This page describes my own impressions of the concentration & extermination camps Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, from my visit there in August 2010. This is not an attempt to give a complete report about the camps and what once happened there but only a brief review of my own visit and my own reflections on the matter.
I have been interested in visiting Auschwitz since I missed the high school trip to Prague and nearby example camp Theresienstadt, in 1994. During my college time there was never enough money or time to realize such a trip either. And when I started working, a few other trips were realized first. But in 2010, me an my girlfriend (now wife) went on a road trip with the old SAAB 900. The goal was Krakow, Poland … if we could make it that far… and we did! … and when we finally arrived to Krakow (the SAAB did its job) we realised we should take the opportunity to go the extra miles to Auschwitz and have a look (Auschwitz/Oswiecim IS really close to Krakow, about 70 km or a little more than an hour by car).
When we arrived in Oswiecim the main road led pretty much directly to Auschwitz concentration camp (Stammlager/Auschwitz I). People living around this main camp competed in offering car parking for various expensive prizes. We parked in someone’s back yard about 500 meters away, I remember. Then we started off at the main camp (Auschwitz I) by ourselves (not with a guided tour).
The main camp, Auschwitz I, doesn’t look very horrific at all. Evidently, the red brick buildings were military barracks originally and the prisoners lived tight and shared sanitary facilities with each other, as is normal in military barracks. It reminded me about a residential area close to where I live (in Sweden) called Jonsereds Fabriker.
My point here is NOT to diminish the horrors of this place. On the contrary, I want to describe that the architecture of this place does not signal death and torture today … and I can imagine that it didn’t do so to the villagers when the camp opened in 1940 either.
Inside the barracks are different exhibitions about the camp life, what happened there, who were the victims and how the camp was used during the war . As rather well informed prior to the visit, it was easy to relate to different items that are displayed but still, for me, it was hard to connect all the testimonies of the horrors of this place, to what was shown in the exhibition. The area seemed so small … and apparently, Auschwitz I was primarily an “ordinary” concentration camp between 1940 and 1942.
After leaving the main camp we walked towards Auschwitz II (Birkenau) which is located about 1.5 km away. We passed the so called “Judenrampe” when crossing the railway. This is an ordinary platform at the side of the railway and as it turned out, this is where most of the prisoner transports stopped and were unloaded. The specific rails that goes all the way into Auschwitz II (as seen in all movies) was installed as late as spring 1944 for the transports from Hungary. From the “Judenrampe”, the prisoners had to walk approx. 800 meters to the main gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
First when approaching the fences of Auschwitz II, I realised how huge that camp complex really is. When the camp was in operation there were barracks all over the place where there now are only foundations left. I believe most prisoners, despite rumours, couldn’t imagine the worst would happen to them some hours later when they saw all those barracks. After all, that many barracks indicated that some kind of life was going on inside the fences.
Being inside Auschwitz II was quite the opposite from being in the main camp. Here, almost the whole area indicates imprisonment and death. Apart from a few buildings, watch towers and barbed wire fences, most there is to be seen are ruins. But there is a very grave feeling over the whole place and it was obvious that other visitors, too, were deeply affected.
For people who are interested in understanding how large-scaled the so called “Endlösung der Judenfrage” really was, I strongly recommend a visit to the camp. But I also strongly recommend to read about it prior to a visit. For my part, there are also two movies that absolutely stand out in describing the horrors of the Holocaust:
- “Shoah” (1985) by Claude Lanzmann. For some reason I was never aware of this film as a teenager. It is 9 hours and 26 minutes of pure misery. Through interviews with survivors, perpetrators and also villagers that lived around the death camps, it explains it all.
- “Son of Saul” (2015) by László Nemes. The movie follows a Sonderkommando prisoner working in the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematorium during two horrific days.