Auschwitz / Birkenau-Auschwitz II

After America voted Hitler v. 2.0 into office, today seemed like an appropriate day to write about my experience traveling to the Auschwitz concentration camp and Birkenau-Auschwitz II extermination camp while I was in Krakow last month. I hopped on a bus outside the city walls early one morning and made the trip an hour and forty five minutes to Oświęcim, Poland, with a tour group and guide. It seemed appropriate that it was pouring rain, and freezing, that day.

In Auschwitz, there are various brick buildings, former SS buildings, that have different exhibits about who was brought to the camp, when the camp was built and why, how many people died, among many other things. There’s one haunting room with a glass case the size of my apartment filled with human hair of some of the 1.5 million victims. The Nazis sold this hair to companies to make stockings and socks, and this was the hair that hadn’t been sold after the camp was liberated. We walked through the barracks, seeing the claustrophobic bunks where political prisoners were kept before being executed, and then we viewed the execution wall, which is adorned still with flowers all these years later. We also walked through a gas chamber that was reconstructed with the remains from a gas chamber at Birkenau, since the Nazis started trying to cover up all the evidence of their actions once they knew the war was the lost and the Allies were coming.

Afterwards we were bused a mile or so down the road to Birkenau-Auschwitz II extermination camp. This camp was built, obviously, after Auschwitz and it was an extermination camp more than a work camp. Eight to ninety percent of the prisoners who exited the trains at Birkenau went straight to the gas chambers. Birkenau was mostly destroyed by the Nazis so a lot of the camp is eerily quiet with grass, barbed wire, and wooden guard stations along the train tracks. 

At Birkenau stands the International Monument, in memory of the 1.5 million victims who perished there. The monument is black stones of various shapes (I don’t remember what the meaning is of them) with plaques in many different languages that say, “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and child, mainly Jews, from various countries in Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945.” It’s located in between the ruins of the second and third crematorium at the end of the train tracks where most people disembarked the train to die.

For our last stop, we walked through one of the prisoner’s quarters that several hundred Jews were packed into at a time. They were dark, damp, cold, and dirt floored. 

When we exited the brick gates of Birkenau, our tour guide told us that now that we’d visited the camps we were witnesses of the crimes and atrocities that were committed during the Holocaust. He was very passionate, pressing us not to let anyone try to lie and deny that the Holocaust happened because if we forget, or deny, history has a way of repeating itself. That said, let’s have other’s backs as the new president elect comes to power next year. If his cronies start coming for one group, your group will be soon after. Let’s be better than this. Let’s be nice to one another and prepare to stand up, if need be. 

If you ever have the change to visit Auschwitz, I highly encourage it. Let’s remember so history doesn’t repeat itself. Photos after the jump.

Auschwitz

Eye glasses that were collected from prisons before they were killed.

Execution wall

Barbed wire covered path

A crematorium reconstructed from the remains of a crematorium at Birkenau.

The brick entrance way to Birkenau-Auschwitz II

The end of the train tracks where most prisoners walked from to their deaths in the gas chambers.

The International Monument at Birkenau-Auschwitz II

The remains of a demolished crematorium.

The chimneys still stand even though the wooden houses where prisoners lived were destroyed. 

A prisoners house that’s still standing. 

Along the train tracks in Birkenau, an original train car that used to transport Jews to the camp sits on the tracks.

What I Learned This Time

I thought I should run down what I learned while traveling abroad by myself this time. It’s worth writing it down here in case anyone else here is a solo traveler or considering a solo trip. Because they’re the best and you should totally take one.

Really look at your accommodations. I can remember that after my trip to Scandinavia, I decided to really vet the hostels I was staying in, or not stay in hostels at all. I decided this time to stay in private rooms in hostels because a private room in a nice hostel is way better than a single room in a cheap, shitty hotel (probably located near the airport). I spent weeks (and I mean weeks) looking on hotels.com and hostelworld.com at different accommodations. It paid off because I stayed in a great hostel and an amazing hostel in Krakow and Warsaw, respectively. Unfortunately, my painstaking vetting fell short when it came to Gdansk. The room was very nice but the build itself was located in an area that I wasn’t really keen on. Or maybe it was just the time of day I arrived? That leads to the next thing I learned….

Arrive during the day. Don’t arrive in a new (especially foreign) city after dark. Check the time for sunset and arrive an hour before. On my walk back from the Solidarity Monument in Gdansk, I ended up walking past the hostel that I’d abandoned 30 minutes after arriving and saw that the area actually wasn’t too far from the Old Town. It was actually quite close to the old town but in the dark, it just looked scary. To my credit, there was a lot of construction around the doorway, reception only until 8pm, and little light near the doorway, hello, rapist?

Don’t schedule to the minute. I’d started planning my days out last year in Scandinavia a month before I got there based on when my travel book said things were open. These travel, regardless of when they were published, will almost always be wrong. My Poland travel book this year said Schindler’s Factory was only open on Saturdays. This was not true. At all. Don’t plan your days before you arrive. You never know what will happen and then you’ll be frustrated. Just go with the flow.

Hello and Thank You. Learn a few phrases in the native language of the country you’re going to. Don’t be a typical fucking American who expects that everyone speaks English because We’re #1 (if you’re one of those who believes that). I tried teaching myself Polish using the Duolingo app, but I retained almost none of it. I did retain the words for cat, cookie, milk, and apple, though (you know, the important words to know). Upon arriving in Poland, I was alerted to the fact that Polish is the 2nd or 3rd hardest language to learn in the world, so I didn’t make myself feel too bad about it. But while I was there, I picked up the words for hello/good morning, thank you, you’re welcome, fine, yes, and no. Not much, but I was told they always appreciate it when the Stupid Americans ™ at least try.  

These are, at least, the most important things I learned while abroad in a country that is very, very different from the United States. Everyone should definitely travel by themselves, at least once in their life. You learn so much about yourself and the world in the process. Any questions? 

Photo is of a picturesque street in the Old Town in Gdansk, Poland.