Disclaimer: This post might be disturbing and triggering to some. I debated writing it, but I think it is important to talk about. I also really believe that there is a responsible and an irresponsible way to visit and respect sights like this. I highly urge all of my readers to behave responsibly in a place like this. Irresponsible tourism can be deeply insulting to those who died here.
Auschwitz. Growing up in a Jewish household, that was a place I knew of. I learned about the Holocaust at a young age from both my parents and my school, which had a mandatory Holocaust education curriculum. But from the relative safety of the United States in the 80s and 90s, Auschwitz and other concentration camps simply evoked the horrors of the past. Every year Holocaust survivors came to my school to recount their tragic stories, firsthand. Stoically, my classmates and I would listen as they talked about Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, amongst others. They were places that, while I had a family history there, I had no desire to see firsthand. After all, vacations were supposed to be fun. Why would I want to go to Europe to spend my time somewhere like that?
And for years, I resisted. I made every excuse not to visit a camp such as I had studied the Holocaust and heard about it directly from survivors. Why would I ever want to put myself through that?
Then a series of unfortunate events, starting with my mom becoming very ill with cancer to my mom dying, forced me to reexamine my Jewish roots. In some ways, I liked what I found. In the process of preparing to move to Spain, it came out in a family genetic test that I have Sephardic (Spanish Jewish) ancestry. Knowing that justified my love for Spain. I also learned more about my non-Sephardic family past; how my grandparents both escaped from Eastern Europe, but not everyone in their families/my family was as fortunate as they were, and they were amongst the 12 million Holocaust victims.
Finally, there were no more excuses. I am living in Europe (Spain), have access to cheap flights all over the continent, and had the pull to go to Poland anyway. So the night I booked my flights from Madrid to Krakow, I also booked a timed entry to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was paid for and reserved, and there would be no backing out.
I purposely saved this for my last full day in Krakow. I figured I would see the most depressing thing in the world and then fly home to sunny Spain. On my first day in Krakow, I took a fabulous free Jewish history walking tour. My guide, who had the perfect mixture of interesting storytelling and solemn respect, led us through Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter while explaining the history of Jews in Poland. To my surprise, it was not all grim. At one time, Poland welcomed Jews with open arms, Jews who had been cast away from other countries (such as my beloved Spain) due to inquisitions and being the scapegoats for the plague. Poland was the promised land, the paradise.
Krakow had a thriving Jewish community, centered in Kazimierz. But that all changed with the invasion of the Nazis. As we crossed the Vistula River to the neighborhood of Podgórze, the Jewish Ghetto, our guide told us about the day the orders were received for all Jews to relocate into just a few square blocks. Not much remains of the old Jewish Ghetto, but as we walked the streets, we learned about horrific and cramped living conditions, fear, mass executions, and finally, the liquidation of the ghetto. The walking tour ended in the square with the Jewish Ghetto Memorial. And that is also where the story of the ghetto ended before the Jews of Krakow were carted off to concentration camps and extermination camps.
So I thought I was emotionally prepared for my visit to Auschwitz, which was two days later. I had already seen the Killing Fields in Cambodia. Hiroshima in Japan. The Apartheid Museum and Robben Island in South Africa. In my mind, I was ready for this. But damnit, was I ever wrong.
Waking up the morning of my Auschwitz visit, I told myself that this was going to be a hard day. I used the 45-minute walk from my Airbnb to the Krakow bus station where I’d catch the bus to the town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz in Polish) to try to mentally prep myself. On the bus to Oświęcim, I kept glancing out the window thinking to myself that this same route, but by rail, was the final journey that so many would make. I could not begin to fathom how terrifying the unknowing had to be.
Upon arrival at the museum and memorial in Oświęcim, or Auschwitz itself, I was a bit disheartened to see cafes and gift shops. But with a closer glance, I saw that the gift shops mainly sold books, which seemed better. Education is important. I had about a half an hour before my tour was set to begin, so I sat in front of the infamous gate with the words “arbeit macht frei” (work makes one free in German), and tried to imagine how the prisoners felt entering through that gate.
