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Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau From Kraków

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When we booked our trip to Kraków, we were unsure about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. We toyed with the idea for several days. We wanted to go, we obviously knew about the history and everything that happened there. Would it be disrespectful? We didn’t want to be ‘tourists’ in a place like this.

We did eventually make the choice to visit, and we are so glad we did. It was a moving experience, and one we feel everyone should do at some stage while traveling in Poland.

We booked this trip as part of a full-day experience that included the Salt Mines of Wieliczka through Get Your Guide. It was a fantastic day out, with a small group, and we never felt rushed visiting any of the exhibits or camps. Our guides were incredible, knowledgeable, and very respectful. We couldn’t rate this trip highly enough.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau From Kraków

Auschwitz I

When you go on a tour of the Auschwitz camps, you will visit two places, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Both places differ significantly from the other.

They sent Jews from all over Europe to the many death camps, and aside from the gas chambers, they also subjected them to dreadful medical experiments. The notorious ‘SS’ officer, Josef Mengele, organised and led these. They nicknamed Josef ‘The Angel of Death’.

You will learn all about this during your visit.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau From Kraków.
Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau From Kraków.

Above the main gate of Auschwitz I, you will see the words “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” which in English means “Work sets you free”. They used the slogan on many of the detention camps.

It was a prominent feature. All who worked there saw the sign, including the thousands of prisoners who entered underneath. As we all know, the only way most of them were ‘free’ was through death. Although, this is a copy of the original sign that was stolen in December 2009. It was later recovered, damaged, but now lives back at the museum.

Auschwitz, and many of its other sub-camps, now stand as museums and memorials. Here, at Auschwitz I, its many blocks now hold hundreds of exhibits, relics and archives.

Exhibits & Relics

Many of the blocks are open and contain some significant items taken from the people that were processed at the concentration camps.

Nazi officers snatched suitcases full of items, including clothes, shoes, glasses, equipment used by the disabled, pots and pans, brushes and toys. They placed items of value on one side. They disposed of the rest.

You may take photos and video in the blocks. Many people were. We chose not to take any videos. However, there is one room where all of this is strictly forbidden. Upstairs, in a long, dimly lit room, behind a large pane of glass, sits around 2 tonnes of human hair.

There are ponytails and plaits, shaved from the heads of prisoners and corpses straight after they removed them from the gas chambers. They then sent away the hair to be used in bomb fuses, mattress stuffings, ropes and even carpets.

Here, you will also see the empty cannisters of Zyklon B, the chemical used by the Nazis in the gas chambers. They originally used it to fumigate the camps. It was then used to murder over one million Jews. They tried to destroy as much evidence as possible that this was happening. They failed.

The Red Shoe

The photo below showing the shoes I felt was quite moving. It reminded me of the film Schindler’s List, if you have ever seen it. The entire film they shot in black and white, except for the moment Oskar spots the girl in the red coat during the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto. The brown shoes contrast so much against this solo red slip-on.

Block 11, The Death Block

Outside Block 11, you will find a replica of the ‘wall of death’. German firing squads lined up here and executed prisoners. Today it stands as a memorial and they usually adorned it with flowers and candles.

Inside you will find the offices and experimentation rooms that were used by the Officers to conduct dreadful experiments on the prisoners. There are also several small holding cells that people were placed in, sometimes for days on end.

Gas Chamber No1

The last stop here at Auschwitz I is the gas chamber and cremation room. This was one of the first makeshift morgues, gas chambers, and cremation rooms used during the mass killing of the Jews. When Auschwitz II-Birkenau was more adequately equipped with buildings like this, operations moved there and this building ceased to be used. It was then just used as a warehouse for the camp.

The Nazi soldiers partially destroyed the building, so they reconstructed it using original materials, including the two furnaces that could burn up to 350 corpses per day.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Birkenau was the largest of the Nazi concentration camps and was part of the complex that included Auschwitz I and III, plus all the sub-camps. It was in use for three years and served as the main camp during the extermination of the Jews. Around one million.

According to the Auschwitz memorial website, it wasn’t just Jews that were sent to the camps; they included around 70,000 Poles, 20,000 Roma and Sinti (gypsies). They also rounded up many Soviet POW and prisoners of other nationalities and put them to death at the Auschwitz complexes as well.

The train tracks of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. You can visit the camps from Kraków.
The train tracks of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau From Kraków.
Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau From Kraków.

The Camp Ramp

They parked these wooden carriages above on the camp ramps. Inside, packed in like sardines, men, women, children, families of all ages. The train track stretches for over 750m. This is the point at which they deported thousands upon thousands of Jewish and other prisoners from all over Europe. This is where the ‘selection process’ took place. They used three ramps over time to transport people to Auschwitz’s many camps and sub-camps.

They unloaded the prisoners from the trains, and the guards and soldiers then lined them up. Then, they were detained for work or sent straight to the gas chambers in trucks. Processed by doctors, and with a simple flick of the thumb, their fate was now sealed. Right for the gas chambers, left to be sent to the work camps.

Children below the age of 16 and then 14 in 1944, some women, including pregnant women, the elderly and the disabled, were all sent straight to their death, deemed to be useless and not fit to work.

They then separated those that were chosen to stay and work in the camps, men and women in their own individual barracks. The female barracks, significantly smaller than the male, with only a handful of dormitories.

Even the people who were detained here for slave labour perished soon after.

Destroying The Evidence

Most of the wooden dorm rooms that remain today are nothing but brick foundations and chimneys. At the end of the war, the Germans ordered the destruction of the gas chambers and cremation buildings to cover up their crimes. The building below is all that remains of the gas chamber and crematorium No2.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau From Kraków.
Evidence of a blown-up crematory and gas chamber.

Our Black & White Tribute On Instagram

When posting our photos over on Instagram, we wanted to do something a little different to reflect our experience. We always post our images using the same filter. It was Vicky’s idea to turn them black and white. I felt this was a great idea, something completely different from what we would normally do, but I think it worked very well. A mark of respect.

In all the photographs I took while we were there, I didn’t want to take any images with people in them. I wanted to put myself in the position of the prisoners, like I was looking through their eyes. Even writing this blog post, the only people I wanted to show was the victims themselves.

 
 
 
 
 
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Remembrance

Never forget the people who were murdered and separated from their families because of this dreadful moment in our recent history.

There are several excellent resources online if you want to learn more. The official memorial website is full of information and you can visit it here auschwitz.org.

Plan Your Trip To Auschwitz

There are several ways you can get to Auschwitz. You could hire your own transport and drive yourself, use local transport or use a tour company like Get Your Guide.

Organised Excursion

The link below will take you to Get Your Guide. There are several excursions to choose from and you can visit Auschwitz from other towns and cities across Poland.

Public Transport

You can also use local websites like this one to plan rail and bus journeys.

https://en.e-podroznik.pl/.

A Three-Day Guide to Krakow

This trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau took place during our city break to Kraków, and after visiting here, the next stop on our tour took us to the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Look at what we got up to during our time here Three-Day Guide To Kraków.



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