Exploring Warsaw and Auschwitz & Auschwitz II / Birkenau

By Mike Kerr

When Steven and I were planning annual trip to Europe we knew we were going to be meeting his sister in Berlin, but had a week before to fill in. After visiting Anne Frank House I wanted to explore more of my Jewish heritage and managed to convince Steven that Poland would be a good place to start our trip.

In Warsaw we set off to find the area that was once the Jewish Ghetto, when we got to the area highlighted on our map it was difficult to tell what had taken place in the area. Most of the buildings were in excellent condition, and more than anything it felt like we were in a quiet suburban area with a spattering of shops and restaurants. The one striking feature here was the high brick wall that was marked as a Jewish cemetery and former ghetto wall. Being a trip to explore this side of my heritage we made way for the entrance. While we were making our way around the long wall I started thinking about the day of the week: Saturday. Normally a Saturday is just that, but as a word of advice, when you are going to visit a cemetery that happens to be the burial site of mass numbers of a particular religious group, double check you aren’t going on their day of rest. As it turned out, when we finally made it to the entrance, a Jewish cemetery is closed on Sabbath as funerals are prohibited.

Luckily all was not lost, just around the corner from the cemetery was one of the most beautiful things I have ever stumbled upon. We came across a large stone pillar set within a walled cement base. The sun was rising over the top, making it look like the peak was set ablaze. This memorial to the lives that were lost in the area, standing in its solitude in this far corner of town is something I would say is a must see. It is located on the South side of the cemetery, just outside of the Museum of the Jewish Cemetery Foundation. It is an easy stop if you are heading to the Arkadia mall just up the street, and only about a 25 minute walk to get between the two.

After taking in Warsaw, we departed for Krakow on a quick express train, booking ahead can help get you a seat, but paying the small premium to get into first class easily means an assigned seat, and possibly your own booth. Getting in touch with a travel counselor can make these bookings easy.

Arriving in Krakow, the buildings were 10-fold more colourful and detailed than anything we had seen in Warsaw. As you make your way out of the train station you will be able to tell this is a city saturated not only in history from World War II and the holocaust, but even earlier as well. On any guided tour you will hear about the history of Wawel Hill, its settlement 50 thousand years ago, how Polish leaders found the thriving community an ideal place to take up residence, and the history of Wawel Castle. These tours can also include a trip to the Krakow’s salt mine where you can take a tour underground through 3-kilometres of the mine and see the one of a kind chapels, statues, and underground lake. Among other great sights you must see are Krakow’s squares lined with restaurants, the museum which was once Oskar Schindler’s factory, and the jewellery stores with beautiful amber pieces Krakow is known for.

One of the biggest draws to Krakow is the proximity to Auschwitz and Auschwitz II/ Birkenau. You can choose to find your own way to get to these locations, or you can book one of several guided tours to make things a little easier. With all of the options available, a travel counselor can be a valuable asset to match you with the best tour suited to your needs. The tour Steven and I took started with a history lesson on the bus ride to Auschwitz to familiarize the group with what we would be experiencing. When the bus finally arrives you will be ushered into the entrance hall to be given a headset to listen to your guide through the tour and given a chance to visit a restroom before taking off on the first leg of the tour.

If you have seen any movies about the holocaust you will no doubt recognize the area you walk into outside. A path through a double layered (non-functional) electric fence is adorned with a sign reading “Arbeit macht frei.” For me the effect of standing at the entryway to this camp, actually walking in the footsteps of the prisoners, and feeling almost taunted by the words “Work will set you free” were chilling. I had seen them a thousand times before, but being there with the memory of those who had once walked this same path was surreal. After getting off of the train from their native lands (Greek Jews actually had to purchase their own tickets) prisoners would be sorted and catalogued before entering the camp.

The guide explained as we walked how prisoners were kept in the camp from 1940 on, how prisoners were sent out of the camp daily to work, and a roll call was taken at the beginning and end of each day. If there was anyone missing at the end of the day, the other prisoners would be punished. If a prisoner died while working that day, it was the duty of the others to return the body for roll call at the end of the day. We were told how prisoners with certain skills were “privileged,” for example if one could play a musical instrument they were in charge of playing music to support a calm environment for the camp.

The tour came to Block 11, the camp prison where those who broke one of the camps many rules were punished. You are brought down into a basement where you are led down a dark damp hallway barely wide enough for one person. Along the walls are a variety of cells, the most disturbing being the standing cells. Considered one of the most severe punishments, prisoners would be kept in the cell just big enough to stand up straight in for 3 days or more with minimal food and water.

