A few years ago, my girlfriend and I were with us through Central Europe. We had reached Berlin, which is a bit like those crossroads in movies, the ones with a dozen signs pointing in all sorts of directions.
There were too many choices as to what to do next. We could go north into Denmark, west to the Netherlands and Belgium or south into the Czech Republic.
“What about Poland?” said my girlfriend. “We could see Auschwitz.”
The drive from Krakow
A few days later I hopped off in a small bus through the green lanes of southern Poland, just outside Krakow. The driver didn’t speak English, and neither did the other four sullen Poles on board. When we mentioned the word Auschwitz, the driver just grunted and gestured to the seats.
The drive from Krakow to the old camp does not take long. After thirty minutes we stopped on a road like any other road. A few of us got off and the bus rumbled away. Opposite was a shady boulevard lined with birch and oak trees. Look up and you could just see the red bricks and roofs of Auschwitz I, the original camp built by Polish political prisoners in the early 1940s.
On busy days, over 30,000 tourists will walk through the Auschwitz grounds. Dozens and dozens of tours run simultaneously through the old camp and Birkenau, a few minutes down the road. As such, they run a pretty efficient ship. When you arrive, you sign up for a tour time and are equipped with a passport, headset and radio. Your guide has a microphone and a transmitter, so all you have to do is tune into their frequency. You begin where so many prisoners once did, under the rusty metal words “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free).
The next few hours are hard to describe. Your guide leads you through the avenues and neat brick houses of Auschwitz I. There are bare dormitories, old corridors, chilly parade grounds, and—everywhere—double lines of razor-wire stakes, each equidistant from its neighbor and curved in a candy cane curve.
In every room, rows and rows of faces stare out from the walls: old prisoner profiles in black and white. Most look empty and empty; they depict nothing. But studying them alone is worth the price of admission. You could look at the eyes for hours, searching for a glimmer of hope, a hint of fear, or a hint of determination. You can’t help but wonder what they were thinking.
Your guide says, “Three weeks after these were taken, all these people were dead.”
Every piece of the place has a story attached. Here a room, three feet by three feet, where four men were forced to stand in the dark until they died. There is the square outside the infamous Block 11, imprisoned in a prison where prisoners were routinely executed against a brick wall. The house of the camp commandant, Rudolf Hoss, and the gallows where he was executed by the Allies in 1947. The gas chambers, the piles of hair, glasses, shoes… children’s toys.
Tourism in Auschwitz has attracted some criticism in recent years (the alleged ‘death tourism’) but I don’t really buy into it. Of course you can criticize the actions of individuals, but I think that it can only be a good thing to educate and enlighten future generations during one of the darkest times in human history. Like Winston Churchill said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
After the original camp, the tour moves to Birkenau, which is an experience in itself. The tight streets and heaviness of Auschwitz I are replaced by acres of grass, clear skies and two parallel railway tracks coming to an ominous and very final stop. There is a distorted calm in Birkenau. Yellow wild flowers grow under the watchtowers. You can see nearby villages and rolling hills. There is the sound of distant birdsong. It is hard to imagine that up to 20,000 people a day were killed and burned here. Apparently the nearby residents, those who had not been rounded up in the first few years of Nazi occupation, could see and smell the smoke for miles. They slept with the distant glow of the stoves outside their window.
A visit to Auchwitz is the difference between reading the music and hearing it played. You can read about the horrors that happened there, watch documentaries that give you all the facts, but until you stand in the gas chambers, you can hear the eerie silence around the ash pools of Birkenau and see the dusty wooden bunks where the prisoners huddled together – you will not understand it.
At the end of the tour, you will be standing outside the red brick main entrance to Birkenau. I remember thinking how quiet the place was. Even with so many people in it. there was so much silence in that place.
Travelers can visit Auschwitz on some of ours traveling through Poland. All entrance fees to the World Heritage Site go towards preserving the camp for future generations.
Feature image c/o Matti Panciroli, Flickr