I had various reasons for going to Krakow. One of those reasons was to visit Auschwitz. Normally I choose to avoid places like this during my travels. I travel to escape the reality I’m used to, and to visit such places that revisit the grim parts of our past seems counterproductive. But this place played a huge part in history so I decided to approach it head on. I was already near the area, it would be a shame if I let the opportunity pass me by. I’ve read about the place. I knew what went on there. Still, the avalanche of emotions caught me off guard. Nothing could have prepared me for Auschwitz and Birkenau.
It’s definitely the most popular day trip from Krakow. The cheapest option would be to travel on your own via public transport. You could either take the train or the bus from the central station, but most people choose to go by bus since it drops you off close to the Auschwitz Museum. The train station on the other hand is more than a mile away. From the main bus station in Krakow, look for buses that would take you either directly to the Auschwitz Museum or to Oswiecim (the Polish name of Auschwitz), which is about 10 minutes away from the museum by foot. Buses are real cheap too, a one way ticket only costs 10-14 Zlotys, and there are buses leaving every hour so you don’t have to buy tickets in advance. Entrance to Auschwitz is actually free, so you don’t have to worry if you’re on an extremely tight budget. Just make sure you arrive before 10 AM or after 3 PM— the hours in between are reserved for guided tours. You also have to book your tickets in advance online. If you decide to join a guided tour, it’s gonna cost an extra 45 Zlotys. Only a limited number of people can join one group, so to be sure you’d get a spot better book in advance at the official website as well. You can always take a risk and just decide if you want to join a tour group once you get there. However, I saw several people who tried to do this but they were unsuccessful since all spots were full.
Since the hostel was offering a guided tour, I just decided to join them together with someone I met there. Their tour costs 150 – 180 Zlotys (about 40-50 USD). It was quite pricey, but it included round trip transfers in an air conditioned van and we’d have our own English speaking tour guide. There are cheaper options in town though– I’ve seen the exact tours being offered for as low as 110 Zlotys. Since it’s the most popular day tour you’re gonna see a lot of tours offered just by walking around the old town. I wish I just took one of those tours. The reason why I joined the hostel tour was because i thought it was run by the hostel. I thought I’d be joining the other guests staying at the same hostel. Turns out we just joined another bigger group, which consisted of old folks traveling together. They were really nice but the conversation eventually ran dry because we ran out of things to talk about. If I just searched for a tour outside it would surely have been much cheaper since I would have been able to deduct the hostel’s cut from the total cost. And I’d be put in a mixed group of strangers anyway.
The trip took about 1 1/2 hours. Our guide was waiting for us at the entrance. After some folks in our group bought refreshments, we were all ushered in. We were all given our audio guides then we were led outside. Walking along the path was eerie. The weather was also cloudy and it was drizzling intermittently, and this added to the atmosphere. The sign above the gate says Arbeit Macht Frei, which means “work sets you free” in English. Knowing the events that transpired in this place, that sign was nothing but foreboding. The tour began at Block 15, which houses an exhibit entitled “Historical Introduction”. This gives the visitors a brief history of the concentration camp. I got a hint of despair inside this building, but it was nothing compared to what I felt as we walked inside the other barracks. It was an avalanche of mixed emotions. I felt dread, disgust, and pity. I felt angry, horrified at depressed at the same time. The next few barracks were converted to museums of sorts, wherein you see exhibits through glass windows. Each succeeding exhibit made me even more disheartened. It was really difficult moving on from one to the next. I saw pictures of children, unaware that they were being led to their deaths. I saw suitcases with names and addresses written over them, to ensure that these won’t be misplaced or stolen. The owners were clearly unaware that they never will return. I saw empty canisters, which were once filled with the toxins used to murder the Jews inside the gas chambers. The sight of all the empty canisters alone was horrifying. When we were told that initially the Germans didn’t know the exact amount of gas that would effectively kill people so they had to try several times before they perfected it… when we were told that basically most of the Jews were still alive during the first couple of times, and that they had to be gassed again and again until they died, my stomach turned. As we went on, I didn’t have much energy to keep taking pictures. My heart was getting heavier and heavier. I saw a pile of crutches, canes, artificial limbs and other orthotic devices. The people who used these were obviously disabled, and were therefore sent straight to the gas chambers. I saw piles of human hair, I also saw carpets and sweaters that were made from the same hair. Apparently a lot of human hair were even sent back to Germany, to be made into various products. At this point I got really disturbed. It wasn’t enough to eradicate them. It wasn’t enough that their jewelries and other valuables were taken from them. They still had to find some use from their dead bodies. They also took away their dignity. These images will forever be ingrained in my mind. The last of these exhibit buildings contained individual pictures of those who have perished in Auschwitz. Among these were pictures of many children. Those who were old enough to work didn’t suffer the same fate as those children who were brought directly to the gas chambers. Still with the amount of suffering they had to endure in the camp they eventually died anyway. I wonder which fate was worse. After these exhibit buildings we were led to the crematorium, which felt even more horrifying as we were told of the events that transpired there. As we were walking towards the exit, the sight of all those wired fences on both sides of the pathway was suffocating. It was getting hard to breathe.
Birkenau or Auschwitz II was the next stop. It’s only about 40 minutes away by foot, but since it was starting to rain we got picked up by our van. During that short 10 minute ride, everyone was silent. When we got there, again our tour guide was already waiting for us by the gate. In Birkenau, the barracks were farther apart and there were lots of open spaces so it wasn’t as claustrophobic. The atmosphere though was just as disheartening. My heart felt heavy as we were walking along the tracks, listening to even more horrifying stories. The tracks end at the International Monument which serves as a memorial to all the victims. On the way back we went inside several barracks. It’s hard to imagine how people survived living in such horrible conditions.
I grew up as a religious person. I would say I was once a devout catholic. But as the years went by, as I’ve witnessed the numerous horrible and despicable acts that people were capable of doing, I’ve come to realize on my own that most of the things that I was taught were basically myths. Still, I believed that no man is inherently evil. I believe that all men are born good. And despite being capable of doing many horrible acts, even the worst among us have inherent goodness. This goodness is just overshadowed by several deeds– deeds that are brought about by desperation or by any other circumstance that could have influenced or molded them. After visiting Auschwitz, I no longer feel this way. I’ve heard about the horrors that happened there. I’ve read about the history. But hearing stories and reading about these events are different from actually being there. I actually got to feel it. Everything was palpable. No matter how hard i try to rationalize it, I can’t find any justification for the horrors that have happened there. I find it hard to believe that any man who was born good, that any man that still has even a bit of goodness inside his heart would be able to commit those acts. If those men have even a little bit of goodness left in their hearts, they would not be so easily influenced, and they would be incapable of doing those things repeatedly. The logical explanation is, these men aren’t inherently good. That’s another myth that I was naive enough to believe in. Some men are just born evil.