This morning after we left our rooms and ate breakfast, the entire group waited for the bus at 8:30. The bus came on time and we walked onto the bus to take a trip towards Auschwitz concentration camp. It would be another hour before we would arrive so our guide played a related fifty minute video about the history of Auschwitz which gave us insight into what we would see in the museum. While riding, we took in the Polish countryside as we passed by houses, forests, local stores and billboards posting different prices in Polish currency.
We arrived at the museum early and had to wait for our groups to be called. The waiting area contained multiple items for sale including post cards, books and movies while there were individual vending machines containing a range of candy bars and sodas.
When our group was called, we entered a hallway where they told us to take a headset and transmitter so we could hear the tour guide. We then started the tour with our guide showing and telling us about the gate and the tragically ironic German phrase, “Arbeit Macht Frei” which means in English, “Work Sets You Free.” We then entered the camp itself, seeing all of the brick buildings with some serving as exhibits for tourists.
Going through these buildings, we were able to look into the living conditions, the history of the camp itself and how the prisoners were treated. Personally, a few of the most moving exhibits were the room filled with human hair, mainly female, all removed before they were sent to the gas chambers; the basement where prisoners were shoved into rooms where the guards would either leave them to starve or suffocate to death; and the courtyard where they would privately execute prisoners. (We did not take photos of the hair or death chambers out of respect for the victims, but the photo with a small metal box shows the only window into the suffocation chamber.)
Finally we were led toward Crematorium I, the only crematorium that was not destroyed by the Nazis. The small building held four rooms: One was the entrance, the second room served as a gas chamber, the third was the furnace room and the last was the exit. We walked through the small building in silence. (Below are photos of the smoke stakes of the crematorium.)
After we walked through Auschwitz we removed our headsets and transmitters and returned to the bus. We drove to Auschwitz II, Birchenau, just a few minutes away. Birkenau was much, much larger than Auschwitz I. It was filled with buildings and vacant areas where other buildings used to stand. The entrance had the main guard tower where a huge tent is being built in order to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. We walked through one building made for the prisoners where they slept on straw and the building contained little to no heating in the winter.
We then returned to the bus, thanked our tour guide and rode back to our hotel.
Taking a tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau was an incredible experience. It helped me to understand that humans are capable of such heinous acts of genocide and the importance of understanding history. This experience is one that I will remember the rest of my life.