“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” – George Santayana
Auschwitz I, a UNESCO world heritage site is the most well preserved prison the Nazi’s built during WWII. It’s the site were millions of men, women and children were murdered, most of them Jews.
Back in December, I took a day trip from Krakow to Auschwitz. I’ve always wanted to visit Auschwitz, but I really didn’t know what to expect. Nothing could have prepared me for this. Visiting Auschwitz was unlike anything I’ve ever done on my travels and it’s something that will stay with me forever. It’s been almost three months since my visit to Auschwitz and everything is still fresh in my mind as if I were there just last week. The sites, the information, the feelings, it’s all still there.
I went through Krakow Tours and the tour lasted a full day. A guide showed us both campsites, Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz II. The bus ride to Oświęcim, the city were the campsites are located was over an hour long and they played a video on the bus about Auschwitz to pass the time.
Our first stop on the tour was at Auschwitz 1. Immediately after getting your headset for the audio, you enter through the gates we’ve all seen that say “Arbeit macht frei”, which translate to “work sets you free.”
Our guide was really informative throughout the entire tour. Sometimes on walking tours, I tend to forget most things that I’m told just hours after the tour is over. But this tour and this topic has stuck with me.
Some of the building or “blocks” are open for you to walk through. You’ll see the accommodations of the prisoners and also of the SS. You’ll see piles of shoes, and suitcases and even piles of human hair. You’ll walk through were Zyklon B poisoning was first tested. You’ll see the courtyard were prisoners were tortured and shot. You’ll see it all.
The hardest part for me was walking through the gas chamber. I walked in and right out, faster than anyone else in my group. I didn’t want to stay in there, I didn’t want to take pictures, I didn’t want to be there for long. Even though I practically ran through the gas chamber, I still remember it clearly. I remember seeing the “shower heads”, I remember seeing the scratches on the walls, I remember it all.
After visiting Auschwitz 1, you’ll get back on the bus that takes you just a little bit down the road to Auschwitz II, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here, train tracks were built for fast transportation to the gas chamber. Prisoners would spend days, sometimes weeks cramped into a wagon car with no food or bathroom. Once off the train, they were told to write their names on their suitcases so they could collect them later. They were then ordered to walk down the same path we walked down know as the “death march.” They were led straight into the gas chamber, never to collect their belongings.
Weeks before the camps liberation, the SS started destroying as much evidence as they could. Written records, buildings and even the gas chamber and crematoria at Birkenau in an attempt to cover up what they had done. Of the buildings that were destroyed, you can still see the smoke stacks and rubble.
If Auschwitz wasn’t mentally draining enough, about a month later I found myself visiting another concentration camp, this time in Germany. While in Munich at the beginning of this year, my mom wanted to visit Dachau. I wasn’t all too thrilled to be going since it was so soon after visiting Auschwitz but I also knew I would regret not going.
My grandfather helped liberate this camp in the spring of 1945. He was a doctor that worked in the 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division. I can’t even begin to imagine what he and so many others saw when they finally reached Dachau. I’m proud that my grandfather played a role in helping those he could during his service.
The gates at Dachau read the same words as the gates at Auschwitz 1. We decided to have a guide bring us around rather than walk through the camp ourselves. Like at Auschwitz, gas chambers were built for mass executions but it’s reported that the ones at Dachau were never used for mass killings. Like at other camps, it was the prisoners who built all the buildings you see today. Our guide had told us, the prisoners who were building the gas chamber at Dachau figured out what they were building and told those in charge they had messed something up and had to re-build it, delaying the construction.
I can’t say I would ever want to visit Auschwitz or Dachau again. It’s something I think everyone should see once in their lifetime if possible, but it is hard to stomach all the horror that took place here not too long ago.
“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly jews from various countries of Europe.” Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945