Revisiting the Holocaust, Auschwitz and Birkenau Today

Whenever I travel, I don’t just travel for the sake of Instagram, food or social media purposes. On the contrary, I travel to educate myself about world events (past & present), people and different cultures. In my opinion, it’s the best form of education you can receive. If that means visiting off the beaten track destinations to gain a better understanding then so be it. Or even visiting historical places to increase your awareness of the world.

I did exactly this when I visited the site of the Holocaust that was Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland. Safe to say, it was the best and worst experience I’ve ever participated in. Due to the knowledge, I gained it was the best. However, the extreme sorrow that haunts the sites made it the worst.

Did you know that it’s been estimated that 1.6 million people were murdered there? 

See this image below, in the years 1940-1945 the nazi’s departed at least 1,300,000 people to Auschwitz, which consisted of:

1,100,000 Jews

140,000-150,000 Poles

23,000 Roma (Gypsies)

15,000 Soviet Prisoners Of War

25,000 Prisoners From Other Ethnic Groups

Knowing what we were capable of as a human race and a gentle reminder of what we are still capable of (still happening all over the world). On that note, here is my experience of Auschwitz and Birkenau:

How Did I Get There?

I’m a sucker for securing epic flight deals and I managed to get a deal with Ryanair to Warsaw (Poland) for £24 return! A third of the price than travelling to London from my home town. Due to this cheap deal, I had to find a way to visit Auschwitz. I later discovered that it’s more accessible from Kraków closer to the border of the Czech Republic. So, upon arrival into the capital, I booked a train to Kraków.

Once in Kraków, there are several tours advertised online and at travel companies. I selected one online with a pick up from my Airbnb as at the time it was winter season. The weather averaged about -5°C (I recommend travelling during spring/summer) so I booked online due to my body being able to cope outside for so long. What you’ll discover about these tours if you choose a group tour you can get pretty reasonable deals that include pick up & drop off from your location as well as 6-hour tour.

I paid around £30.00 which was a lot cheaper than I expected. Since this had been on my bucket list for a long time I was happy to settle for a lot more. Already I was impressed with my money saving.

Journey

An early pick up was arranged at 7 AM outside my Airbnb. There awaited was a small minibus with tv screens on the back of each seat. After picking everyone up (12 in total) we were given a short documentary to watch on the Holocaust. To set the scene for the excursion. It took around about 2 hours to reach.

Just before arriving to the site I recall seeing a drive-thru KFC just 5 minutes from the site. This memory will always stick in my head.

Talk about the frightening effect of capitalism…

Arrival into Auschwitz

When we arrived, we were taken into the building to await our time slot. As it’s a popular attraction, tour’s are allocated time slots. So, the monitoring of great volumes of people can be managed. You also receive an official guide from there. Who is also a researcher alongside a guide, my guide made it his personal goal to inform every person he could about the Holocaust. Why?

Our guides grandfather was a prisoner in the concentration camp. A direct link to Auschwitz.

The gentleman gave us all a headset each with tape, he had a microphone. At all times we had to wear it, it worked like a radio. As the guide was English speaking we only had to stick to one channel, it basically amplified his voice.

Auschwitz I

The tour started at Auschwitz I and lasted for around 2 hours. This originally functioned as a military base but then turned into a concentration camp and an extermination site. Here I visited former prison barracks, prison cells and seen execution spots.

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The first part of the tour I was took to the famous entrance gate. Which states in German

Arbeit Macht Frei” which means “work sets you free.”

The Entrance.

Oh, the irony…

As you walk in you still witness the barbed wire and the electric fences standing there. Hauntingly eerie.

Barbed Wire which remained around.

I was taken into a few rooms which displayed a minor proportion of what the Germans collected.

Zyklon B

Zyklon . B
Zyklon B.

First was a room displaying canisters collected that used to hold Zyklon b. This was the brand name for hydrogen cyanide which the Germans used as a poison in the gas chambers to kill the prisoners that were kept there. These pellets were so effective they killed prisoners by suffocation within 20 minutes of being used. 

