A Somber Day in Auschwitz – Birkenau

Coming to Krakow is not a complete visit if one does not make the short trip to nearby Auschwitz and its counterpart, Birkenau, where more people died than in Auschwitz itself.    Clearly this entry will be more somber than my usual.

To get to Auschwitz, we took a mini bus from the bus station. We left at 830AM and got there around 10 AM. The day was gray and with a drizzle – apparently to set us up for the difficult visit ahead. Once there we decided to take a guided tour for a little over $10 which seems expensive but entrance to Auschwitz is free so we figured it would be worth it. (Otherwise, they have books/guides you can purchase and self-guide yourself.)

Guard tower in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, near Krakow

The group consisted of 6 of us and the guide. We passed under the well known “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free) sign at the entrance to the camps. An eerie feeling.

The buildings we visited in Auschwitz had been Polish army barracks before WW II. Many of these in Auschwitz I have been converted to museums. For example, a building will explain the origins of those who came to these camps. Another building depicts prisoner life. Another depicts the belongings gathered and what happened to them. Because these were army barracks before, the buildings are quite solid. If you think of an old building from around 1900 or 1910 at a U.S. university, you would know how these are designed and built.

Building in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, near Krakow


Some things were hard to see in the exhibits:

  • people’s belonging like hairbrushes, eyeglasses, suitcases (which had names and addresses on them); a strange feeling came over, thinking that someone used to, for example, brush their hair with that pink one laying on top of the pile or that one over there
  • women’s hair; their hair was shaved and sent to Germany as fibers or material for coats, blankets; some bags not yet shipped when the camp was liberated are on display
  • crutches and artificial wooden limbs
  • children’s clothing or artifacts were the hardest for me to see and process…

Though I understood we were basically in a very large cemetery or holy ground, walking between the barracks was surreal as I felt I was in a movie set. That may sound odd but given movies I have seen (Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, etc., whether actually filmed here or not) they were my only reference so far about concentration camps. But, of course, this was the real deal. In the gloomy weather we had, maybe my mind was shifting to “movie set” to protect me…

I tried picturing the guards and prisoners walking around and it wasn’t hard to envision the scene. Also quite hard to take was going into one of the gas chambers. It was an earlier one, too small for the mass scale the Nazis needed. It was used mainly for Soviet prisoners of war and Polish intelligentsia and activists imprisoned at the beginning for being dangerous. We also saw where St. Maximilian Kolbe died. He traded his life to save a man who had a family. For some reason, the Nazis allowed the switch. How many other acts of nobility may not have been caught for posterity…

We then went to Birkenau which the Nazis destroyed towards the end of the war and where the majority of Jews were exterminated in this set of camps. The main entrance building was shown in Schindler’s List.  The camp was built especially for large numbers. About 90,000 lived there at a time but hundreds of thousands died there. Living conditions were horrible and one can visualize them from reconstructed living quarters.

Entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, near Krakow

The gas chambers there were of mass scale as were the crematoriums. You can see their ruins (they were not reconstructed) and you can see the field were ashes were then buried. It was a massive camp.

Gas chamber ruins in Birkenau concentration camp in Poland, near Krakow

Gas chamber ruins

One of the more poignant spaces in Birkenau was the train platform where people were separated into those going straight to their death vs. those who had some value to the camp as workers. One can only imagine first how those people would feel after a multi-day train trip packed in a wagon and then to get separated quickly from your loved ones. Very painful to imagine.

Train platform in Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland

So a very difficult place to visit but one that helps make sure we do not ever forget the cruelty that mankind is capable of when it loses its humanity.  Check out a short slideshow of my pix at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7K5Hh41Qss .

May all those souls who died there rest in peace.  Their lives stolen and the survivors’ lives shattered and battered as this lamp bears witness…  Never again.

Train track lamp in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland

Planning a Trip to Southern Poland

Well, this entry will be different than the others. Why? Because it is not about a trip taken but about planning a trip to be taken. I have to admit, I enjoy planning a trip a lot. It is as if the trip has almost begun as I begin to plan, imagine, and make more concrete what the actual trip will be.

Decision to Visit Poland
As a friend and I were discussing that we should travel together for a weekend or a week, we began randomly talking about what could we do.  Talking about possibilities TOTALLY energizes me!  EVERYTHING is possible at that early moment in planning.  In talking, we decided that instead of a weekend in the U.S. or nearby, perhaps we ought to take the entire week and go further.

Where to go then?  Immediately we narrowed it down to Europe or Latin America just due to the constraint of a week max.  Our mind went to the big capitals of Europe.  We ran through countries like Portugal, Spain, Poland, Ireland, Germany, France.  We ruled out Italy as we had both been there a couple of times (doesn’t mean we don’t love Italy, we do, but we were feeling like exploring something totally new).  We ended up narrowing it down to Ireland and Poland.  So it was either going to a place known for its beauty, friendliness and pubs or a place we didn’t know as much about and knew nothing about the language.

We began throwing around that maybe seeing where Pope John Paul II had been born may be interesting (we are Catholic, this line of reasoning may not apply to others 🙂 ).  So, we decided to study that area of Poland to see if there was enough to explore.  I had a notion that Krakow was a place to see but I don’t know that I could have explained exactly why.  Never fear, some Internet searching, some visiting local bookstores and checking out a few books and we got the info we needed.  There was so much to see and explore in Krakow and its vicinity to fill a week and not get it all done.  We also felt that we might as well go out on a limb now that we are relatively young (late 30s, early 40s) whereas Ireland seemed an easier place for later in life.  So, with perhaps not the best set of criteria but criteria we felt good enough with, we chose to go to Poland.  The fact that we are going in winter is not scaring us.  We will just bundle up and enjoy low tourists fighting with us to enter places, etc.!

So what a realistic itinerary for a week in Poland??

Destination settled.  Not quite…  So, how much of Poland should we aim for?  How much was realistic without being too aggressive?  How was the transportation network?  Well, we didn’t know enough nor people who had gone.  Again, the resources mentioned above plus posting questions on the Internet answered our questions.  Southern Poland, in fact just one part of southern Poland, would easily fill a week and more if we really wanted to.  Krakow and the nearby salt mines would fill a couple of days at the very least.  We realized Czestochowa would be an interesting day trip.  We obviously knew we had to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  We clearly were going to see Wadowice to see where JP II was born.  We realized we may be able to even squeeze in a day trip to ski at Zakopane.  Wow!  So much to do and so many other places we probably would not have time to go see!

Details, details

Well, the rest is planning details.  Fly to Krakow, or fly to Warsaw and take a train down?  Stay in Krakow as our home base or move around these towns?  So many possibilities.  We haven’t nailed it all down yet but we think we will fly to Warsaw and take the less than 3 hr train to Krakow and at least get a glimpse of the countryside in winter.  We will not be able to see anything outside of the south except perhaps for a day in Warsaw on our way out of the country (which may not do it justice but Warsaw may be an easier place to return to than Krakow).  We are likely using Krakow as the home base and we are looking at renting an apartment since then we don’t have to be lugging stuff around – plus it is cheaper and more comfortable.

So, that’s where we are.  Enjoying the questions, details, and unknowns about the trip as we continue our planning.  I will be writing about this awesome trip soon enough!

Anyone have any tips about Krakow or any of the places we are considering visiting?  Does anyone else enjoy trip planning as much as I do??

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