To date Krakow was all about having a good time so to bring myself back to earth today was going to be Auschwitz day. Opting to catch the local bus instead of the expensive tour option (local bus is a breeze and super cheap) we hopped aboard and relaxed while checking out some of the Polish countryside.
Arriving at Auschwitz there is no wandering around on your own, you need to be on a tour to venture onto the site. Seriously thought, for a site like this would you really want to walk about on your own??
What was to follow is pretty much the most depressing day of my travels and will most likely struggle to be superseded. Beginning at the entrance gate we were lead through building after building. Each with its walls of photos documenting the plight of so many lost souls. Their arrival date and departure date printed across the bottom of each photo, I struggled to find someone that survived more than 4 months in this hell.
Passing through a series of cell blocks, some no bigger than myself where people would be forced to stand until they gave up on life. Thinking the story couldn’t get much worse we passed The Death Wall. Just a wall between too blocks of buildings. The buildings with their windows covered up would never have masked the terror that would have unfolded here.
This all lead to a battering of blows to both my stomach and psyche. For I was now to walk through what was once a smaller version of the gas chamber’s used in the genocide of approximately 6 million Jews. Words can not do justice to how I felt standing inside the decrepit building. How many people lost their life here? How could people actually do this? Could this ever happen again?
They must have just huddled here in the darkness together. Did they look at each other before the gas came? Did they even know what was going to happen? What did they say? Prayers? Cries for mercy? I could only imagine someone standing there, wondering how and why this horror was being inflicted upon them.
The final kicker before the tour of Auschwitz was to end, walking past rooms that contained such a small fraction of peoples belongings. Suitcase’s all labeled with care so they wouldn’t be lost, once packed with their owners most precious possessions. Shoes; I’ve never seen so many shoes all in one place, all with their owners long gone. Then you move onto the next sealed off glass room to find hair… peoples hair. Not wanting to waste anything the Nazi’s shaved the peoples heads and used the hair to make rugs among other things. Who ever thought that was right??
Concluding the Auschwitz tour we packed onto a bus for the short journey to Birkenau. The train tracks here run right through the entrance gate making me feel more like I was entering into something you would only expect to see at a cattle yard. Rows of buildings fill the area to the right of the rail line, the temporary home for so many lost lives. I don’t even think cattle would have been treated to such poor housing conditions.
And then before me, right down the end of that long rail line was the destroyed gas chambers that took so many a life. All you can do is stop and stare off into the distance, pay your respects at the monument erected to remember the fallen and pick yourself up to head home.
Moving post, mate. Really great photos. Makes you take a deep breath and reflect on life.
Thanks Michael,. It was a big day and one that while glad I got to experience, not one I want to do again anytime soon.
Wow. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to visit Auschwitz. I hope to go there someday, but I know it won’t be easy (emotionally) to see it. The thought of what those poor people went through…
When you were standing in the gas chamber, wondering if the people who died there knew what was coming, I was reminded of the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” – have you seen it? Or read the book? It’s about a German boy who is the son of a Nazi SS soldier put in charge of a concentration camp. The boy thinks this camp is a “farm,” and goes to the fence often to chat with a little Jewish boy imprisoned there, not having any idea what the camp really is, or what that foul-smelling smoke is from. The little Jewish boy has no idea, either, which makes the whole thing incredibly sad. I can’t believe humans treated other humans this way.
Thanks for sharing your experience.
Thanks for the comment Amanda. My friend that I was hanging out with in Krakow actually said I should check that movie out, and to also look at another called The Reader.
I have got my hands on the movie you mentioned but not been in the right mood to watch it as yet. I think maybe it will be time this weekend after having finally put this experience into words.
I can’t believe people got to the point that they thought doing this was right either.
My mother was born and raised in Cracow and my grandmother survived the Nazi occupation, so Auschwitz (well, Oswiecim is the Polish name) is a place that carries a lot of weight with me. I’ve visited countless times as I always spent my summers in Poland and often had friends visit my mother’s homeland with me. It is a wonderfully preserved museum, and I think it plays an important role in education to avoid such atrocities in the future.
I’m curious if you’ve visited The Killing Fields and genocide museum in Cambodia…unfortunately, what the Nazis did was repeated here…over 30 years later. Unthinkable.
Thanks for leaving a comment Anita. I can’t imagine actually living in Poland at the time like your grandmother did. My tour guide while there did tell us a story about her grandmother being taken thought.
She was caught leaving food for some prisoners and was caught by the guards. Luckily for her, her husband managed to bribe the guards into letting her go. As I was told that I realised had she not been released the very woman before me would never have existed.
I haven’t visited The Killing Fields as yet and while they were once on my list I’m not so sure now. Perhaps one site of such loss might be enough for me now.
Wow–what a haunting post and eye-opening experience. I can only imagine how much more of an impact it must have had being there as opposed to solely reading about it in history books. I like how you kept all of the photos B&W to match the mood of this post.