What I saw next was probably has affected me the most today. The most disturbing thing I’ve witnessed in my life to date!

Human Hair

I was taken into a room that had floor to ceiling hair… I felt sick.

The Nazi’s had kept human hair after shaving each prisoner. We were not allowed to take photos due to privacy reasons. But oh my, if you look at a search engine I’m sure you will find some. It was awful to think they were hairs of poor innocent people.

What was even worse was that this hair was not even 1% of prisoners from the Holocaust!

Shoes

Shoes Auschwitz
A small collection out of millions of pairs of shoes…

Following this, I was taken into a further room which contained at least a thousand pairs of shoes. Upon the arrival of the camps, prisoners were stripped of their belongings and given a striped uniform. Nazi’s also took gold, jewellery and anything they could make a profit off or for personal use. 

Glass frames collected by the SS.
Personal valuables.
Brushes collected.
Baggage collected

Photographs of early prisoners

Throughout this site, I would find early photos of prisoners in uniform. In the beginning, they were given tattoos with numbers to identify/ brand them. Another horrific point I discovered was that I saw a lot of photographs of twins. Nazi’s liked to particularly experiment on identical twins. A famous experimenter Joseph Mengle liked to carry out these operations. To see if he could alter genetics.

Crematorium/Gas Chamber

The only standing gas chamber.

Only one crematorium remains intact at Auschwitz where you can see the first gas chamber. As this was the original at the time there were three furnaces used to burn bodies at one go. You can also see marks on the walls where the prisoners tried to climb/claw their way out. The remaining chambers were burnt down by the Nazi’s to try and destroy evidence of the operations they were carrying out.

Birkenau

This part I found extremely alarming when I reached Birkenau (Auschwitz II) the sheer scale of the sight took me back. When you reach this site, it’s spooky.

There’s no noise, it’s so quiet that you can’t even hear any birds in the trees. Pure silence.

Birkenau from above, the photo does not do this place justice!

Upon arrival, you see the renowned railway tracks. Around 80% of Jews sent here were sent for immediate death and the rest for work, according to theholocaustexplained. The trains brought the prisoners straight to the camp. As the prisoners departed the train, they were made to queue in to lines. One male the other female.

Once they got to the top of the queue, there was a guard and a camp doctor. The camp doctor had made an assessment.

If the guard pointed a prisoner to his left, they were sentenced to immediate death. If they were sent to the right they were sent to hard labour.

My guide told me, that he previously took a German-speaking group on this tour. When you enter the admission point of the camps there are photos. A person in his tour group’s dad formerly worked for the German army. His dad did not disclose much to him or his mum about his career. It was not until he came to Auschwitz he seen his dad on one of the photos working as a guard pointing a prisoner to their death. 

Imagine visiting Auschwitz to discover your parent was a Nazi part of the killing. Words cannot describe how you would feel.

Walking Through Birkenau

I walked through the huge land and immediately felt like I was going to burst into tears. Every single strand of hair stood up on my arms I could not begin to fathom what they must have felt. You could see burnt over left remains of what was once chimneys and big areas for gas chambers. Trying to destroy evidence of the Holocaust during the Nuremberg trials.

To this day, I’ll always hold this memory and sadness in my heart of visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau. Yes, I may not have been around at the time, but to know what we did as a human race and are still doing fills me with sorrow. Seeing the mass volumes of hair, shoes, suitcases and brushes made my stomach churn. That was a small percentage. I don’t know how people still don’t believe in it today, to say it does not exist still boggles my mind.

Especially how British author David Irving denied the Holocaust existed and took Sarah Lipstadt on a high profile case to court back in 2000. It should have not even been allowed into court! Moreover, as someone who’s visited, I feel that those that can handle it should make a visit to see what we did as a species. I know prison camps and genocides are still happening all over the world but we all at least ought to visit this site. To spread and raise awareness of the capability of the dark side of humanity.

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