If any place name suggest ‘horror’ more than the former concentration camp in Poland, I can’t think of it. What a horrible, horrible place it was. How could humanity ever have stooped so low as the Nazis did under Adolf Hitler in the final years of WWII?
A visit to Auschwitz is essential for anyone who wants to understand the history of the 20th Century. There are many people in the world these days who have lived charmed lives, free of poverty, free of war and free of any form of persecution. Some of them even think they are ‘doing it tough’! They need to visit Auschwitz and then reflect again on their situation.
As many as 6 million Jews were wiped out by Hitler and the Nazis, in their ‘Final Solution’. More than a million Jews were exterminated at Auschwitz. They used a pesticide called Zyklon-B in the gas chambers. Others died from starvation, infectious diseases, medical experiments and execution. More died with them, but in much smaller numbers: prisoners-of-war, gypsies, displaced people from other European nations and homosexuals.
There are a number of options for visiting Auschwitz. If you are in Krakow you can join any of a number of tours at various levels of ‘luxury’. These can be arranged at tourist offices, hotels, travel agents or even negotiated on the street, especially near the railway station or bus station.
We caught a mini-bus from the main bus station for approximately $4. If you do the same, just make sure you are early enough to get a seat, or wait for the next bus, because it’s a long way to have to stand up, especially if you are tall. And don’t buy a return ticket because it will only be valid on the same bus with the same driver.
There are two sections on the standard tour, Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The ‘museums’ themselves are absolutely free, but you can join a tour for approximately $13 which includes a bus link between the 2 sections. We would highly recommend this option! If you arrive after about 10am, because of the crowds, you must be on a tour anyway. You are free to look on your own before 10 and again after the conclusion of the tour. There is a also a film shown in the theatre, but the languages are rotated so we saw ours in German. We still got its message loud and clear.
Our tour guide was a wiry, middle-aged woman of Jewish background, who was extremely knowledgeable, informative and well-spoken. She took our group of approximately 25 through all of the main sections of the 2 camps. We wore ear-phones which worked very well and we trudged around for more than two hours, with her commentary adding extra meaning to what our eyes took in. It was horrific, chilling, sometimes upsetting, but compelling.
Some of the more confronting images were the specialized cells for punishment and torture, rooms containing personal items of the victims, particular photographs that formed part of the display, and a huge amount of hair that was taken from the victims for re-cycling purposes. We also saw the site of various medical experiments that were conducted, using Jews, particularly twins, as human guinea-pigs. The toilet facilities that they endured were particularly confronting. Because of the filth, stench and risk of disease, the German soldiers did not enter this area. So the workers, as they regularly shoveled out the gigantic pit of human waste, waist-deep in excrement, were able to speak more freely in there than anywhere else on the site.
It led one Jewish survivor to remark, “Shovelling shit at Auschwitz was the best job I ever had in there.”
It certainly would have been preferable to removing the bodies of friends and family from the gas chambers!