After leaving Block 11, you are brought outside into a small courtyard with one wall that has been made into a sort of memorial. The guide will explain to you that this is where the punishment of the death penalty was carried out. Prisoners, mostly political and rebellious in nature, and most non-Jews, would be kept in Block 11 where they would await a trial in front of a Gestapo court. The guide explained how most of the people destined to land in the court were considered guilty before the trial which was mostly for show. After sentencing, prisoners disrobed, were led out to the shooting wall in groups and were executed.

The wall you will find here now is a replica, so you won’t find any markings from bullets, or blood, but the reality of what happened here is still striking. Groups of people whose death had been predetermined, were being held just to delay the inevitable, and finally when their time had come, were further degraded before an escape of sorts. There are hundreds of flowers and candles left by countless visitors, and also small stones you will notice adorning the wall. If you have ever been to a Jewish burial site you will be familiar with the practice of leaving stones after a visitation. I personally recommend leaving one whether you are of the faith or not. As it has been explained to me, the stone is not only a mark of your being there, but also taken as a sign that the memories of what has transpired and of those who have been lost to time are not being forgotten, and the memories are in fact growing.

From here you will be brought out to a grassy hill away from the residences. Out the top of the hill is a chimney, and brickwork can been seen bordering the hill. Be prepared for what is coming, I remember this being the hardest part of the tour. Being subterranean the crematorium has a natural chill, the inside of the hill was hollowed out and lined with cement. Prisoners at the camp would remove their clothes and were brought into the the gas chamber, where SS officers wearing gas masks would drop Zyklon-B (a highly toxic pesticide) through four openings in the chamber. Once the group inside the chambered had been exterminated, and the gas vented, other prisoners would sort the clothes, and check for any hidden gold in the mouths of the deceased, and finally the bodies would be cremated.

After leaving the gas chamber you will be given a short break for refreshments before boarding the bus to go to Auschwitz II/ Birkenau. Upon your arrival the bus will park outside the watchtower, recognizable from the train scene in Schindler’s List when the train of women and children was routed there by mistake. Through the gate you will be presented with a long gravel path leading past rows of brick houses on one side which once housed the female prisoners, and with brick chimney’s on your other side where there once stood wooden buildings which housed male prisoners which were burned in an attempt to destroy the evidence.

At the end of the path is a memorial to the millions of lives lost, it comes to you at this point (if not before) how much of an impact this event had on the world, not just the Jews of Europe. In multiple World languages plaques have been left as a beacon of remembrance of what transpired, to prevent history from repeating itself. Stones are also left here, as a similar rite to the shooting wall, which should not to be seen as leaving “dirt” on a plaque. The stones are a sign to those that have passed and those who will come in future, that you in being here, in experiencing this piece of history have grown the memory and kept it alive.

Around the memorial you will see the remains of the crematoriums. One destroyed in an uprising by the Jews in the camp, and the rest ordered demolished and the blown up by SS officials. The size of the ruins of these buildings is jaw dropping, although the hill at Auschwitz I is big, the number and size of the crematoriums overpowers it by far. It really gives scale to the “extermination” carried out by the Nazis, and with such big buildings and so much time it is easy to see how so many people succumbed to them.

After visiting the memorial and ruins, the tour brought us to the stone houses. Once inside it is awful to think of the possibility of living in those conditions. The beds are made of wood planks, and are almost too small for one, let alone many; the overhang of the roof left a large gap between it and the walls, which themselves were not air tight and only one brick thick. In light of the cold, damp conditions, the prisoners were given one small wood stove, and most likely not enough wood to burn in it. The space was frightening overall, and left a horrible feeling about what it would have been like in the wooden shacks if they had been standing.

After a long walk back Steven and I were brought back to Krakow’s downtown area, and it wasn’t really until we left that the weight of what we had experienced hit us. It is something we have noticed with multiple locations, whether they are beautiful like the gardens at Versaille, or darker like the experience here or at Anne Frank House, while on the tour it doesn’t seem to faze most people, but once you leave and actually have time to process the large amounts of information you have just been given you are ready for a good cry, it can take a lot of energy out of you to be in such emotionally rich places, but they are some of my favorite things to do.

Photo Galleries:
Krakow Gallery
Warsaw Gallery
Poland Posts:
The Best Tomato Soup I Have EVER Experienced (and other good eats in Poland)
Warsaw and Kraków, To Jest Piękne.


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