This is definitely a long overdue post.
It has long since been an ambition of mine to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps in Poland, although I never studied History past year 9 at school (definitely a regretful decision) I've always been interested in reading and watching things about the Second World War. So in April, during the Easter holidays, my Mum, sister and I went to Krakow for 3 days to see the camps, salt mines and Krakow in general.
So, I thought I'd show you some pictures and try my best to give you some background about them. I also love just reading these kinds of posts back to myself so feel free to just skip past all the writing!
Touch down in Krakow.... kinda looks just like England from this POV.
On the first day, we just explored central Krakow, around the Old Town and the square. It was very beautiful and clean! It put Manchester to shame.
Countries in this general area of Europe all seem to have a desert called Chimney Cakes. It's like sweet flavoured bread in a cylinder shape (look at the sign) and you can have things like chocolate, nuts, sugar on them. I wasn't overly keen on the Polish kind, however, I went to Prague only a few weeks ago and had one with ice cream in it which was much nicer. Prague post coming soon!
A walk to the Old Town which we became very familiar with.
Krakow town square....
Whenever I catch people off-guard in my photos I cringe at all the photo's of strangers which I must be in the background of
No idea if I'm right here because I've never been to Russia but the architecture comes across very Russian to me, what do you think?
The building in this picture is St.Mary's Basilica aka Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven.
On the second day, we had tours of both camps and the salt mines. It took 10 hours in total. We booked the tour with Krakow Direct in advance, it cost around £100 for the whole day for 3 people which is an absolutely brilliant deal for the service. It included transport, entrance to the camps/salt mines and guided tours which you paid for on the day.
We were picked up at 9am from our apartment by a very friendly English-speaking Polish man. He was in a 7 seat Mercedes van-thing and he stayed, chauffeuring us around, all day. He was very knowledgeable and pointed out buildings of interest on the way. It was great. From central Krakow it took an hour to reach the town of Oswiecim so, of course, I was bleeding sick in the car wasn't I? I'm such a bad car traveller but the guy (who's name I can't remember annoyingly) let me sit in the front of the car for the other journeys. Very kind. 'I hope it's not my driving' he said. (He did drive pretty fast tbh though)
We were in a tour group of around 15 people at most and spent 2 hours at the first Auschwitz camp before making the short trip to Birkenau where we only stayed for an hour.
If I remember rightly we went inside 4 different blocks, if you spend longer there you can walk around them all, I presume, there are loads of them. Each block showed different kinds of atrocities which were carried out on the camp prisoners. Some had items which had been taken from people, letters, stories, maps, photographs and recreations of living conditions.
Examples of the canisters which contained the gas, Zyklon B, used to murder so many victims.
If you ever visit these camps I suggest you take a wide-angle lens with you because the walls of these blocks were lined with stolen possessions. The photograph literally shows about a sixth of the wall, my camera just couldn't stretch far enough! Unless you've seen it, you just can't comprehend the vastness of it.
In the picture above, you can see all the items taken from disabled people arriving at the camp.
Below, you can see pots, pans, dishes, plates, cups etc.
Upon arrival, prisoners were told to label their luggage and leave it on the train platforms. They were 'assured' it would be returned to them.
Instead, all the belongings were taken to a place in the camps known to prisoners as 'Kanada'. Named after the country: Canada, it was the place were items were sorted into categories and returned to Germany to be sold. Prisoners called the place Kanada because they perceived the country to be very rich and prosperous. People brought their most valued belongings with them so you can imagine the kind of things people might have found.
Although money, jewellery, pots and pans were of little value to the prisoners, if you were one of the lucky ones to be assigned to the Kanada role, you were much more likely to survive. Often prisoners would find bits of food in coat pockets or a pair of shoes they could steal. If you worked in Kanada, you definitely had one of the best qualities of life within the camp.
You can read more about Kanada, here.
Surviving prisoners were stripped of their clothes, hair and identity when they arrived; children included.
There were so many shoes. Either side of this block was just piled high with shoes. What we saw must have only been a fraction too, it really puts the colossal size of these camps into perspective.
The most shocking block was one you don't really see or hear much about because you're not allowed to take pictures in there. The windows have special glass in them which stops sunlight penetrating through. Because there is a full wall covered with, from ceiling to floor, human hair. It's a pretty well known fact that the prisoner's hair was shaved but I always put it down to removing identity. However, we were told that human hair was very valuable at the time and it was sold to make fabric with. There were examples of rugs and fabrics made from people's hair. It was very disturbing.