At 11:30 am prompt my tour began. I was pleased to note that my guide specifically asked us not to take selfies. This has unfortunately become quite the problem at Auschwitz, Instagram “influencers” posing inappropriately in the camp for the sake of likes. Disgusting and disrespectful, and I can not imagine how anyone thinks this is ok.
The first part of the tour was actually walking through the gate. There are no words to describe the impact that had on me. There were shivers in my spine, butterflies in my stomach, and tears in my eyes.
I will spare you a blow by blow detail of the tour for two reasons. 1) I can’t put into words everything I saw, it was all too much, and 2) I urge you to go see it for yourself. It is really important. But I will highlight a few parts of the tour that had the most impact on me. Seeing the pile of suitcases with names on each of them was rough. Some of the names closely resembled my last name. I learned that at one point everyone was told to carefully label their luggage, as they were assured they would get it back later. Of course, they never got it back. Instead, the Nazis looted it while they were either killed or forced into slave labor. Piles and piles of suitcases all with names and (in some cases) old home addresses. And then there was the crematorium, which was a 24/7 operation due to the number of bodies. But nothing could prepare me for when they walked us into the gas chamber, and several days later, I still have horrific vivid flashbacks of this.
After we finished at Auschwitz they bussed us all over to Birkenau, which was the main extermination camp. It is also where one can find the famous railway tracks. The trains that entered were a one-way ticket to death in most cases. Not much is left of Birkenau. When the Russian front was advancing, the Nazis began to blow it up to try to hide the evidence. And you can only guess (and probably correctly) what happened to all of the prisoners then. There are a few ruins of the massive gas chambers, a well-done memorial in several languages, and a few barracks that still stand. Still, even with very little there, it is not hard to picture the horrors of what occurred on the land. The exact same land that I was standing on over 70 years later. This is where the tour officially ended. But afterward, we were allowed to wander around Birkenau on our own. I did for a little while, but I was also ready to head back to Krakow and (eventually) home to Madrid where I could continue to reflect and digest it all.
All in all, I took exactly two photos, a verticle and horizontal of the same scene. I wanted to listen and take it in. And what was I supposed to do with a collection of Auschwitz photos anyway? They’re all in the books too. Since I visited Auschwitz on a perfectly sunny day, I edited all color out of my photos. The blue sky and green grass made the scene look too cheerful, and that is sure not how I saw it. It was grim and dark, free of all color and happiness.
Days later, I still feel the impact. It was a very hard day, but I am also so grateful that I saw it with my own eyes. And so thankful to be alive now, and not in 1943 in Europe. It was by far the most difficult place I have ever visited during all of my travels. But there are no excuses. It is something I absolutely needed to see, and a place I had so many respects to pay. And that is why I urge you to visit Auschwitz as well. Yes, your day is going to suck. There is no sugar-coating that. No, it is not a day that you will be Instagramming (And if it is, please stop. Seriously, that shit is so disrespectful.) And yes, the memories will most likely terrify you for a long time after you leave the camp. But it is important to see. To witness. And to tell stories about, especially now since most of the survivors have passed. And of course to remember. But of utmost importance, the more who see it, the more who will be impacted by it, and the more who try to assure “never again.” “I can’t do it,” is a cop-out. Yes, you can. And you need to. Auschwitz represents the height of human cruelty, where over a million people were slaughtered based on their religion, ethnic background, sexuality, way of thinking (the resistance was sent there). It is a place everyone really should visit once, at the very least, to pay their respects.
The logistics: You can do an organized day trip from Krakow, but I went on my own. It was cheaper that way and gave me more flexibility. Simply buy a “visit for individuals” timeslot, making sure the language selected corresponds to the language you want the tour to be in, from the official website. From Krakow, you can take a bus (cheaper, more direct, and more times a day) directly to the Oświęcim museum. You can also take a train (less frequent, more expensive) to the town of Oświęcim and walk to the museum from there (20-40 minutes). Make sure to give yourself time to get to the site. For example, my entry was 11:30 am, but I was on a bus that departed Krakow at 9:10 am. The official tour, which includes both Auschwitz and Birkenau, lasts about three hours. But be prepared to make a whole day out of this. Returning to Krakow, the bus leaves every 20-45 minutes from in from of the museum. I highly recommend not making any plans that evening.
My name is Karen & travel is not only my passion but also my profession.