In another blog on this site, I said that there are some words in the English language for which a place name has become an event. Nearly always an unhappy, and usually tragic, event, and it cuts through any context. I think we have the ultimate example of that here. Auschwitz is a word can can still chill the blood even now. Though the Nazis had other extermination camps, and other concentration camps, somehow “Auschwitz” is the word to reach for as a synonym for the true horrors of the Holocaust, and an example of the true depths of depravity that mankind can sink to.

“Bucket list” is a completely inappropriate term to describe why I wanted to visit. It was my last summer living in the UK, I was between contracts, and there were two places that I really wanted to visit before I emigrated (the other was the ruins of Pompeii). But just introducing it here to give context around why I visited when I did.

In what follows I’ll try not to refer to “Auschwitz”, but if I do then I mean Auschwitz-I, which is the concentration camp that was built first. Note that a concentration camp is not the same as a death camp or extermination camp. The word actually has a literal origin of being a camp where a regime would concentrate its enemies or undesireables (for instance, the US government interned native Americans in concentration camps, and the British did likewise towards the Afrikaans during the Boer War). Anyone caught up in such a camp didn’t have a very nice life, it was very harsh and lots of people would have died from disease and exhaustion, but the camps weren’t used for mass killings or extermination. Since the Second World War the term “concentration camp” has evolved in its everyday use such that is has little distinction from “death camp”.

Auschwitz-II, also known as Birkenau, most definitely was a death camp. It’s where the gas chambers were, it’s where the railway tracks led, along which the cattle trucks stuffed full of human beings would travel. I’ll try to refer to this as Birkenau throughout what follows. This is in-line with the official website which refers to “two parts of the former camp: Auschwitz and Birkenau”.

Getting there

There are plenty day tours departing from Krakow, or you can easily make your own way there, which is what I did. The train from Krakow Glowny station to Oswiecim (this is the Polish spelling of the town of Auschwitz) takes about an hour and a half, and from the station Auschwitz-I is about a mile away. It’s signposted from the station, and (without wanting to sound glib) it’s the only reason that people come here so just follow anybody else who looks like a tourist. As with any other site that attracts a lot of visitors, get there early. It’s not going to be quiet first thing, but it will be as quiet as it’s ever going to get.

All the photos below have been shrunk, click on each for full size.

Entry is free, and after going through the visitor centre, this is the first view to greet you. These served as staff and troop accommodation.

You enter Auschwitz-I itself under the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign (work sets you free), which strangely I found to be rather small, and not as imposing and intimidating as I had expected. Still something about it that makes the blood run a bit cold though.

The main camp at Auschwitz-I, which was originally a military barracks complex before the war.

Auschwitz-I consisted of 28 blocks, many of which now serve as individual museums to each country who lost citizens in the camp, supplementing other blocks which are now museums dedicated to the Roma, medical experiments, the rise of fascism, etc. Photography isn’t allowed inside these buildings.
One exhibit in one of these museums that really affected me was a simple pile of hundreds of metal spectacle frames. I remember a similar exhibit affecting me in the Holocaust Exhibition in London’s Imperial War Museum. I think it’s cos I’m lucky enough not to have to wear glasses, that I look at these and think “you bastards, these poor people can’t even see properly, and yet you take their glasses off them, which must make them even more scared than they are already”.
Other exhibits in the same vein include a pile of shoes, and really creepily a massive bundle of human hair. But it was the pile of spectacle frames that really hit me hard, for some reason.

The “Death Wall” (destroyed by the retreating German forces and now rebuilt) between blocks 10 and 11. This is where summary executions took place, as well as executions after “trials” in block 11, seen on the right of this photo. Thousands of people will have been murdered at this spot.

Das Karankenhaus – literally “the hospital”. More darkly known as The Crematorium Waiting Room.

Gallows in the parade ground, where prisoners would be publicly hanged for the most minor indiscretions.

Barbed wire is everywhere in the camp, and note the watch tower at the far end.

Another set of gallows used by the Nazis, in the part of the camp where the Gestapo were based. The last time these gallows were used was after the war was over, when the first camp commandant, Rudoph Hoess, was hanged here in 1947 (NB not Rudolph Hess, who was Hitler’s erstwhile deputy, and who flew to Scotland in 1941 on an alleged “peace mission” and saw out his days in Berlin’s Spandau prison).

