Visiting Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau: The saddest place I’ve ever visited
The saddest place I’ve ever visited.
Our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was just that, sad. Nothing and no one can prepare you for the intense emotions, thoughts and questions you will have as you walk the paths of Auschwitz.
The brutality, medical experiments and in your face cruelty, makes this, a must visit historical (let’s not forget this was not that long ago) site to truly appreciate what happened, what the victims went through and what we all hope will never happen again.
Arbeit macht frei … Work sets you free … well, so they thought.
Warning: The information and pictures in our below post are very confronting. The content consists of both our personal experience as well as facts of the sites.
Some history behind the Auschwitz concentration camps
Auschwitz concentration camp was a network of German Nazi concentration and extermination camps built and operated by the Third Reich in Poland during World War II.
The camps consisted of the following:
- Auschwitz I – the original camp
- Auschwitz II-Birkenau – a combination of a concentration and extermination camp
- Auschwitz III-Monwitz – a labour camp
- +45 satellite camps
Some history behind Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp
Within the Auschwitz network, Birkenau was the largest of the camps. Construction began in October 1941 where is was built for 125 thousand prisoners of war and construction was completed by March 1942 and served at the same time as a centre for the extermination of the Jews. From 1944 (the final phase) it became a place where prisoners were held before being transferred to labour camps in Germany.
Estimates are that 90% of the victims at Auschwitz died in Birkenau, which equates to around 1 million people, 9 out of 10 were Jews.
In 2013, we visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp just outside of Berlin. We thought we were prepared for what we were about to experience at Auschwitz… but the reality is we couldn’t be more wrong. We had arranged a tour from Krakow which included transport and guided tours.
The guided tour lasted around 3.5 hours and included tours of both Auchwitz and Auchwitz II-Birkenau which are located around 1km from each other. We would recommend visiting both camps to get a full understanding of the history that unfolded here in Poland. The benefit of having a local guide with you is that they provide you with so much information that you wouldn’t necessarily know if you visited on your own. To put things into perspective, a local guide is the most important way to learning the facts that unravelled here all those years ago.
Our first tour was of Auchwitz II-Birkenau. Birkenau was partially destroyed by the retreating Nazi’s in 1945, and has since been established as a museum to help future generations understand the atrocities committed within its fences. Many of the foundations remain, so you can truly appreciate the scale of the site, where the 150,000 victims were held at any given time and imagine what it must have been like.
The train line remains in tact, together with an example of the carriages used to transport the victims between the sites, not to mention the thousands of meters of barbed wire fences.
We walked through the main building towards an expansive yard where our tour commenced.
The day we visited the camps, it was freezing cold (and we were there early November…), but the one thing we weren’t expecting was the perfectly blue skies and the lusciously green grass. However it doesn’t take long before your imagination runs wild and you realise that in reality, even with these blue skies, with a 150,000 victims, it was unlikely that there would have been any grass. It would have been freezing, covered in snow in winter and muddy and uncomfortable when it rained. Even in the best of the days, this place would have felt like the worst place on earth.
Once the tour started, reality sunk in, you listen to the guide and your imagination runs wild, the thoughts and questions sends chills down your spine. You can imagine what it would feel like standing there, you can watch movies and documentaries about the history of this place, but nothing, and I mean nothing can prepare you for how you feel when you step foot into the yards of Birkenau. You suddenly realise that history, is in fact reality, what we have heard and what we have read all happened, and happened exactly where we were standing, not that long ago. It is hard to believe that for many of us, our parents, or at least our grandparents lived through this generation.
The buildings that have been destroyed have wire fences up and ruins of where the buildings once were. Your guide will let you know what these buildings were as you walk the paths of Birkenau.
From the main building, we walked up along the train line which is over 1km long.
This is where the prisoners were unloaded from the overfilled carriages where they were transported like cattle, not human beings. As you walk along the yard all you can hear is the scrunching of the gravel underneath your shoes. It was absolutely silent in the yard, except for the sound of the gravel… Our guide then proceeded to inform us of the area that was most likely used to sort out the prisoners into two groups… the ones considered healthy enough to work, and the ones who weren’t.
It is truly unbelievable that any human being can treat another human being with such little respect. You can’t help but wonder, what if that were you and you were separated from your family at that point and there was not a thing that you could do to help them. At the end of the rail line are what’s left of two gas chambers and a pond. The pond is where they emptied the ashes. Our guide made a statement that stuck out.. “Birkenau is one big cemetery”.
