Visiting Auschwitz has always been a dream of mine. Yes, I realize how morbid that must sound, but stay with me. The enormity of the Holocaust is something that has haunted me since I was a child, and I always wanted to have the opportunity to pay my respects at the actual site of these atrocities.
We were able to visit in the spring of 2009. After being pleasantly surprised by the beauty and approachability of Krakow, we took the bus (the actual city is called Oswiecim, or Oz-wee-chem) to visit the memorial. The site is somber, as you might expect, and crowded with grim-faced tourists and school groups committed to honoring the dead by refusing to let these crimes disappear from memory.
When you arrive, you’ll visit Auschwitz I, the original death camp that the Nazis quickly outgrew. Here, you’ll pay your admission, get a map and also secure a tour guide, if you’re interested. There are a great number of historical and religious-based tours that you can take advantage of, but we preferred to travel through the site on our own.
Throughout all our travels, we often discussed “the moment,” that second it all actually hits you and realization dawns that you’re physically thousands of miles away from home — you’re in another country. Usually, it’s a delayed feeling, not one that hits you the second you step off the plane. At Auschwitz, though, it was tangible from the first second, but it was different than we expected, too. It wasn’t simply a feeling of sadness or empathy. Instead, it was overwhelming, leaving the distinct impression that something had clawed its way inside your chest to have a seat on your heart.
There are many images from inside these walls that I feel are too evocative to share through a blog. While this is a reflective and respectful post, sharing some of the photos this way seems disrespectful. I will only encourage you to make the trip there yourself one day.
The second part of Auschwitz, called Auschwitz II-Birkenau, is most likely home to the images that come to mind when you think of concentration camps. It’s huge and barren, lined with miles of barbed wire and stark, desolate cabins. It’s easy to feel claustrophobic, though, even in the vastness of the place. It was, after all, designed to create that feeling in its inhabitants. It’s a long, cold stroll through history on a cloudy day, and the further we ventured into the depths of the camp, the more quiet and solemn we grew. That evening, we had a quiet dinner and turned in early, emotionally exhausted by the day.
At its best, travel is meant to bring an outsider closer to another culture, to allow an individual to appreciate an experience that does not belong to him/her. Visiting Auschwitz offers you a piece of history that is in some ways uniquely Polish, in some ways uniquely European. In a larger sense, it belongs to the Jewish community. But even if you’re unaffiliated with all of the above, what happened at Auschwitz is unfortunately part of the human experience. While it isn’t “fun,” it represents a key moment in history that galvanized the world against evil. It also collectively reminds us that where there is no remembrance, there is repetition. Consider adding such a visit to your next itinerary to add depth and value to your other, more light-hearted, experiences.