detour: to a place we can never forget

Krakow is a cosmopolitan city with a bright outlook for the future. Young Poles laugh and mingle on the streets, attend concerts in underground bars, drink coffee at outdoor cafes and spend their days walking and shopping through the city’s charming streets. This exuberant city bears little resemblanse  to the Krakow of 1939. In September of that year Nazi Germany and the new General Government stormed the city as they invaded the whole of Poland. Krakow Jews, who once held prominent positions and garned much respect in Krakow society were forced into labor and degradation. Synagogues were closed, and all Jewish relics and items of value were turned over to Nazi authorities.

The Krakow Ghetto was formally established in March of 1941. Displaced families called the squalid conditions home until they were ultimately deported to the now infamous German concentration camps. The most notorious of which was Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was Germany’s largest and only 50 kilometers away from the Jewish ghetto hub in Krakow. The camp was dedicated by Germany’s Minister of the Interior, SS Heinrich Himmler, as “the final solution to the Jewish question in Europe”. Within the barbed borders of the extermination complex 1.3 million people died (90% of whom were Jewish), a death toll greater than at any single World War II site.

The Holocaust is easily regarded as the darkest period in modern European, and Poland’s history. Tourists flock to Europe to visit the places and locations where the World War II atrocities once took place. These memorials and sites that now dot the European backdrop have become the epitome of a mounting wave in tourism.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex is as imposing a space, as its’ history is a horrifying one. Visitors are immediately aware that they are not merely at a site associated with death, disaster and depravity but rather are at the actual site of death, disaster and depravity. After purchasing their tickets, visitors are instructed to sit through a rightfully depressing video recounting the horrors that took place under the ground their very feet lay on. Upon finally emerging from the darkness of the theater and into the light, one steps foot onto the hallowed ground and somberly wait for their guide. Once sorted (much like the actual victims) and separated by language, groups of tourists begin their journey through the death camp, stopping first at the camps most notorious landmark. “Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Will Set You Free)” marks the entrance to Auschwitz I and has become engrained in modern minds as the entrance to proverbial hell. The visitor is immediately transformed from that of sole tourist to active participant, the memorial “thing” converted into an actual memory. The three hour tour continues through the barracks to the gallows and then on to the chambers. Exhibitions along the way retell the horrors of the buildings and the stories of the lives that were taken there.

The atrocities that took place at Auschwitz are hard to imagine and my words can hardly do justice to history that occurred there. Instead, I hope, my pictures from my recent visit can do a better job.

Visitors waiting for their tour to begin at the camp’s famous gateway to death. “Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Shall Set You Free)” was the pinnacle in Nazi deception for the freedom that supposedly awaited those who worked hard enough.

The original sign was stolen in 2009 by a Swedish Neo-Nazi leader. Recovered shortly there after, but in three pieces not one, the original is no longer on display.

The three hour tour takes tourists through a block of barracks at Auschwitz I.

Exhibitions within the barracks relay the history of World War II, Auschwitz-Birkenau and the victims of the Third Reich.

The ashes of 1.3 million people.

One of the 1.3

Luckily for history, the Germans were incredible documentarians. Detailed records and photographs of their actions were meticulously maintained and organized throughout the war. The walls of Auschwitz now bare these same images, but instead of an exaltation of the violence that took place there, serve as an explicit reminder to the atrocities at Auschwitz and throughout Nazi occupied territories. Above: victims forced to leave their homes, deported to concentration camps, families forever separated and the burning bodies of those that would never return.

The 1.3 million murdered were owners of 1.3 million suitcases and 1.3 million pairs of shoes. Not ones to waste, the Germans kept the belongings of the victims. Today, piles and piles of these goods remain. The material objects reflect the signs of the lives they once belonged to.

As if warning the prisoners was really going to save them

Barbed and electrified wire surrounds everything at Auschwitz I.

While Auschwitz I is filled with barracks and buildings, it is the massive barren landscape of Birkenau that articulates the vast death of the Nazi extermination camp policy. Seemingly endless acres of desolate land are devoid of life, an immediate reminder of the lives that were lost on the very same hallowed ground. The mood at Birkenau is decidedly somber, with death seeming to linger in the air.

An original railcar used in the mass deportations. Made for 50, they railcars were filled with a minimun of 150 occupants, many of whom were dead on arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The rail system utilized by the Nazi’s was key to their program of extinction, allowing for the masses to be transported easily and in gross volumes.

Birkenau

Though a somber trip, the journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau is an important one. Through the visiting of the concentration camp and other World War II sites and memorials, we work to ensure what took place there is never forgotten.

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Numerous operators in Krakow offer transport packages to visit the camps at Oswiecim and can generally be booked day of. For those driving, the city is only 50 kilometers from Krakow and is easily reachable in roughly an hour. All visitors to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum must join a guided tour. Tours run hourly between 10:30 AM- 3:30 PM in the winter and every half hour during the summer from 9:30 AM- 3:30 PM. Guided tours are available in Polish, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Czech and Slovak and cost 40 zł for all languages other than Polish which is only 25 zł.  If needed guided groups will also be created for tourists speaking Russian, Swedish, Serbian, Croatian, Japanese and Hungarian.

For information on the State Museum or history of Auschwitz-Birkenau visit the official museum site.

Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, ul. Wieźniów Oświęcimia 20, 32-603 Oświęcim, Poland, +48 33 844 8100/8099/8000

(Entrance to the Museum and the parking lot for visitors is located at Stanisławy Leszczyńskiej Str. no. 11). 

*feature image by Joe Gledhill

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