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Visiting Auschwitz, the Nazi horror camps

This week I finally ticked off another one of my Erasmus’ goals, visiting Auschwitz!

If you are expecting something extremely depressing (though that would be just really odd), I highly recommend you to visit these camps during Winter, as in Spring most likely only the museum and stories will shock you. To be honest, I felt like the place is a bit too “tourist oriented“. All trees are perfectly shaped, the grass is perfectly cut and everything looks in great condition. I even saw people eating on the grass like if they were having a picnic… Very disrespectful from my point of view though…

DISCLAIMER: This is the translation of an old article published long time ago. My perception about these events changed considerably. I tried to keep my opinions as neutral as possible, without going out of the original article. I wrote it with a total different mindset back then.

Auschwitz II - Birkenau
Auschwitz II – Birkenau

Auschwitz I

Auschwitz I, the main center, was where all the head staff was based, even though this was more an administrative center, it was also where most of the horrifying tortures took place. We saw a documentary here with real images from the liberation, and how they were found… This was probably the part where I felt more uncomfortable with, seeing how some children were found after being tortured… Not for the not for faint of heart…

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For Auschwitz I you don’t need a guide, there are information everywhere explaining everything, and if I am not mistaken, you can get in free of charge to all buildings. Though, since I always had the guide, I could be wrong with this. For Auschwitz II – Birkenau, you really need a guide, which will explain to you every single detail of those horror camps.

This was the first concentration camp in Auschwitz, as it’s obvious by the name. At first there were people living next to the barracks, but since Polish people were considered as extremists against the SS, they removed everyone living on a radius of 40 km. To which the Nazis called a zone of interest.

The Auschwitz I crematorium wasn’t built with the intent of being a tool of mass murder, but instead to get rid of the bodies of executed prisoners. Only later it became a tool to burn the victims of the gas chambers, with the capability of burning around 340 bodies in 24 hours.

The first execution using Zyklon B was also in Auschwitz I as an experiment. Which resulted in being used as a tool of mass murder in rooms converted into gas chambers.

Auschwitz II – Birkenau

About Auschwitz II, my experience was totally different, and way more realistic…, even though it was Spring and everything was green, there was no mown grass alike Auschwitz I. I was a bit shocked (not to stay disappointed) with what I saw, with an area so tourist-oriented. Though, it is a place that will touch everyone’s heart and soul.

Visiting Auschwitz, the Nazi camps of death
Visiting Auschwitz, the Nazi camps of death

I took a long while to visit Auschwitz, while I was living in Germany, but the fact that I learnt some german prior to that, it kind of helped me to understand some parts of it, for example, what was written on the walls of the horse stables (where the prisoners used to sleep). Understand some of those things gave me chills…

I also did a short stop in Krakow, where I met by chance some of my Erasmus’ friends from Dresden, also visiting the city. It was a really nice surprise. And about the city? I barely had time to visit it, maybe I’ll come back another day.

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The experience in Auschwitz II is quite different, as soon as you start to understand how the prisoners were living everything changes. They lived in barracks, up to 4 people per “bed”, with a space of about a square meter per person. Their belongings were taken away from them as soon as they arrived at the camp. According to the Nazis philosophy, they should live with the minimum required.

The prisoners had to live in those barracks while they were building them themselves. And not only that, during the night they had to do several line ups. This lead to several of them dying from hypothermia, starvation and exhaustion .

There were 4 crematoriums and 1 gas chamber, of which the prisoners used to call the pink house due to its bricks. The new prisoners arrived at the gas chamber, which had a sign with the words “Disinfection” in German. They had to remove all their clothes, and they would get into the chamber which had shower heads not connected to anything to create the illusion that it was really for disinfection. And from there, the Nazis would throw big quantities of Zyklon B from some chimneys to the chamber. It was the prisoners’ body head that accelerated the gasification of the crystals which would lead to their death.


How to get to Auschwitz?

The best way might really be using a tour, you’ll have everything included and everything organized for you. Krakow is the closest city, so I recommend to book accommodation there, and then just go with a tour to Auschwitz.

If you want to go on your own, you can either go by bus or by train. The town where Auschwitz is is called Oświęcim, the pronunciation is very similar to Auschwitz, it seems that the Germans didn’t know how to pronounce it properly, hence the name Auschwitz…

You can either take a train or go by bus to Oświęcim, the connections from Krakow are really good.

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By Gil Sousa

Portuguese expat in Cork, traveler and food enthusiastic.

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