Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Visiting Auschwitz

During the preparation of a recent trip to Krakow my wife and I decided we wanted to visit the concentration and extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Obviously, this is not your regular day trip on a regular holiday. It's important to be prepared for the visit.

On a practical level, there are many offerings for day excursions from Krakow, which combine a bus return and guided tour, and sometimes a lunch. Because of an allergy of group tours, I decided to organise my own itinerary. It's doable, but probably not advisable. Our return consisted of a single trip with Flixbus from the bus station next to the main railway station of Krakow. It cost next to nothing, at 2,50 euro for the bus ride, and 3,00 for a front row seat. The trip took effectively 1.15 hour. Contrary to my expectations, the ride was comfortable and on time.

The way back was on a local Polish train from Oswiecim railway station, some 1,5 km from Auschwitz I (0,50 euro on a local bus). This station does not feature a station building, we did not see any ticket machines (but you can buy your tickets on board). There are no facilities so on a cold day take care of decent clothing, and on a hot day, do not forget to bring water and sunscreen. I bought my tickets beforehand (also for only a few euros) and the ticket inspector was kind enough to let us use our tickets on an earlier train. This train takes 1.30 to 1.45 hours for the 60 km to Krakow, and it has no airconditioning.

During the peak season, it is only possible to visit Auschwitz in combination with a guided tour. This is mainly to keep control over the large numbers of visitors. Although I'm generally not a fan of being guided, in this case I would highly recommend it. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and very direct about the history of the camps and the holocaust.

The crowds that visit these camps unfortunately do not all respect the basic rules that apply: not eating, not taking pictures in a few of the most sensitive places, and dressing modestly. Although it was 35 degrees celsius on the day of our visit, it should be clear that shorts are not something to wear in Auschwitz. And even after repeated requests not to take pictures in the part where stacks of victims' hair are on display, someone from our tour group still took a picture. On a positive note, we noticed that there are many young visitors of these grounds, and that the tour groups operate in almost complete silence (apart from the guides, obviously).

When you plan your trips, take into account the following advice:

  • Plan well ahead, especially if you want to book the trip yourself. I found most tour groups sold out already three weeks before the actual visit. You can book a day and time slot for approximately 15 euro per person (that's the fee for the guided tour, access itself is free but must always be booked).
  • If you choose to join an organised trip, there might be availability much closer to the actual visit.
  • Pardon me for stating the obvious: Auschwitz is not an amusement park. Places where you can eat or drink are very limited. Once on the premises, there is a vending machine in the room where you await your tour guide. On a hot day, take water with you. The first part of the tour takes 1,5 hours and there's no break. Remember that on premise, you are not allowed to eat.
  • You will enter cramped, dark places with uneven floors. If you have physical restrictions, be aware of this. I managed to get around despite my visual impairment but had to retain strict focus.
  • There are places where you can get some food and drinks but they are all small and unpretentious, even those outside the perimeter of the museum. Anything else would also be entirely inappropriate. 
Auschwitz (camp number I, the camp with the infamous 'Arbeit macht frei' sign above its gate) is actually rather small. It contains several baracks that have been converted into a museum. On display are photos taken on the premises during its functioning as concentration and extermination camp, as well as the countless objects that were confiscated from the victims by the nazis and then sorted and put to reuse. After freeing the camp, the authorities found some 200 thousand objects that have been partly converted in the gruesome, surreal setup of stacks of shoes, combs and suitcases currently on display.

The aforementioned room with victims' hair not only shows stacks of hair, but also some products it was put to use by the nazis, one of many signs of the industrialisation of genocide. Some of the barracks indicate how the victims 'lived' in the barracks, showing the lack of sanitary equipment and the space available for sleeping. The end of the tour leads you to the actual gas room and cremation oven built in Auschwitz I. The larger constructions of gas rooms and ovens in Birkenau were all destructed by the nazis when they left Poland. 

On a sunny day, with birds singing and green trees on the premises, the looks of Auschwitz I might still be deceiving. Any such deception will disappear when climbing the watch tower of Birkenau, the much larger camp that you will visit as the second part of the guided tour, after a short break and a bus ride between the camps. Railway tracks in the middle distinguish the male and female camps, barracks filling a large, empty plain. We visited one barrack with the original setup, showing the three layers on top of each other, each measuring (my estimate) 1,5 m x 1,5 m on which 5 to 7 people 'lived'. 

It is not recommended to take children below 16 to Auschwitz. Plan nothing for the rest of the day. For obvious reasons, I decided not to take any photos.

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