Christine, it was one very big eye opening experience. Seeing the photos on the walls of the buildings was the first thing I saw at the site.
Knowing that this person or that child survived 4 days or 2 weeks was depressing when you know how they would have died.
Thanks for picking up on the photos as well, just about all the photos I took while there were in black and white. I just felt like it was the right thing to do, colored photos seemed too umm happy I guess.
This post is very moving Chris and the photos really do capture the mood. I had a similar experience standing in the “shower rooms” of Dachau in Munich. It was so eerie and surreal to think of what really went on there. A humbling experience to say the least.
I was going to say let’s just hope forever that it’s never something repeated but then I read Anita’s comment above. It’s devastating the things that are allowed to go on in the world. It’s not fair.
Thanks Annie. I thought about going to Dachau but after having been to Auschwitz already I wasn’t so keen in the end.
Unfortunately it did happen again and that time it was a mere couple of years before I was born. Thinking about it like that is actually pretty darn frightening.
By the time I met up with Bob in Europe, he had already gone to Auschwitz, so I didn’t have a chance myself. These pictures are haunting (especially in b&w).
Thanks Jade. I really didn’t want to take photos with people in them or even coloured photos while I was there. It just didn’t feel right to me.
I saw some people snapping photos with smiling faces standing in front of the Death Wall and I just thought, how disrespectful can you be.
Others have said what I was going to say — the photos add so much to the post, especially in the B&W. I guess I can’t say I’d “like” to go to Auschwitz, but it’s a definite must visit for me if I’m ever there. I read Elie Wiesel’s Night in high school and it was one book that really stayed with me.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Chris.
Heather I don’t think anybody would say they would “like” to go there. But it really is an eye opening experience and one that people should see. If just to force us to remember the past and to help us strive to be better people.
Must have been a powerful place to visit. Great post, makes you take a step back and think about what Auschwitz represents
Thanks Cam. I like to think of Auschwitz as a reminder to us all of the past and not as a tourist attraction. Labeling it a tourist attraction doesn’t sit well with me.
I always feel morbid to say it, but I’ve always wanted to visit Auschwitz. It’s a site of such terrible evil and shows the best and worst of humanity – and I just want to stand there and soak that terrible, painful emotion in.
You’ve painted a picture pretty much in line with what I’d expect to see.
Chris I can understand that. I think part of me wanted to visit for the same reason. I wanted to have those faces and emotions cemented into my memory so that I would always remember.
I went to a religious orthodox yeshiva high school and an even more religious seminary in Israel. The Holocaust and the horrors within are images and ideas we spoke about regularly.
Yet I’ve never really wanted to visit Auschwitz. Probably because it is too painful to think that were I there, at that time, I too would have been huddled in those dark, depressing spaces.
Your post makes me realize how very important it is for all of us to spend at least one day of our lives visiting and connecting with this history, because it represents the deepest darkness of the human experience. A darkness that exists today even if not in Auschwitz and the other Nazi concentration camps.
It’s important to go there, experience it and face it if we are to keep it from happening again. To anyone. Anywhere. Ever.
Thank you for this post, Chris. Your photos and words are, as others have said, moving and hold such important meaning.
Thank you for the comment Leigh. I think you are right, we need to always be connected to our history. For it is our history that now defines us a people.
I hope that we can learn from the dark moments in history, and the best way to learn is to educate more people about it. Sites like this live on to forever remind us how easily peoples words can lead to horrible consequences.
Wow. Those photos are haunting. I can’t imagine visiting a place like that. I’ve heard a lot of stories from people like yourself who have,though. Some of them had a really hard time getting past it, understandably. It just makes you sick to think that there are some people in this world who still deny that the holocaust ever happened.
Hi Kelly thanks for reading my post. I actually heard something about these people that like to think it never happened. What do they think, some 6 million people just stop existing all of a sudden.
I’ve been to Auschwitz as well and think your post is really thorough and thoughtful. It was a tough place to visit, and can’t imagine what it was like to be there. I think seeing all the shoes was the most heart-breaking part for me, especially all the small kids shoes.
Thanks for the kind words Kathy. Walking into that room with the shoes and seeing the great pile was really heart-breaking. The worst part, that pile would pale in comparison to the real amount that were taken over the duration the camp existed.
I made the trip to Auschwitz when I was in Krakow last year and your thoughts mirror my own fairly closely.
Before going I knew what had taken place there, I knew about the rooms full of shoes/bags/hair etc, but seeing Auschwitz for myself was a whole other experience.
Facts and figures read from a page just did not convey the scale, or prepare me for the sadness I felt after seeing the camps with my own eyes.
Great post as you have managed to capture some of the feeling and emotion of a visit to Auschwitz
That’s it Alastair, you go there knowing what happened but actually seeing it for yourself makes it so real. It’s not just a photo or words in a book, your actually looking at these peoples own belongings.
