(Note: This post is not for the faint-hearted because of some gruesome photos. For educational purposes only.)
It did happen. The cruel things perpetrated by the Nazi Germany, which were described in my school books, they did happen. Visiting the Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration and Extermination Camp personally was a huge learning experience, and I highly recommend the tour to anybody visiting Poland. As the Spanish writer, George Santayana, once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Carl & I joined a private tour to the largest and “worst” concentration and extermination camps during WWII, the Auschwitz Birkenau located in Oswiecim. We booked our tours via the hotel reception, and we were quite happy because they were helpful and gave us tips as well. It took about an hour and 20 minutes to get to Oswiecim, and when we got there, we saw that it was clearly a major tourist attraction, as throngs of people lined up towards the entrance. Everything was very organized though. According to the museum’s website, entering the grounds was free, but you must ensure an entry card. I’d recommend joining a tour, so as to get more understanding of how it was in the camp, etc.
Each tour group seemed to have its own chest sticker (same is true for the Salt Mine tour), and we received the stickers before entering the premises. We then lined up for security. (For the set of rules for visiting, click here.) So yes, avoid bringing big bags, food and pets, among others, and they do not recommend that children under 14 years visit the museum. It is also prohibited to take photos or videos in some areas. We each got a headpiece, and it didn’t take long before the tour guide brought us through the building blocks. So, the tour consists of 2 parts: the tour to Auschwitz (1.5 hour) and then, to Birkenau.
Auschwitz 1 served as the “experiments station”, where German doctors experimented on humans, prisoners to be exact, especially children. They injected hormones and chemicals, therefore, disregarding ethics in their practice. They also did immediate extermination here by gassing the prisoners in the basement or in the crematorium using Zyklon B (a cyanide-based pesticide). The camp consists of 28 two-story blocks, each was designed to house about 700 prisoners. But according to sources, they accommodated up to 1200. (Read more about Auschwitz 1 and the living conditions during WWII here.) We only entered a few blocks, for some reason: Blocks 4, 5, 7 and 11.
Block 4: Extermination
The first block we entered was number 4. It contained exhibits of how the concentration camp was designed, the different chambers and cells, and the procedures of taking in new prisoners. Documents and belongings of the prisoners were put on display. According to the tourguide, they were fooled into the camps by the Nazis, telling them that they would just be relocated. But in reality, they were being transported to their possible deaths.
For some reason, I was overwhelmed by the place, that I couldn’t help but imagine how it would be for the officers or the prisoners to look out of the window while inside the blocks. So I took some photos through the windows as well.
Block 5: Material proofs of crimes
Block 5 contains piles and piles of belongings from the prisoners, like luggage bags, shoes, kitchen utensils, scarves, prothetic legs and other equipment, and eyeglasses.
Block 7: Living and Sanitary Conditions
This was where prisoners who violated the rules were punished. On the ground floor are photos of the inmates, and it was easy to notice that many of them died within the first 2-4 months in the camp. It gave a horrible feeling to see many of them smiling in the profile photos, only to see that they did not survive the camp. In the basement were tiny, dark and cold cells, where prisoners were tortured and suffocated. It was not allowed to take photos in this block, but I wouldn’t dare, even if I could. It was a like a nightmare to be there, and I literally felt dizzy while in the basement.
After a couple of hours, we went back to the van which took us to part 2 of the tour. If Auschwitz 1 seemed suffocating and crowded, Birkenau was vast, which made it even more frightening.
Birkenau is the largest of the Auschwitz camps. All prisoners meant to be exterminated were brought here and systematically murdered. It was sickening. I highly recommend for you to watch the movie “Schindler’s List” before going here, so as to get a good grasp of what went on in Birkenau.
We were guided in one of the baracks, and there, we got a sense of how it horrible it was to be a prisoner sent to Birkenau at that time.
You see, I was a little bit skeptic before going to the camps. I saw some documentaries of the freeing of the prisoners when WWII was over, but the filmmakers admitted to stageing that whole thing. But after the tours, there was no doubt now about it. It was easy to see how man can be frail and weak and cruel and inhumane. Indeed, it is easy to be human, but not to be humane. Yes, the tours were gloomy, but was necessary.