There was also a prison block which I didn't take any pictures inside of. This was equally as shocking. I can't remember all of the punishments but one which stuck in my mind was a stone cell, no wider that a meter square in size maximum. It went from floor to ceiling, so completely dark inside. A punishment was a month trapped inside this cell with THREE other prisoners. They had to climb through the tiniest opening to get in then they were forced to stand because there simply wasn't enough room to sit. People didn't survive this.
This is the 'Death Wall', it's located in the yard next to Block 11 and was the location of several thousand executions by firing squad and flogging amongst other methods of murder. The original wall was dismantled in 1944 but this recreation still has a sinister look about it.
I remember our tour guide (the lady you can see in the picture below) telling us that this was one of the yards where prisoners would gather for I think she called it 'role call', a register basically, each day, sometimes several times a day. Prisoners were expected to stand completely still, in thin clothing, throughout all weathers for hours on some occasions. Guards would punish them by making them stand to the point where some collapsed from exhaustion. They were then killed.
The final roll call at Auschwitz was taken on 17th January 1945, 67,000 prisoners remained throughout the camps. They were told they could either remain in the camps or walk a 50km hike though snow to trains which would take them to another camp. This became known as a 'Death March' people who couldn't keep up, were shot.
The final thing we saw at Auschwitz was one of the few (maybe even the only, I can't remember) gas chambers left not dismantled. In the October preceding the camp liberations the German guards began destroying evidence of the crimes committed, this included removing the gas chambers.
Inside, is a rectangular shaped room which looked like it was made from concrete and two large crematoria. I did take one photograph but I feel guilty putting it on the internet. It was very haunting and if I ever return I probably wouldn't go inside again.
Birkenau is a much larger camp. It's actually massive. It took 15 minutes for us to walk from one end to the other. It takes me less than that to walk from one side of the town I live in to the other.
Above, you can see the iconic 'Gate of Hell'. This picture is actually taken from inside the camp. Having seen the picture several times on TV and in photos I actually thought this was approaching the camp but it's not.
The prisoners would arrive by train from all over Europe in a carriage like the one you can see below. Some might have been travelling for days. People even died on the train, before arriving at the camp; whether thats a blessing in disguise or not, I don't know.
Trains went directly into the camp, the place in the photograph above where people are walking was the platform where the prisoners were sorted into those who would survive and those who would not.
It was a very clever and meticulous system. The train would obviously be stationary on the platform, blocking the view of the crematoria and much of the camp from view. This was all planned in an attempt to maintain order and not cause panic.
The train line continues all the way to the end of the camp as you can see in a picture below.
If I remember rightly, our guide told us that at one point there was 5 crematoria running 24 hours with each having the ability of burning up to 768 corpses a day.
In January 1945, the SS guards began blowing up the chambers. You can the what remains in the photos above and below.
All the chimneys you can see are remnants of the bunkers.
You can see above the inside of a typical bunker. Each one would hold 500+ prisoners. Each 'bed' or 'bunk', I don't really know what you would call it, slept up to 6 people. You were privileged if you got a top bunk because you didn't sleep in fear of someone pissing or vomiting or anything else on you in the night. It was a pretty bad situation if you were on the bottom.
Out of desperation, prisoners would steal clothes and blankets from the dead. As horrible as it sounds, it really was down to themselves to survive. I remember a story she told us which really reflected the horrors of the living conditions. A girl was given a blanket by someone, I don't know who it came from but she had it in front of her and noticed it moving by itself. Upon closer inspection she noticed it was in fact riddled with flees. Any spare time the prisoners had was usually spent de-licing their clothes and blankets.
That pretty much sums up my experiences of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was very surreal to walk around a place where so many innocent people met their end. It's sad really because it's actually a very beautiful and peaceful place now. It's hard to imagine that such horrible crimes were committed there.
It was reiterated to us several times how important it is for people to visit and take an interest in the camps. I'm sure many people are of the opinion that the whole place should be demolished but with there being less and less survivors still alive these days to tell their stories, we all need to keep disasters like this in mind. If we continue to remember, it's less likely to happen again.
If you're going to leave a comment please keep it respectful.
Please share your experiences if you've visited any of the concentration camps- I'm always interested in reading your stories!
Don't hesitate to ask any questions.
Thanks for reading,