An hour and a half drive from Krakow are the World War Two concentration camps of Oświęciem, Auschwitz and Birkenau. These camps have been relatively untouched, so with a few exceptions, what visitors see is basically what the liberating Soviet Army found in 1944.
I took a guided tour in English, complete with a headset that amplifies the voice of the tour guide so that they can be heard while still maintaining a respectful quiet.
I was first brought through the camp of Auschwitz, which is relatively small. We walked through the prisoner barracks, where 700-800 people were kept in in a few small rooms. I walked in the execution area, in a courtyard between barracks, where hundreds faced the wall while they were shot. I saw the prison for the misbehaving prisoners, including cells specified for starvation, for standing 24 hours a day for weeks on end, and the “dark” cells with no windows and no oxygen. I saw the main gate, inscribed with “Work sets you free.” I saw piles of shoes and glasses and brushes and pots and human hair that looks just like mine.
I heard the numbers. 4,000 shoes in 5 days. 1500 killed in just one fill of the gas chamber. Half a million Hungarian Jews murdered in 54 days once the Germans realized they were losing the war. I was in the undressing room where the condemned unknowingly prepared to die. I walked through the gas chamber, looking up at the holes in the ceiling where the cyanide was poured in. I saw the furnaces where the masses were disposed of, erased from existence.
I heard the incredible stories of the few survivors. I heard the fates of the millions who arrived and never left.
Everything is presented in a very respectful and detached manner — this is a museum, and a memorial to the millions of people who were murdered in this systematic killing machine the Nazis invented.The most poignant thing was just how efficient the Nazis were. Meticulous records, organization, and brilliant efficiency were all used to murder the innocent.
After about two hours in Auschwitz, the tour group took the shuttle to Birkenau, the other main death camp. Most history classes and books lump Auschwitz and Birkenau together, but in reality, they were two distinct places about ten minutes apart, and Birkenau was the worst of the two.
Birkenau is much bigger. Each barrack held hundreds of triple bunk beds, holding 5-6 people per bunk. The gas chambers held 1500 people instead of 300, like the chambers at Auschwitz.
The selection of those fit to work and those only fit to die was held where I walked. The separation of women from their children was held where I walked. Henrik Himmler and so many other terrible historical figures gave orders where I stood.
The tour shows the remains of the gas chambers and crematoriums that the Germans tried to destroy in case of war crime accusations, which are preserved exactly how the soviets found when the camp was liberated. The tour shows where the since-burned child-medical-experiment building was held. And it leaves you in front of the international memorial to the victims of the senseless, efficient, killing machine.
Of the things I saw in Poland, the Oświęciem concentration camps were the most moving. For anyone mature enough to understand the significance of what happened at that sight, the visit and the tour are a must-do.