I’ve stalled on writing this post for almost 3 months because I’m not really sure how to express myself. Blogging, especially travel blogging, gives me the opportunity to experience and reflect on the cultural, historical, and political events of each country that I visit. However, I think visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau left me speechless and wordless because I knew that what I wrote wouldn’t be adequate enough to capture all the feelings, emotions, thoughts, and imagery.
This time of year always creeps up on me. We recently had the 15th anniversary of September 11th. I’ve noticed that as the actual event gets further in the past, it gets less attention, less notice, less remembrance, and less acknowledgement. To many, this is just “another day” of the year. Time stopped on September 11, 2001. The world stopped on September 11, 2001. And it’s hard for me to not have time stop just a bit every September 11th.
When something so tragic, so profound, so enormous happens, the world must talk, the world must remember, and the world must continue to acknowledge. Much like September 11th, these concentration camps capture another era of remembrance – an era that must never be forgotten. Because if we don’t continue talking and reflecting, then the world is bound to repeat itself.
I found the entire experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau very uncomfortable. But uncomfortable in the way that makes you think, ponder, and reflect. The pictures I’m posting are just of the grounds because I felt too uncomfortable to take pictures of piles of hair or the thousands of cans of Zyklon B. It felt like I was intruding on the final resting place of these individuals.
One of the hardest things for me to grasp was the weird juxtaposition between life and death present at both camps. In an odd way, the camps were beautiful…impeccable landscaping, lush greenery everywhere, blue skies, and the perfect reflections of sunlight. Obviously, somewhere that was the place of so much death is not beautiful. But there were times when I was separate from my tour group for a few moments and would close my eyes, take a deep breath, and just have the sound of birds chirping. It disturbed me that I even thought of these concentration camps as beautiful. However, there is a sense of calmness and holiness that comes across.
Overall, the tour was outstanding and every single individual I encountered, whether in my tour group or another, was respectful and reverent. My only complaint is that it felt a bit rushed in some areas because of the amount of people they are trying to get in and out each day. I wanted more time to reflect and read all the plaques. A lot of the plaques were only in German and not translated, so it took me awhile to read them (I feel bad for the rest of my English counterparts who couldn’t read German and lost out on a lot of additional information). While unnerving and uncomfortable as it might be, when you are in Poland, you can not not visit these concentration camps. Because in the end, it is up to us to continue remembering and educating the younger generation.
When I got back to my hostel that evening, the skies opened up and unleashed the most powerful, crazy thunderstorm I’ve heard in years. To be honest, don’t plan anything for the rest of the day after visiting the concentration camps. Your mind and body and soul will need to decompress, reflect, and just absorb everything.
Important Tips + Hints:
+ Auschwitz-Birkenau are actually three concentrations close to each other. Auschwitz I is the typical image of Auschwitz with the infamous gate “Arbeit macht frei.” It was mainly just a concentration camp. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was a concentration/extermination camp with the railway station. Auschwitz III-Monowitz was the labor camp for the individuals working at the nearby IG Farben factory (Auschwitz III isn’t part of the tour).
+ Go with a tour group. This is one of the few times when I would 100% recommend going with a tour group. They organize transportation to/from Krakow and between the two concentration camps as well as plan the tours of both camps. I think I ended up paying 20 or 30 Euros total which was a steal!
+ Go to Auschwitz-Birkenau on your last day in Krakow. It is really emotional and you need time to decompress a day or two afterwards. A few Polish friends all gave me this advice and I’m really glad I followed it.
+ On a similar note, the day that you go to Auschwitz-Birkenau , don’t plan anything else that day! I would also recommend doing a morning tour if possible.
+ I found the website for the concentration camps to be pretty unhelpful. You can get to the camps via public transportation but it is a bit confusing! Also, they only allow individual visitors in for a few hours each day and you have to buy those tickets MONTHS in advance. So really, take my advice and go with a tour group. You save yourself tons of time and hassle.