Great summary of your time there. I’m not sure I could get my feelings down on screen, even after three years. A very emotional time for me too.
Thanks Craig. Words will never acurately describe the feeling of being at Auschwitz, you have to go there for that. They can help keep it all fresh in our minds though.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the moving pictures. I think it’s important to connect with history as well, difficult as it may be. I don’t know how we let this happen, or continue to let genocide happen in the world.
I agree Laura, we need to stay connected with our history as there are so many great tales from it. They aren’t all happy ones but still shaped the people we are today.
Even the history of your family and the like can be a worthy thing to record. After all if its not recorded it will eventually be forgotten.
A moving post, which also reminded me of the Killing Fields and SL21 in Cambodia. Visiting these places is a must I think, though they do leave you with a sombre mood the rest of the day. Good photos too.
Hey Federico thanks for the comment. After Auschwitz I’m not quite ready for seeing more sites like that but I’m sure at some stage I’ll stop off the Killing Fields.
Really like your choice of black and white here, really tells the story of such a solemn visit.
Thanks Ayngelina, I thought black and white would help tell the story much better than coloured versions.
Your photos illustrate your story perfectly.
I visited Auschwitz a couple of months ago and even though it was a sad experience I’m glad I was able to see it with my own eyes.
I too would have liked to have walked around on my own rather than listen to the guide explain everything which was already written on the plaques.
Andrea, You can only read so much about a place before you have to see it with your own eyes. This place is a definately a see for yourself place.
We will visit Auschwitz when we head to Europe in October, the thought of going there scares the crap out of me as I can only imagine the emotional turmoil of seeing it in real life as opposed to movies.
Thank you for posting such a moving account.
Thanks for commenting Linda. Pictures and movies just don’t add the right feelings I dont think. Sure you look at them and think oh how sad. Only once you get there do you appreciate just how sad a place it is.
Second time visiting this post, I haven’t been sure how to comment. This is powerful. A good way to report on what can only be a difficult experience to interpret. Most especially your use of grayscale images instead of color.
I haven’t been to any of Europe’s concentration camps. But I have been to many of the Holocaust museums here in the US. They always profoundly affect me and I always leave crying. Which is not something I do often. It saddens me, because sometimes I don’t think we’ve truly learned from what happened in Europe, in these camps. Instead, we’ve repeated atrocities like this in places like Africa many times over since the end of WWII. I’d love to live to a time where we see the end of hate and discrimination. But I wonder if I will. Maybe if every man could walk through these camps, maybe it would inspire true change….
Thanks for such a moving comment Kirsten. It is sad that we are still to learn from what happened there. Time and again we hear on the news about horrible things happening all over the world.
I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the need to kill in order to have power.
Some may say poor grammar doesn’t matter. Your account here is heart-felt and I admire it. I was continually distracted by the spurious apostrophes. This alienated me and reduced the impact of your writing. Please remember that when talking about more than one thing eg. more than one Nazi, an apostrophe is wrong. The plural of Nazi is Nazis. I’m sure you learned this at school.
Auschwitz was one of the hardest days of all of my travels. Thank you for sharing this, Chris.
It’s a very difficult place to visit. But an important one, I think.
I was a little surprised about the “only on tours” part. I went there in spring 2010 and wasn’t the only person on my own…Then again, perhaps I had misunderstood the instructions at the (very crowded and unfriendly) start.
I agree with some of the commenters who wish they hadn’t had to listen to a guide…but then it is quite an emotionally charged thing to walk around on your own. I stil can’t decide whether this is a good or a bad thing.
Very powerful story, thank you for sharing this. It must feel heartbreaking to see the remnants, especially the hair stuff…
I visited Auschwitz last year and found it very hard to comprehend how anyone could do that to other human beings…or rather, maybe I just didnt want to believe it. I think what go me the most was the pictures of everyone with shaved heads who had died there…so sad. Thanks for the post.
I’ve visited Auschwitz / Oswiecim four times now, and I still cry like a baby every time. I’ll be taking my parents in October when they visit me in Europe. My mother’s family are Serbian/Hungarian, and were interned temporarily as my great grandmother had remarried to a Hungarian Jew; fortunately my greatgrandfather had the paperwork to prove their origins and my grandmother, her brother and his exwife (my greatgrandmother) were able to escape, and eventually after the war, immigrated to Australia.
Auschwitz is a haunting memorial to the pain humans can cause each other, and sadly similar situations are still occuring; fortunately Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement isn’t followed, and we can hope that mad men are less likely to take over the world.
Great photos and commentary. I like how you presented the photos in monochrome. It is obvious that it had a great impact on you. I really want to visit too and hope to do so in the next year or so.
I visited a camp in northern Italy and it was the worst experience of my life! It made me realize so many things but being there was like I couldn’t breath!