Kraków Part II – Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau

After a full day of walking around Kraków the previous day, we started day 2 with a very early wake up call to catch the bus to Auschwitz. We clearly started our day long before any café or restaurant, so we purchased what appeared to be gigantic, stale, skinny bagels from some elderly woman manning a cart by the bus station. We had very low expectations but turns out, the bagel-esque bread rings are delicious!

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I just did a bit of research and apparently these are a typical Kraków street food. “Obwarzanek krakowski” are braided, ring-shaped bread that’s boiled and sprinkled with salt, poppy seeds and sesame seeds before being baked. They also cost roughly $0.25.

With a bit of directional help from a bus driver, we found our bus and settled in for the 2-hour drive to Auschwitz.

We arrived in enough time to grab some coffee before joining our study tour. Visitors to Auschwitz have two options: the general 3.5-hour tour or the 6-hour guided study tour, which takes you around quite a bit more of the camp. We opted for the longer version as we are both interested in the holocaust and figured we probably wouldn’t be back and I’m so glad we did.

Our guide was Polish and has given tours for 15 years. She was really great. She gave a lot of history and described what we were seeing around the camps but with very few personal anecdotes, she let the facts speak for themselves. She also took a very non-PC approach to everything, which both Mikela and I really appreciated; what happened at Auschwitz is atrocious and shouldn’t be sugarcoated.

I’ve been struggling with how to write about our time at the camps because it’s really indescribable. To see the living conditions and hear about the barbaric treatment of the prisoners is almost unreal, it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that this actually happened. And the massive scale of everything is hard to depict. So rather than try to describe it, I’ll simply share some of the things that made the biggest impact:

  • Auschwitz sits right outside the town of Oswiecim. In 1939, there were 14,000 Jews living in Oswiecim. Today, there are 0.
  • You expect Auschwitz to be grey, gloomy and ugly. Although our first day in Poland was pretty dreary weather, today was a beautiful fall day with bright blue skies. There are trees lining the “streets” of the camp with green grass and wild flowers growing. It’s very off-putting to witness the dichotomy of the rather pretty scenery and the atrocities that happened there.
  • Along those same lines, Auschwitz’s director built a house on the edge of the camp, where he lived with his wife and five children. Reportedly, his wife loved living there, calling it “idyllic and beautiful”.
  • After walking through Auschwitz, you are bused over to Birkenau, about 1.5 miles away. The Auschwitz prisoners built Birkenau and I cannot imagine them having to walk to and from the camp every day, in winter, with no shoes, after doing manual labor for 12+ hours, with almost no food.
  • While Auschwitz is rather compact, Birkenau is massive. The Nazi’s burned the majority of the camp before fleeing so all you see are line after line of chimneys. With 600+ prisoners in each barrack, you start to understand the scale of the holocaust and it makes you feel sick.
  • There are train tracks that run through the gates of Birkenau and simply end right before the forest. Prisoners de-boarded the trains and were immediately sorted with the elderly, women and children taken directly to the gas chambers and the men taken to the work camp. The end of the tracks are haunting, it feels so final.
  • At the end of our tour, our guide said, “People say Germany lost the war, but I think Poland did. We went from being occupied by the German to 40 years occupied by the Russians.”
  • In one of the buildings, there was an art installation where an artist took pictures found in the camp drawn by children and inscribed them on the walls. There were some of flowers and children, but also men holding machine guns, women with their hands up in the forest at gun point, people hanging from a noose. These children, even if they did survive, were completely robbed of their innocence and childhood.
  • There was another exhibit where they had books hanging with three-foot pages filled with the names of every person killed during the holocaust. Seeing 6 million names typed out is again, a reminder of the massive scale of this.
  • Yet another exhibit finished with a quote saying, “It happened, and therefore it could happen again” which may have actually been what moved me the most.

It was a very heavy, very powerful, very moving day, although I’m glad we went. Auschwitz is a place that I feel everyone should go see to truly understand what happens when intolerance goes unchecked. And sadly, it’s something that needs to be reinforced given current events.

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