a bit odd as Auschwitz is very close to the town of Oswiecim and the entrance has this bizarre tourist feeling. Then when you see those famous gates and feel how cold and eery this place you start to get the sense of what it meant to be here as a prisoner.
You always associate Auschwitz with the gas chambers but Birkenau was the real killing factory which is 3km away. Being a prisoner here though was beyond horror. Upon arrival you would be stripped, have your hair shaved off and a number tattooed on your arm. Everything they could to remove your identity and dehumanise you. You would then be given striped pyjamas which would be covered in blood, urine and excrement from their last owner. You see many many people died here because of the conditions and work alone. One piece of bread, some water with a small amount of vegetables and then some water with herbs that was called a 'coffee' once a day. You would have to endure long hours of work in the fields in the freezing cold or boiling hot. Horrible long roll calls twice a day often lasting hours where brutality and collective punishment would be served.
Many many people died living under these conditions and when you walk through the hall of photos you can see the dates of arrival and dates of death were usually only a couple of months apart. Disease was rife within the camp as well as there was no hygiene. The dead would have to be brought to roll call or back from the fields if they died while working as the Nazi's were anal about knowing who was where. If you were one person short from your block or coming back from work you would all be punished.
If you didn't die from disease you would die from starvation. One of the last things to go before you die is your sense of touch and thats when you wouldn't notice the rats eating you.
This is genuinely the darkest place I have ever been.
Walking around the camp the barracks have been transformed into individual museums that tell the story of this place. You see the many many empty cans of Zyklon-B a fraction of what was found after the liberation. 2 tons of human hair taken from prisoners and bodies. Pots and pans, suitcases and hairbrushes all the last whispers of the people who came through this place.
You just can not comprehend it, its overwhelming. And for me the fact it went under the radar until after the war is just indescribable.
Of the 1.3million people who went to Auschwitz-Birkenau 1.1million died there. 90% of those were Jews killed in the gas chambers.
Just let that sit with you for a minute. Auschwitz was the beginning of the years of terror. Block 11 being the place the Nazi's used to experiment with how to do the final solution as efficiently as possible. Block 11 is the only building not changed on Auschwitz. Its a display of the Nazi justice where small courts were held and torture. You go into the basement and you have standing cells where there is small door at the bottom you would be made to crawl through and then you would be left to stand up for hours in the dark of a 2ft maybe 3ft squared space. There were also suffocation cells where you would suffocate slowly as you used up the air.
Outside you have a place where hundreds of people were shot they even had the sense to put up a soft wall so the bullets wouldn't ricochet. This place is a place for reflection, no talking is allowed.
The Nazi's experimented with Zyklon-B in the basement of 11 block. The first people they gassed took 48hours to die while they worked out the amount needed. After that crematorium one was built. Only a stones throw from Rudolf Hoss's (the camp commandant) house where he and his family lived.
Going inside crematorium one fills you with a sense of despair and deep sadness. It does not feel real because as a compassionate person I can't understand why anyone would create something to kill people in mass. I just can't. When you see the finger nail scratches up the walls where 100s of people would of been desperately trying to keep their lives your breath leaves your body and there are no words for what horror, fear and pain must of been felt in that room. Only that I hope as an intelligent and emotional species we never fall for the manipulation of a minority led by evil ever again.
This place 3km away from Auschwitz was what made the Nazi's so efficient. Built solely for the purpose of mass killings. A flat wide space that at the time would of been filled with block after block containing up to 400 people each. The station and platform is huge. Running straight down the middle of the camp it takes 5-10mins to walk down, cattle trains filled with 1000s of people would of arrived everyday. The entrance at the top and the four huge crematorium at the bottom. (There was also the little red house and the little white house that operated for a time)
The platform off of the trains is where the final selection would of been made. The arrivals would be asked to leave their belongings on the platform. Bearing in mind these people were told they were being relocated they bought their most valuable possessions. Then they were split up into two lines. One would be to live and work in the camp so fit and able men and women. The other side would be sent straight to the crematorium. Of course they were not told this. They were told they were going to take a shower, the Nazi's played it all the way to the end even telling people to hurry as their tea and coffee would be getting cold.
Thousands of people walked to their deaths with a smile on their face at the thought of being clean and getting a cup of tea.
All of their belongings would of then been taken to the Canada warehouse to be sorted into stuff that could be sent to the Third Reich.
Each gas chamber could hold around 2000 people at a time and the sky would be black 24/7 with the ash of the dead which is why there is no wildlife at Birkenau. After they were gassed their hair was shaved to be sold and all their jewellery and gold teeth removed. Its reported that up to 33 tons of gold rings and teeth was sent to the Third Reich from Auschwitz-Birkenau.
One of the men who made selection was Dr Josef Mengele. He was known for his experiments and would often choose children from the final selection as experimental material. He was evil no other word to use, he was known for experiments such as sewing two children together or trying to change brown eyes blue. He was never brought to justice and hid in South America until 1979 when he died.
The Crematorium today are a pile of rubble from where the Nazi's tried to cover their tracks when they knew the allies were coming. I am grateful that the liberators of Auschwitz-Birkenau had the foresight to not remove them. How you see them today is exactly how the Nazi's left them.
The experience of this place will stay with me forever. How it ever came to be there is beyond me its the biggest black mark on modern humanity. Auschwitz-Birkenau came to be because of the influence of one power and of a mass population being repeatedly told the Jewish community was to blame for their problems. We have to remember that people from the Jewish community were sent to Auschwitz and other death camps not just from Nazi occupied countries but from all over Europe with governments thinking they were just relocating the problem. Nobody knew about the final solution until after the war.
We must never allow ourselves to be manipulated in such a way ever again. We must be vigilant not just to whats going on in the world but of ourselves as well. We must be compassionate, understanding and open to all our differences. How boring this world would be without our individual ways of thinking, looking and believing. If we operate from a place of fear and narrow minded thoughts we leave ourselves vulnerable to the handful in the world that want to spread hate and hurt others.
2016 has been a year of divisive politics. The media has succeeded in making the rifts in our global community wider. Inequality, racial hate, discrimination all appear to be on the rise. We must remember that we are stronger stood together. We are better when we support one another.
Be kind and understanding always, lest we never forget.
Just a little bit more from the beautiful Krakow and the site of the Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow. There were many places of horror across Europe during the war.
There is also some images from the Krakow Independence day parade (same day as remembrance day)
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