The end of the train line was quite literally, the end of the line for over 1 million people who stepped off the train, only to never return to their family and loved ones. Some didn’t even make it to see another day as they were marched straight into the gas chambers adjacent to the tracks.
As you reach the end of the line there is a Holocaust memorial with the following plaque:
Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazi’s murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945″
The site does have a number of structures where you’re able to walk through and see first hand the conditions the victims lived in.
The first to arrive at Birkenau slept on straw on the floor. When they finally built wooden bunks, there were 5 prisoners sharing 1 bed. They shared some blankets.
Typically, a day’s food included a half litre of coffee and 1 litre of vegetable soup, which was often made with rotten vegetables. Then, nothing until supper which was around 300g of black bread, 30g of butter, 20g of sausage and some more coffee. In terms we understand, that’s around 1500 calories which is what most people eat when they are on a diet. Mix this with the extremely long hours of manual labour and it is no wonder these prisoners were only skin and bone.
The toilet block made me feel really uneasy. It was basically a long shed, with concrete slabs with holes cut in them. No privacy, nothing. You were forced to sit immediately next to someone else. As you can imagine the hygiene was appalling.
The water was unfiltered and many died from water-borne illnesses and diarrhoea. The victims knew this and were forced to try and hold out for either rainfall or melted snow before they could safely replenish their fluids.
The striped uniforms the prisoners were provided were not designed to withstand the below freezing conditions, underwear was only changed once a month at best. Because of these extremely poor living conditions, many of the prisoners suffered from scabies and skin diseases.
After spending some time at Birkenau, I had pictured this dark, depressing, desolate, awful place that had no chance of anything nice ever being there. It was quite the contrary … as difficult as it is to say and absolutely no disrespect intended.. but, it was pretty… it was so incredibly green. The exterior of the buildings almost resembled a university campus.
We entered through the main gates where the words Arbeit macht frei are clearly seen on the iron cast fence. The direct translation for this is Work Sets you Free. Unfortunately for the majority of people who arrived at these camps, this was not the case.
There were rows of red bricked buildings which looked so perfectly in line. It was hard to believe let alone imagine what happened here. Then as you look around and notice the barbed wire and the guards houses scattered around you start to realise that this place can’t be beautiful, not after the horrible things that happened here.
Auschwitz was the Nazi’s first camp for both men and women and it is also where they perfected the use of the gas that went on to kill so many innocent people. The reality began to sink in. We walked through corridors where we could see the rooms where the prisoners were kept and one corridor had hundreds of photographs on the wall of people who were at the camp which included their name, date of entry into the camp, their trade and the date they died within the camp. As you start to look at the dates, you quickly realise that most of these people only lasted just a couple of months. The lump in the throat starts to get bigger at this point. It is truly unbelievable to think about where you are standing and what those poor people went through.
Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, we’re taken to where the first gas chamber was built. It is one thing imaging it, it is another to walk inside and see first hand the gas chamber that was the start of some horrendous acts. The gas chambers at Auschwitz were significantly smaller than at Birkenau, simply because their first intention wasn’t for mass murder. The images running through your mind was enough to make you feel sick. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Our guide then took us in to the rooms where they had the displays on what was confiscated off the prisoners. This is really when the shock set in. I was standing there, looking at these enormous displays filled with peoples personal belongings. There were toothbrushes, suitcases, shoes, kitchenware, reading glasses, people’s hair and artificial limbs.
We walked to the next room which was heart wrenching. I was looking in to a display filled with children’s toys, shoes and little outfits. To think these poor children had absolutely no idea what was going to happen to them when they entered the camps. Nothing or no one could protect them from the ugly behaviour that they were about to endure.
There is a dedicated memorial where family come to lay flowers for those who lost their lives.
We also came across this disturbing image… the photo on the left was taken before being taken to the concentration camp. The photo on the right was not long after arriving… it just shows the extremely poor living conditions people endured.
As difficult as it is to visit a place like this, it is something I do not regret. After visiting the camps, I watched Schindler’s List and having stood on the same grounds, it sent shivers down my spine, tears down Jenna’s cheeks and the reality really sunk in. It is hard to believe what happened and what these people had to go through.
If you’re in Krakow, I’d take the time to book a day trip and get to know this part of history a little more.
“Travel teaches toleration.” – Benjamin Disraeli