I am still working through my thoughts about visiting the Auschwitz-birkenau death/concentration camps but I can share some insights about the logistics of visiting the place (I.e. the far easier stuff) and, during that process, some initial raw thoughts:
– The trip did, as promised, take most of the day. Prepare to be exhausted, physically (especially if you are walking long distances in the seering sun, as we were). And exhausted emotionally. The bus ride there took about 1 hour 20 minutes, each way. The tour takes about 3.5 hours, the first two at Auschwitz, the last at Birkenau nearby (shuttle bus transport provided.)
– No need to join a tour group to visit. It’s not hard to visit on your own.
– We.took a bus from Krakow’s main bus station north of Old Town directly to the site, now a museum. The Train doesn’t leave as frequently and doesn’t go directly to the museum but instead to the town of Oswiecim, the town where Auschwitz is located.
– You buy your bus ticket on the bus from the driver. Exact change not needed. (This would have been helpful to know. Instead we stood unnecessarily in two lines…)
– The bus comes about twice an hour from what we could tell. The return bus was particularly packed with hot, tired, sometimes cranky travelers.
– The place was swamped with visitors but mainly well organized after some initial chaos. People are divided into large groups, by language, and led through both camps with a guide. We also received headsets so we could hear the guide better. Our guide was informative, as expected, and more caustic than expected, clearly repulsed by what he was showing us but convinced of the need to show us. Hard, strange job to have.
– Our English speaking group had only a few Americans. most people were from other European countries. There was also a family from Israel with three elementary school age children. I was surprised by how many children were there. Not sure I would bring my kids when they were grade school age. The guide told parents not to bring their kids into certain rooms and the parents complied.
– There were many very sad and disturbing things on display…piles of abandoned suitcases, the keys of people who locked the doors to their homes when they were deported (thinking they would return), huge piles of human hair, human ashes, photos of emancipated people and their pitiful daily food ration, the large model of the gas chamber and the chilling detail about its efficient design and operation. What got me most, in a tangible emotional way, was anything to do with children – the discarded baby clothes, the haunting “official” Nazi photos of children, some eyes almost lifeless, some eyes too full of life and clouded with tears.
-Do not skip,the Birkenau visit. It is a particularly haunting and moving place that in some ways matched my preconceptions about death/concentration camps even more than Auschwitz, with its vast size (25 times the size of auschwitz); long abandoned railroad track leading from the imposing dark brick building st the gate deep into the camp which has some remaining barracks but also the burnt out shells of many burned out others; the swampy lagoon containing the ashes of so many murdered people; the dark chicken coop like barracks for human beings with rows of worn three level bunks where people were packed like sardines (or chickens) into each level. Hard. Wood. Primitive. Barbaric. Dehumanizing. Unfathomable. Heartbreaking. Evil.
– Go even if you don’t really want to and aren’t sure you can bear it. You will be glad in the end that you and some many others bore witness; that it is there for people to see. It has to be seen to be believed, even if its hard to see or believe or understand.