Monday, 24 November 2014

auschwitz & birkenau - how to

I make the assumption that most people have heard of Auschwitz, and almost as many of Birkenau. 

These places represent the absolute horror of the Nazi Regime, and it is so important that they are never forgotten, for the people whose lives were cruelly taken from them there and for us to learn from the past and strive to never have such persecution happen again. I say strive because unfortunately it still has, and is.

I don't seek to glorify or promote these places as a tourist destination, everyone should make up their own mind about whether they want to visit or not, and think about why that is. Instead I want to explain  what your options are if you do decide to go, since I spent a considerable amount of time investigating before I went and can reflect on how it worked out.

I have included some pictures, to show the difference between the camps and what a small bit of what you see, but it is impossible to comprehend without being there. 

Auschwitz and Birkenau are advertised as a day tour all over Kraków. The main camp of Auschwitz is actually located in the town of Oswiecim, and Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II is a short distance away. 

How do you get there?

The first decision is how to get there. You can join a tour you may have to meet in Kraków somewhere, or potentially be picked up from your hotel. However, it is also easy and much cheaper to take public transport. Mini buses are located downstairs at the Kraków bus station and will drop you off at the gates or a main road about 100m away. It is also possible to go by train, but you would then need to walk from the station to the site or take a taxi.

If you travel on your own the bus back is right outside the gates of the car park and to the right.

Should you take a guided tour?

Once you are at the site, either with a tour or on your own, the next decision is whether or not to do a guided tour. It is actually free to go into both camps, but if you want a guided tour then you need to pay. During the peak times in the summer you have to join a tour since it gets so busy, but during the winter season you can choose to go around yourself or join a tour.

Whether to take a guided tour or not is an entirely personal decision. I had a hard time deciding because all the reviews of tours were excellent, but all the information from people who did not join a tour and made their own way around said there was no need and it was much better to go at your own pace. Walking through the gates at Auschwitz gave me chills. To me it was like walking into a cemetery and you can feel the energy there. The old barracks at Auschwitz now contain exhibitions to show what happened there. There are also a number of exhibitions in separate buildings from other countries whose citizens were affected by the holocaust which we did not have time to see as part of a guided tour.

Walking through the infamous gates of Auschwitz

The double barbed wire fences and watch tower

An image showing how far the horror of Auschwitz stretched

Another view of the fences

We took a tour, and looking back I would rather have done it myself. There is a wealth of written information at Auschwitz and everything the tour guide said was written, or I already knew it. So a deciding factor may be how much you already know about these camps. Despite going in winter and arriving early there were some big tour groups and we had to keep moving to not get caught up with them as they came into buildings and I would rather have taken my own time, although some tour reviews said this didn't happen to them. The difference between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau is stark. Walking into Auschwitz brought an almost claustrophobic trapped feeling as it somehow felt smaller than I thought. At Birkenau the camp is so large that I felt insignificant and swallowed up by it. At Birkenau the guide shows you only a small part, since the area is so huge, starting and ending at the gate, which means if you want to see anything further away you need to double back again. Birkenau is so big and there is a lot more to see and understand than the small part shown on the tour, so I would highly recommend exploring yourself afterwards, even if you do take the tour, as they let you make your own way back to Auschwitz.

The infamous view of the tower gate into Birkenau, as seen in Schindler's List

Chimneys from the now destroyed barracks stretching on and on

The end of the railway line, where families were torn apart

Memorial at the back of Birkenau

Near the selection area

The above photos really brought home the reality of being at Birkenau. They show the selection process taking place, and in the photo on the left the building behind these information boards can clearly be seen, while a man in front of it is facing selection, with the indication being that he will be sent to the gas chambers. The feeling of standing on the exact spot seen in the photo and knowing this is where many people faced what that man did, I actually cannot even put into words.

An example of the cattle cars used for transportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Walking through the forest at the back of Birkenau, near the warehouses and crematoria 

One of the ponds near the crematoria where ashes were placed

I think that Auschwitz and Birkenau are places that should be seen, shared and never forgotten. Ultimately however you get there and whether or not you take a guided tour is does to take away from this, as whichever you do it you will not forget the experience of visiting these places.

1 comment:

  1. once again well written. a stark reminder of how we should and shouldn't treat people that we come into contact with in our daily lives. nobody knows the personal road any person or family has travelled.