Auschwitz (and Birkenau) with a Million Dead Jews

I’ve seen more than a few memorable things in my time – Machu Picchu, Petra, the Grand Canyon and New York City from the air – but my visit last week to Auschwitz, an hour’s train ride from Kraków, Poland, will live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.

I’ll be honest, I walked through that iconic “arbeit macht frei” gate of the Auschwitz main camp and saw the brick buildings and I thought, “Well, this isn’t so bad. I’ve seen more unpleasant boarding schools.”

Arbeit Macht Frei Gate at Auschwitz

Yeah, sure, there’s guard towers and barbed wire but every authoritarian regime needs some method of control; the Nazis used guard towers, the NYPD have a “go nuts” policy with tasers. Everyone’s different.

It’s the “exhibitions” they have set up inside some of the buildings – and the whole place is entirely free entry, as it should be – that are the emotive heart of the main camp. I’m of the Internet generation and I’ve seen my share of weird, disgusting stuff at /b/ and /r/spacedicks (out of curiosity rather than regular visits, I hasten to add), but seeing the hair collected from an estimated 140,000 victims in a huge pile behind a glass display case is way more disturbing. There’s a plaque at the exhibit saying that forensic tests showed that the hair contained traces of hydrogen cyanide. You know, from the gas chambers.

In the other exhibitions at Auschwitz I (the main camp), there’s a collection of shoes, a collection of suitcases, and photos of individuals and families forced to the camp. They’re going for the personal connection, making you think that “woah, they were normal people, just like me if I was Jewish and lived in Poland.”

But for me, getting a sense of the scale of what happened is better for giving a yank on my heartstrings, which you can get from a visit to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. There’s a free shuttle bus that runs between the two sites and you’ll get off at Birkenau to be greeted by that iconic gate you’ve seen in countless movies and documentaries.

Gate at Auschwitz - Birkenau

Although in most documentaries, there’s not normally a garish American tourist getting in everyone’s way. I guess Spielberg has someone edit them out or something.

Step through the gate and you can start to see how bleak a place Birkenau is. The train track runs towards some trees a mile past the gate and then it just stops. The end of the line, in more ways than one.

Train Track at Birkenau

Auschwitz-Birkenau Train Track

It’s easy to imagine there might’ve been a “Welcome” sign there somewhere back in the day as families stepped off the train to be escorted to the cabins in which they’d spend their remaining days.

Auschwitz - Birkenau Cabins

Then, of course, there’s the gas chambers themselves, dynamited in a hurry by the Nazis before the end of the war to try and cover up some of what they were doing, which is kind of like trying to fight off a tsunami with a couple of plastic buckets. Silly Germans.

Gas Chamber at Auschwitz - Birkenau

Auschwitz is somewhere worth visiting, that’s for sure. If you’re a student of the humanity, are interested in world history or have a hair fetish, you simply have to visit. Leave right now. Just go already. But if you’re thinking about a romantic weekend away for you and your special someone, you might want to stick to Paris or Venice, although if you were considering Auschwitz as a vacation spot, I don’t want to know what you get up to in the bedroom. Sick freaks.

Note: apologies for the lack of posts guys. I’m not a full-time traveller so I was always going to run out of interesting material at some point. There should be a few more from this trip posted soon though. Look out for them!

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15 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you for this post.

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  2. At the Imperial War Museum in London they have a small scale model of Auschwitz and some of the personal belongings in glass cases. Like a really small version of what you described about the piles of hair. Very harrowing. They have a model of one of the train carts too, which you walk through as part of the exhibition. I can’t even imagine what actually being there feels like.

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    1. ambigram0 says:

      Ooh, thanks for the information. Might have to check that out next time I’m down in London – I studied there for two years but I never wanted to the Imperial War Museum.

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      1. It’s brilliant. Definitely make the trip. The holocaust exhibition is always there but the other stuff rotates so there’s always something good to see. I saw an exhibition about food during the war. It was really interesting.

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  3. justmusing says:

    At Yad Vashem in Jerusalem a train cart was placed on a cliff to symbolize what you describe here as the end of the rail way trail; the Holocaust.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    When I saw the email notification pops up I was ready to exclaim ‘Really? Comedy? Auschwitz?’. Thanks for maintaining the integrity of both subjects.

    I was in Poland during Easter weekend (given its recency, we might even have cross shoulders at some point!) and main aim was to visit the camp. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise how religious people from Poland were. There was no public bus service on that Easter weekend when I was in Krakow, and when I made a dash to the train station for an alternative transport, was told that the last train left 10 minutes ago. There were of course organised tours for tourists for that, but I stuck to my principles of joining them. Never to a place like Auschwitz.

    This is truly one of my greatest travel regrets, but it simply beckon another visit to this amazing country.

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    1. ambigram0 says:

      Well, I’m glad I was there a few days before Easter weekend, that’s for sure. Public transport can be incredibly unpredictable when it comes to holidays. And I definitely agree about guided tours – they might be useful in terms of information but they’d effectively be telling you how to feel, which is entirely unnecessary.

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  5. Very Descriptive Overview of your visit. Sounds like a cold eerie place. I know I will never visit, because I am a complete chicken and it would get in on my head and wreck it, I know it is just self preservation. For now all I can do is pray for the souls that died there.

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  6. A tricky business – juxtaposing the horror of Auschwitz with humor. You did so tastefully well. Nicely done.

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  7. Just looking at the pictures makes my hair stand on end. I don’t know if I could handle going to the actual location.

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  8. Great post, thank you for sharing your experience of such a heavy subject with considered respectful humour. Definitely a tribute to your literary skills.

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  9. vishalbheeroo says:

    Love the way u described beautifully ur travel on the blog::)
    Vishal
    http://www.vishalbheeroo.wordpress.com

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  10. Auschwitz is one of the top places on my to go list

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