Visiting Auschwitz, the death camp near Krakow, Poland

Anne Frank’s father was one of the few who survived Auschwitz, one of the largest death camps in occupied Europe. The numbers vary, but the death toll was probably between 1.1 and 1.5 million with most of the victims being Jews. I recently paid a visit to this same camp (or whatever that was left of it).

Auschwitz fence.

SS guard tower.
High-voltage, barbed wire fences kept prisoners inside the camp.

Auschwitz or Auschwitz-Birkenau, (or Oświęcim as they say in Polish), is located near the city of Krakow in southern Poland. The camp was set up there because of its central location in Europe.

The Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland (near Krakow).
Jews were imprisoned in transit camps before being deported to, for instance, Auschwitz.

At first I had wanted to go by train (15.60 zlotys one way) or public bus (12 zlotys one way). At the time of writing $1 is about 3.64 Polish zlotys. Then I realized that it would be too cumbersome.

You would still have to get to the main station in Krakow, buy a ticket, etc. Also, upon arrival you would have to walk or take a mini bus or whatnot since the station is two clicks from the camp. And even buses, as far as I understand, don’t stop right in front of the camp. In other words, it’s all very doable if you have the time.

In my case I had arrived after midnight the previous day and I figured it would be next to impossible to get on the early morning train or bus. It would be too stressful for my liking. I needed some extra sleep. And so I booked this tour (150 zlotys) and also checked the lunch option (25 zlotys).

They picked me up at eight-thirty in their 16-seater Mercedes van and it was all good until I realized that they would have to circle the city (old town mostly) for another forty-five minutes, or so … to pick up another ten passengers. I was the first one in!!

So … what had to be a ninety-minute ride turned out to be a two-hour-plus ride and that was stretching it. This was also because they played this Auschwitz-intro video in the van, for good reason, but it lasted a whopping sixty-monotonous minutes; all in a foreign language. My fellow passengers and I were captivated for ten-twenty minutes and then our eyelids slowly began to droop. It was too much and too fast.

Shelter for SS guard.

SS torture chambers.

Prisoner barracks at Auschwitz concentration camp.
Pic. 1: Bad weather shelter for guard.
Pic. 2: SS torture chambers.
Pic. 3: Inside a prisoner barrack.

At the entrance it was crowded with hundreds lining up waiting to be searched. I had never fully realized it but these days it’s hands down the biggest tourist attraction in Poland. The camp receives over a million visitors a year.

That day the weather was hot, above thirty degrees Celsius, and I was glad I had put on sun lotion. I’m not sure if ‘impressive’ is the right word, but Auschwitz is not a place you’ll easily forget. The tone is all a bit dark, understandably, (you don’t see people smile all day long), and you walk around with this ‘Schindler’s List’ kind of feeling … trying to picture what it was like all these years ago.

At the museum I saw these suitcases with Dutch names written on it, which really made it hit home. I reckon when they wrote their names on it they did so with the understanding that they could retrieve them later. Surreal.

The blonde tour guide did a great job filling in some of the blanks. We all had these headphones connected to our guide’s microphone so it was easy to hear what she had to say (despite the accent). At times there was an overload of information, however. I definitely can’t remember all she said. And I don’t recall her mentioning Anne Frank and her family, though I am sure she did at some point. It must be a tough job guiding these groups for, what was it, three to four hours at a time.

Freight or cattle cars were packed with up to 150 deportees.

Many deportees died in transit.

Arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Freight or cattle cars were packed with up to 150 deportees. These cars varied in size, but it was not spacious.

One word of advice, on a hot day … do bring plenty of water, some snacks, and an umbrella against the sun. You will do a fair bit of walking; easily a couple of miles. The sheer size of it all will overwhelm just about anyone (191 hectares / 472 acres).

At three o’clock we got back in the van and were handed our lunch sandwiches. Everyone looked tired, sunburned, and hungry. Lacking energy, no complaints were filed about the small portions of food and soon … everyone was fast asleep.

AJ.

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The
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Nazi death camps in Poland

(with number of victims)

  • Auschwitz-Birkenau (1.1 – 1.5 million)
  • Treblinka (800,000 – 900,000)
  • Belzec (600,000)
  • Sobibor (200,000)
  • Chelmno (200,000)
  • Majdanek (130,000)

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