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.
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.
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