As I mentioned in my previous posts about our trip to Krakow, Poland, we saw some amazing and historic architecture, gorgeous masterpieces, and tried some of the local vodkas and cuisines. But when we first discussed our trip to the country, we debated on visiting Warsaw or Krakow. Warsaw would have been a much more metropolitan and bustling town in comparison to Krakow, or so we researched. The vast majority of the city was decimated during WWII, so most of the buildings are newer and hold less historical significance than the Old Town in Krakow.
But what really tipped the scale toward Krakow was the proximity to Auschwitz. We were keen on seeing the concentration camp and learning more about the painful history the Nazis inflicted on Poland.
Early on Saturday morning, we hopped on a train from Krakow Glowny to Oświęcim (the Polish spelling for the city of Auschwitz). The earliest train had us change at Plaszow, and if we had decided to go direct, it would have been nearly two hours later. [So, make sure you look the night before for train times.] The trains did not leave on time, but we were incredibly lucky to be able to change platforms with ease, and with only seconds to spare, we caught the right train to the small town.
It took about an hour and a half to get there through beautiful Polish countryside on an incredibly old and rickety train. Acres and acres of farmland were as far as the eye could see, but there were also little villages along the way that looked quaint and humble.
Oświęcim is incredibly small, and without its notorious camp, I don’t think it would be on any list of travel destinations. We walked the 3km to the camp instead of taking a cab and took in our surroundings.
Auschwitz I, that is along the main road, is a converted museum. We did not book a tour, but after our experience, I would recommend it, and it is mandatory during the summer months. We like to go our own way so we aren’t rushed or herded, but because the majority of the other tourists had opted for this, it was a conveyor belt of people that made it very difficult to see each bunker individually.
We walked through the infamous gate stating, “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Sets You Free.” The signs with a skull and crossbones saying “Halt” still stand wedged in the pebble walkway and the barbed wire fences offer a somber and eerie feeling throughout the compound.
The grey skies were very appropriate as we made our way through the alleyways in between the massive bunkers. Auschwitz I was the first camp built in the area and meant to hold Polish prisoners who began to arrive in 1940. The first extermination of the prisoners began in September 1941, and Auschwitz-Birkenau became the largest camp for the Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”
Each bunker had a different exhibit. Completely sanitized and white-washed, the buildings were transformed. Still achingly cold and cramped, you never shook the horrible feeling of what occurred within the walls. But it was nice to see each building dedicated to a certain aspect of the camp. For example, one building was dedicated to just the Hungarian Gypsy race that is so rarely talked about in history or films. There were plaques, pictures, and the names of every single inhabitant on display.
We continued along the grounds as more people showed up pushing us out of the rooms, so we only saw a fraction of all of the buildings despite being there for two hours. The furnace on site is a reconstruction far off to the side, but you can walk through and see the ovens. In one building, we did see the dozens of empty poison canisters behind glass, and we did see the piles and piles of cut human hair used to make rugs later in the war.
We did not see the infamous shoes, glasses, or personal effects, but after two hours entering as many buildings as we could, we felt we had seen enough. Besides that, though, in the winter months, the hours of both camps is shortened. We needed to make our way to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. There is a transfer bus that takes you on the five minute journey on the other side of town. We all crammed in, and when we arrived at the second stop, Jeff and I both had to take a deep breath. The site was astounding.
All of Auschwitz is free to get in, so there is no barrier to walking through the gates and on to the grounds, and immediately, you’re surrounded by 400 acres of demolished bunkers, brick chimneys, and decrepit railroad tracks. Off to the right, as soon as you enter, are a few examples of wooden bunkers that miraculously are still standing. I didn’t know what to think when we entered one and saw a group of school kids inside learning from their tutor. At first I was saddened to see such young kids being exposed to the atrocities, but then I was relieved that they aren’t being sheltered against the history that happened in their country.
We followed the rail tracks to the end, walking through drive ways and walk ways with pictures dotted along the way showing you what conditions were like all those decades ago. But the right side of the camp was mostly demolished. The only things that stood were the brick chimneys used to “heat” the bunkers. On the left side are several brick bunkers that are in various states of decay. Most of them are boarded and roped off, but there were two we could go inside. One looked to be the children’s ward. There were paintings and school drawings on the wall, preserved. But the bunks were depressing. Barely any light came through the cracks in the ceiling, and the three stacked high bunks were cramped, ill-equipped, and shocking.
We walked along the broken and uneven ground trying to imagine what life was like, but thankfully for us, we could not imagine it.
All the way in the back of the camp is a relic of a train car, stopped at the end of the line. And beyond that is the memorial. Done in huge and dark blocks, the memorial erected in 1967 and sits between the two burned down crematoriums. On October 7, 1944, there was a revolt in Birkenau where the Sonderkommando came together and managed to burn down the crematoriums, kill a few SS officers, and some escaped. Those who escaped were recaptured and executed and nearly 250 prisoners died during the revolt. It wasn’t until January 27, 1945 that the prisoners were released by the invading Soviet Army.
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Back in Krakow, across the river, is a sort of factory district. Jeff and I didn’t budget enough time to see the Schindler Factory, but we wanted to at least walk by and see its location. Walking on this side of town during a grey and drizzly day was quite depressing. The buildings are incredibly dated and dilapidated. I felt like I had stepped back in time to the 1970s or 1980s with the block buildings and “mod” industrial texts.
If you don’t know the name Oskar Schindler, I wholly recommend checking out Schindler’s List for a beautiful film about the Holocaust. While the real Schindler was a bit more of a philanderer and life-living character than Liam Neeson made him out to be in the film, his accomplishments and heroics are no less diminished.
Speaking of Schindler’s List, Jeff and I wanted to see Krakus Mound. We had no idea what this mound was or what its historical significance, but it offers a beautiful view of the Old Town, so we hiked that way. The famous mound is the supposed burial place of the mythical King Krakus (founder of Krakow), but when we stood up on this massive mound with a circular path, we looked down and saw a massive quarry and decaying buildings. We had no idea what it was until we got back home to investigate.
That site is the former Plaszow Concentration Camp featured in the famous film. We were shocked that not only the buildings were still somewhat standing but also that it was completely non-descript.
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On our way back into town, we found the Krakow Ghetto Memorial. It’s a large plaza that has 33 steel chairs representing the victims of the Holocaust. These chairs are right next to the tram stop and bus stops, so the chairs are to symbolize that anyone can sit down and anyone can be a victim.
The song that got stuck in my head as we walked around these chairs was the famous Empty Chairs at Empty Tables from Les Miserables.
It truly was a humbling experience to see all of the standing, not standing, and immortalized monuments to WWII and the Nazi overtake of Poland. I wholly recommend making these places a high priority when visiting Krakow and the greater Poland area. It’s truly astounding to see with your own eyes.