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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!