A Day At Auschwitz-Birkenau

I used to hate going to Hebrew school. Well not always, but mostly once I got to middle school and my once-stellar Hebrew slowly started to reflect my teenage years of not caring so much. However, my favorite parts were of course snack time (who doesn’t love snack time? My favorite were the little mini chocolate donuts that we’d get quite often), and history class. I LOVED my history classes growing up, and history, particularly WWII and Jewish history, really gets my water boiling.

One of the perks (that’s a weird word to use for a post like this, but oh well) of being a child in my generation is that we grew up with the aging survivors of the Holocaust. We are really the last generation that had the chance to hear first hand from the voices who lived the atrocities that the evil, yet intriguing, Nazis set forth during the Final Solution of the second world war. So, it was always a ‘treat’ when that time of year came around when about 100 of us children gathered around on the floor at the feet of this survivor who was to tell us their story. I still remember one of the survivors gushing about her favorite striped bathing suit that she brought with her when she was relocated to Auschwitz. They really thought they were going to resettle for a better life elsewhere.

Then she showed us her tattoo. Her identity number during her time in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the biggest death camp, responsible for over 1.1 million murders, about 90% of them Jews. That tattoo is something I never forgot, and knew then that I wanted to go there, to visit this horrible place.

Well, I finally went, and it was the greatest, most desolate, most fascinating, most important experience I’ve probably ever had. While it’s surely going to be one of your most depressing days, it is a situation that everyone should put themselves in so that this mass genocide never happens again. Or puts an end to it in parts of the world where it is still happening.

Jen and I took an overnight train from Prague to Krakow, where Auschwitz is situated about 1.5 hours outside of in Oświęcim.  During the winter, the camp is only open until 3pm, so we, along with our new friend Andrew, caught the first bus we could. Upon arrival, it was an absolute madhouse, as could be expected. Maybe it was because they had just switched over to a new system for guided tours, but it was madness. Thankfully for my Korean ajumma elbows, I was able to shove through a sea of clusterfuck and got us our tickets.

I was originally against doing a guided tour because I wanted to have my freedom, but I was told otherwise that the tour guides are phenomenal and really add to the experience, so we did that. And this is where the tour started, at the entry gate to Auschwitz I.

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The iconic gate at the entry of Auschwitz I ~ Work Will Set You Free

The tour took us through barracks that have been maintained as part of the museum, where they house remnant after remnant of those who had passed through its walls.

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I never knew how prisoners were distinguished, aside from their tattoos. But turns out (of course) there was a system beyond just everyone wears stripes and has a number.

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Wooden clogs and shoes that prisoners were given to wear. Summer or winter, rain or shine. It hurts me just looking at these, after my own toes felt like icicles. Most prisoners didn’t last longer than 3 months, and after walking the wall of prisoner photos, I noticed that many barely lasted a full month.

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The Death Wall, where many were lined up and shot.

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Auschwitz I started as a camp for political prisoners, and as it began to overflow, Auschwitz II-Birkenau was opened as a death/concentration camp. And let me tell you, it is massive, and filled with chimneys everywhere. The Nazis if nothing else positive, were efficient masterminds.

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The arrival point of cattle cars at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where the selection process happened.

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These were the insides of a typical barrack. When I first learned you could see them many years ago, I knew I had to go. These three levels would hold sometimes 10 people per row, and the bottom level used to be made of mud or dirt, so when it would rain, people would literally be sleeping in a swamp. You can also see that there are many names carved into the brick, one of the most heartbreaking things to see. Leaving their mark, in some way.

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Visiting Auschwitz in some odd way was the highlight of my trip to Central Europe. I can’t even think of the proper words to express the feeling that comes from visiting a place like this that has such a sinister history, but must be preserved for generations to come. I can fully recommend taking one of the guided tours offered by the museum, as our guide did a wonderful job of conveying the history and emotion that goes along with the tragic period. I kept saying to myself  “can you imagine being someone who goes to work at Auschwitz everyday?” It’s so depressing, but those people are so important for the future.

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To get to Auschwitz from Krakow, I suggest just getting out to Oświęcim on your own, rather than arranging a tour. It’s quite easy. From Krakow Glowny train stain the bus station is just next door. You can ask one of the ticket counters when the next bus leaves, and they’ll direct you to the platform where you can just buy your ticket on the bus. I’d recommend getting in line pretty quickly because it gets so full. I heard that summer months are insane, and we went during the low season and it was still full. It costs 28 zloty roundtrip. I think it’s best to just buy the roundtrip since you can use it to catch any bus on the return and not worry about buying it again.

Once at Auschwitz prepare for insane amounts of people and no order whatsoever. You’ll have to take some initiative to get to the front of the ‘line’, unless it gets better somehow. Admission to the camp is free, however a guided tour is 40 zloty (~9 euros), and will last about 3 hours and cover both Auschwitz I and II-Birkenau, including the shuttle between camps.

Well, I apologize for such a morbid post, but I hope you enjoyed! Have you been to Auschwitz or another camp? What was your experience like? If you haven’t been, I hope at some point you have the opportunity. Bring plenty of tissue and wear waterproof mascara. It’ll be a day of hardcore feels. 

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