Crematorium number 1, destroyed by the retreating German forces but now rebuilt. Photography is forbidden inside, because inside here is another location where tens of thousands were murdered and their bodies incinerated.
These signs prohibiting photography didn’t stop one tourist taking photos with a flash when I was inside there. And whilst I can’t think of anywhere in the world where it would be less appropriate to hit anybody than in the crematoria at Auschwitz, he would have deserved it (and yes, I’m fully aware of the grotesque irony of saying this about a place which is now a memorial against violence and intolerance).

The main entrance to Birkenau (aka Auschwitz-II). This is where most of the Jews would have come, along these very train tracks, and unlike is depicted in many films they would never have seen the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign outside Auschwitz-I.

It was very hard to get a picture of Birkenau without thick tourists posing alongside it, like it’s the entrance to bloody Disneyland!

Wooden huts, very few of these survive now (indeed, these may have been rebuilt). All that survives of most of the wooden huts are the brick chimneys used for heating.

Inside Birkenau it’s just vast, huts as far as you can see ….

…. as well as watch towers every so often.

The main entrance looking back from inside the camp.

Many wooden huts were destroyed, all that’s left now are the brick chimneys seen here.

More chimneys from huts that were either destroyed by the retreating German forces, or by the elements in the decades since.

This section of the camp was used to house the subjects of medical experiments, including those carried out by the infamous Dr Josef Mengele.

A cart outside one of the huts. It wouldn’t be horse-drawn, it would be prisoner-drawn.

Yet more chimneys – hopefully giving an idea of the scale of the camp. It must be about a kilometre square.

This is the one single photo that I took inside (technically you’re not supposed to). Each “square” would sleep eight people on bare boards, covered in straw or filthy thin cloth. Each is triple height, so 24 would seep from floor to ceiling. Which means that in this photo here we would see more than 200 people trying to exist in appalling conditions, in huts with no foundations and no insulation.

Note that the floor now is covered in a thin layer of concrete, back when the camp was active the floor would have been mud.

More chimneys, from wooden huts that are no longer there.

The pond behind this memorial was where ashes were dumped from crematorium number 2 (we saw number 1 earlier on, in Auschitz-I). The inscription reads:

“To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. Here lie their ashes. May their sould rest in peace”.

In Polish, English, Hebrew and Yiddish (I think).

The remains of crematorium number 2, partially destroyed by retreating German forces in attempt to conceal their crimes.

Another view of crematorium number 2. It’s not made clear how much of this dates from 1944, and how much has been restored. As I would have thought that a building that was dynamited in 1945 and then had to bear the brunt of decades of snowy, icy Polish winters, as well as storms and high winds …. well there shouldn’t be much of it left.

Another view of a crematorium partially destroyed by retreating forces.

Looking back along the train tracks, from the end of the camp with the crematoria, towards the camp entrance.

Crematorium number 3, again, partially destroyed.

Crematorium number 3, in the foreground are the set of steps the victims would descend to be “disinfected”, beyond that the remains of the gas chamber, and at the far end are the ovens.

Crematorium number 4 – very little remains of this.

Crematorium 4 again.

The final crematorium, number 5.

Pond behind crematorium number 4, into which ashes from the ovens would be poured.

And that’s as much as there is to see. It took me all day to go round, I got on a bus back to Krakow about 4 in the afternoon (it was in the car park, and easier than walking back to the station). I walked from where the bus dropped me off to the place I was staying (about 2km away), I got into bed, and slept for about 14 hours. I didn’t have nightmares, nothing like that, I slept like a baby. Looking back I must have been absolutely emotionally exhausted.


The next day

I had a couple of days to myself in Krakow, there were more sights (sites?) from WWII that I wanted to get round to seeing.

These are the entrance gates to what was Oskar Schindler’s factory, and then the factory itself.

On the outskirts of Krakow, is Plaszow concentration camp. Not much of it remains, but I wanted to come here to see what I could.

Remember the distinction I made above, that a concentration camp is not an extermination camp. In Nazi parlance, Plaszow was definitely a concentration camp.

I also said above that anybody unfortunate enough to find themselves in a concentration camp still had a pretty horrible life, well remember early on in Schindler’s List, when we’re introduced to Ralph Fiennes’ character taking pot-shots at camp inmates with a rifle for fun? That happened at Plaszow.

Plaszow is completely overgrown now, and apart from the sign in the previous photo you wouldn’t know that you were walking on what is basically the scene of a war crime.

I don’t know if this is a natural feature, or whether it was a mine or a quarry that was worked by the prisoners. I have no idea.

The only building I could find anywhere on the site, so I presume that they must be something to do with the camp.

Another view of the only remaining building. I don’t know when the barbed wire fenceposts date from – they look like being from the same era as the ones I saw at Auschwitz.

Looking back to the modern city of Krakow.


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