Travel Report: Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Poland.
April 2003. Many moons ago a bunch of friends and I jumped on a train in Bratislava. Our subsequent journey took us east through the centre of Slovakia and then north along The Tatra Mountains into Poland. Our destination was the city of Krakow, where we’d planned three nights of carefree sightseeing. However, that trip wasn’t all fun and games. We also took the time to visit the nearby town of Oswiecim for a window into one of the darkest chapters in world history. They say that everybody should see Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in their lives. Not that anyone actually wants to of course. I can still remember the uneasy feeling that seeped into me as we passed through those famous gates with its chilling message: Arbeit Macht Frei (work sets you free).
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum guides visitors through two of the largest concentration camps of the Second world War. The Nazis exterminated over a million people in Auschwitz. You can hear their stories told through an audio guide against the backdrop of the camp’s eerie remains. Along the way you’ll see some of the old barracks where the inmates lived. Furthermore, there are several storage rooms full of seized clothes, jewellery and personal items. I will never forget the harrowing sight of a mountain of shoes.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
This is one of the camp’s few surviving watchtowers. I’m not gonna go into the atrocities that took place in Auschwitz; I guess most of us are well versed in all that. If somehow you’re not familiar with the Nazi concentration camps of the World War II, the movies Schindler’s List, Son of Saul, and Life is Beautiful are all excellent starting points. If reading is more your thing, take a look at The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
This little exercise yard, set between a pair of barracks, also sticks in the mind. Anyone who looked out of shape, couldn’t follow the guards’ strict exercise routine or generally misbehaved was dragged over to this wall and shot. There are more details about the wall and its role within the camp here at auschwitz.org.
For me it was the vast expanse of Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, that truly brought home the scale of the horror. Over two hundred thousand people ended up here during World War II and most of them came in by rail from all over Europe. It’s hard to imagine the scene of a train full of doomed people arriving here with no clue as to what was happening. Birkenau is massive, over 400 acres. And for the most part it’s a barren landscape informed by little more than a few cheerless barracks, barbed wire fences and a couple of watchtowers.
The Germans knew that Soviet forces were coming to liberate the camps ahead of the actual event on January the 27th, 1945. Therefore they set about killing as many of the remaining inmates as they could. Moreover, they attempted to destroy key office buildings and burn strategic documents in bonfires. A handful of these structures are still here, nothing more than piles of rubble.
As I said at the beginning of the article, nobody would consider this trip as a fun day out. In contrast, coming here felt like a duty of sorts. At the very least it will instil a sense of gratitude for the times we’ve been lucky enough to live in. Even if we often find ourselves despairing at the state of the world. For all the details of when and how to visit, along with the various pricing options, here’s the official website.
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