We flew into Warsaw, Poland and checked into our hostel. We got situated and went out for food. We went to sleep early because we had a very long day ahead of us that started at 4:30 a.m. We woke up on time and left our hostel for the train station. We purchased train tickets to Kraków that left five minutes from then, so we had to run to our platform. We made it on the train and napped for the entire three-hour ride. When we arrived in Kraków, we got on a crowded minibus to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camps.
The remainder of this post goes into more detail about my experience at the Auschwitz- Birkenau concentration and extermination camps. It is troubling to write about, so it will likely be troubling to read. I’m choosing to share my experiences because the Holocaust was a nightmare that was actually a reality, and ignoring it because it is hard to swallow will not make the tragedy less tragic. However, please feel free to skip the rest of this entry because the content is very unsettling, and it contains graphic photographs.
Auschwitz was not open to the public until later in the afternoon, so we started at Birkenau, the ‘sister camp,’ also sometimes referred to as “Auschwitz II.” Buildings that were open to walk through included living barracks, infirmaries, experimentation barracks, and the death barrack. We also saw the outside of a gas chamber, rail car, and several guard towers. There was an exhibit to walk through the building that prisoners came to upon arrival. It led us through the exact rooms where prisoners were stripped, shaved, tattooed, showered, and inspected to decide if they were fit for work or should be executed. This exhibit was very upsetting and it left me with a sick feeling that did not go away after I walked out.
Auschwitz was different from Birkenau because it was preserved into more of a museum. Different buildings displayed an array of vestiges behind glass. We saw prisoners’ belongings such as suitcases, shoes, and personal items like shoe polish and photographs. Prisoners brought suitcases with them when their homes were invaded, but all personal belongings were confiscated immediately upon arrival at the concentration camp.
Another building held the punishment cells. One cell had very little light, another with very little air. One of the most disturbing rooms held the standing cells. There was a part of a wall broken down so you could see exactly how a prisoner would have to climb on their hands and knees into a tiny opening, and then stand up. There was no space to lie down, sit, or move much at all.
Several buildings had hallways lined with pictures of prisoners. Each picture was framed and included their number, birth date, deportation date, and date of death. It was surprising to see how many prisoners were actually Polish, not German.
The day was incredibly educational and thought-provoking, but disgusting and horrifying all at the same time. It was a somber ride back to Warsaw that day, but at least we were allowed to leave.