Ever since reading ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’, ‘Night’, and ‘Number the Stars’ as a teenager, Auschwitz has been a place I have tried to understand. As we rode through Central Europe into Poland, it was at the forefront of my mind. Every disused railway track and ruined building was a haunting reminder of the events that had unfolded here just 70 years ago. I wanted to learn more and stand in the place where so many of the stories I have read actually took place.
Auschwitz-Birkenau museum is free to enter but operates via an online ticketing system to limit the number of people in the museum at any one time. Due to our poor planning yet again, tickets were sold out for individuals for the next six days. Our only option was to book a day trip from Krakow. Tour companies can reserve group tickets meaning guaranteed availability. In actual fact, it may even have been better. We paid around 30EUR each for pick-up from our hostel, transport to and from the museum (about 1.5 hour drive each way) and a guided tour in English with an official Auschwitz guide.
The morning of the tour Rich and I discussed finding postcard to send home. We decided Auschwitz was not the place. What would you write? “Wish you were here” or “Having a lovely time at Auschwitz-Birkenau”… Imagine our shock when we arrived at the museum to find a postcard stand and even a little post office!
The museum is split between the two camps. We began at Auschwitz camp. Our guide provided us with headphones looped to her microphone which made a huge difference in being able to hear the information that was being provided. Being a sunny Sunday in August school holidays, every area was crammed with tours so it would not have been possible to read much of the information if we had gone alone. In a way, the tour and crowds also served as a distraction not giving you much time to stop and reflect on each statistic and exhibit.
Photographs of newly registered prisoners lined the walls of one of the blocks. I could have spent hours looking at each one. Their facial expressions so complex. Normal people who had completely lost control of their own fates.
The tour provided a basic overview of the camp and it’s function and of course, stayed completely factual. I wondered why they did not include personal accounts of the arrival and selection process, the work and living conditions. I was glad I had additional background knowledge to back up what I was looking at but I understand why they did not include these details.
The grass, trees and flowers that have grown over the once muddy camps were a sign of renewed life but also made it even harder to imagine the unimaginable events that took place on that very ground.
At Birkenau camp, they had one of the original recovered box cars which was used to transport over 100 jews from Hungary. All crammed in together, many were dead when they arrived after a week long journey.
Other exhibits helped to indicate the scale on which mass murder occurred. The room full of plates and bowls packed in luggage by the prisoners. The room full of human hair which was sold to make cloth.
At Birekenau, many of the original wooden blocks have rotted away leaving just the two brick chimneys at either end. Some blocks remain with original bunks, each of which slept around 10+ people at a time.
We purchased several books at the book shop before leaving with proceeds going back into the museum. Our tour guide told us the story of two Polish guys who stole the famous ‘Albeit Macht Frei’ sign in 2009. Apparently they had never been to the museum before the theft and had no knowledge of the significance of the sign. If you have the chance to go, GO. Take your friends, take your children.