If you visit Krakow, you will most likely decide to include a visit to the most famous concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Unlike Warsaw, Krakow was not damaged during World War II but it was the place of the most cruel human treatment in history. When the German occupation took place in Poland there were about 70,000 Jews living in Krakow. They were imprisoned in a neighborhood they called ‘ghetto’ and were later taken to the concentration camps.
Take a tour
The best way to learn about history is by taking a ‘free walking tours‘ They are offered in several languages. The guides know a lot and live from the tips you give them at the end of the tours. Some tours like the Schindler’s Factory have cost.
I arrived at night after visiting the charming village of Gdansk. The first night I stayed in a hotel in Cracovia but since I was alone, I decided to move to Mosquito Hostel. Hostels are good places to meet other travelers and make plans together. With them I coordinated my tour to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The tour costs between $37 and $47 depending on how many people go. Auschwitz-Birkenau is 75 kilometers west of Krakow. If you go by train or bus it takes between an hour and a half to two hours. It is faster to go by car, since it is only one hour and fifteen minutes. If you go on your own without a guide, you must book in advance as the spots are assigned. It is easier and more informative to have a guided tour, since the place has so much history and that allows you to book last minute. The only good thing about going on your own is that you can stay longer.
More than two million people visit this place per year. It is important to review the opening hours since it varies according to the month of the year.
Upon entering Auschwitz you see the famous sign that says ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ which translated into English means “work will set you free”. That was a big lie. Auschwitz did start as a concentration camp but as it grew to become an extermination camp. Originally the Auschwitz concentration camp was for Polish prisoners. Auschwitz was established in June 1940, about 10 months after the start of the war.
50 million people died during World War II; 12 million were civilians. The plan of the Nazi, which was managed by Heinrich Himmler, was a Germanization of Eastern Europe. The majority of the Slavic population had to be moved or exterminated and six million Jews had to be killed.
On site there is a sign that says that Auschwitz was the Nazi’s largest concentration camp. Between 1940-1945 they sent 1,300,000 people to this place. Of these 1,100,000 were Jews, 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Gypsies, 15,000 Soviet prisoners and 25,000 prisoners of other ethnic groups. 1,100,000 people died, mostly in the gas chambers. 90% were Jews. This number was the conclusion of a study done by Yad Vashem in 1991. If you visit Jerusalem you can go to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.
An inhuman place
I went in May when spring began and everything was green and blooming. Despite being full of tourists there was a silence in the environment and it was difficult to understand that humans did so much damage to other humans in this place .
When they arrived, people received a prisoner’s tattoo, their heads were shaved, they were disinfected and given a uniform. They confiscated their belongings, which can still be seen on site including suitcases, eyeglasses, shoes, brushes and others. 7,000 SS soldiers served the concentration and extermination camps.
Without a doubt the most frightening place was Block 10 called “Krankenbau” or the hospital barrack. Its windows were black to hide the experiments done by the famous doctors Josef Mengele and Carl Clauberg. Block 11 was the prison of the camp where they made the first gas chamber. Between both blocks there is a wall where the prisoners were executed with rifles.
At the edge of the camp there is a place where the Gestapo interrogated and tortured prisoners who were suspected of being part of the resistance. Many died at that site including camp commander Rudolf Hoess who was hanged on April 16, 1947 after being convicted by the Supreme National Court of Poland.
Birkenau was assembled in March and Monowitz in October 1942. In total about 50 sub-camps of Auschwitz were established between 1942-1945. The visit usually includes Auschwitz I and then Birkenau, which is 10 minutes away. It is much larger than Auschwitz but was partially destroyed by the Germans to cover their war crimes just before the liberation in January 1945.
This place gave me more chills than Auschwitz since its entrance has a space where the the train passed transporting thousands of poor souls to their end. You think about the movies you’ve seen with the scene of the Jews being mounted on trains and then you realize that you are where they were taking them.
They still have a cattle-style car where they put too many people without windows, food or water for days. Inside, many died before arriving in Birkenau.
As soon as they arrived they were cataloged, if they were healthy adults they went to work, but if they were children, elderly or sick they went straight to the gas chambers. Four huge gas chambers had the capacity to kill 6,000 people per day using “Zyklon B” made by IG Farben, a company you now know as Bayer.
They told the victims that they were entering a building to shower.
Bayer also paid the concentration camp for healthy women to do experiments. When they were killed, they ordered more.
Birkenau was designed to maintain 125,000 prisoners of war but almost 1.1 million people lived there over the years. You can enter the remaining barracks where you will see how 10 women slept on a wooden board that should have been for three at the most. The winters of Poland are strong and the barracks had no heating.
The Allies knew about these concentration camps but did nothing to stop them like bombing the camps or the railroads. From August 1944 the Germans moved 65,000 prisoners out of Auschwitz to work as slaves. They began to destroy evidence of their crimes such as prisoner records and their valuable belongings. They dismantled the gas chambers and crematoriums except one.
Soviet troops arrived in Krakow in January 1945 and this caused the Germans to move 56,000 people on foot or by rail to the west. These tracks were full of human bodies that died of cold, fatigue or were shot. 9 thousand of the 56 thousand people died in that operation. Only 7,000 prisoners survived to see the liberation of the camps.
Auschwitz was named as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1979. Visiting this site takes about six hours and has a strong emotional impact.