Our winter excursions were full of history, as they inevitably are in Europe. But what we found in Amsterdam and Poland were very specific, heartbreaking pieces from the past that I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to witness in person.
In Amsterdam, we took a tour of the Anne Frank house. It was so, so agonizing to see how uncomfortably the Frank and Van Pels families hid for two years without ever leaving, only to be ratted out and taken prisoners by the nazis. To have this background and this perspective of the fear and distress the Jewish people felt during this era and the lengths they went to to avoid the nazis made our next historical stop even more powerful. To see exactly where these fearful, yet brilliant, loving, and normal Jewish families were destroyed because of their religion was harrowing and heartbreaking.
From Krakow, we took a day trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz Birkenau. If you’re like me and had no idea that there are two separate sites, let me explain.
Auschwitz I was the original site of the camps. It had housing barracks, gas chambers, crematoriums, torture chambers and firing squad areas. It wasn’t destroyed much and now the barracks are museums, displaying tragic pieces from this period of history.
Auschwitz Birkenau was later added to accommodate the increasing number of prisoners. It’s hauntingly bigger than Auschwitz I, with massive gas chambers and row after row of tiny, uncomfortable barracks. This camp was nearly burned to the ground by the nazis to cover up evidence, but what remains still tells a chilling story.
It’s extremely difficult to find the appropriate words to describe a place like a concentration camp. Especially a concentration camp like Auschwitz. A place where 1.1 million people died just over 70 years ago—that is our very recent history. It’s a place that leaves you speechless and somber, and for that reason, I’m going to try and let my photographs do most of the talking.
The entrance to Auschwitz I, “arbeit macht frei” which translates to “work makes you free.”
Below is a small sample of the gas cans used to exterminate prisoners in the gas chambers.
Did you know the prisoners were forced to purchase their own train tickets to the concentration camps? Then they were told to pack their most precious belongings in their suitcases, which upon arrival, were immediately surrendered to the nazis never to be seen again.
One of the most haunting displays, which didn’t allow photographs, was a showcase filled with two tons of real human hair. The nazis shaved the heads of every prisoner and then sent the hair back to Germany to be used for mattresses, socks, blankets, etc., without disclosing to the consumers what the products were made of. Our guide informed us that when the camps were liberated, bags filled with eight tons (16,000 pounds!!!) of human hair were discovered.
Below is a recreation of the execution wall where thousands of people, including children, were brutally murdered.
Wilhelm Brasse was a Polish portrait photographer taken prisoner by the nazis. His duties at Auschwitz included taking head shots of new prisoners and photographing criminal medical experiments. He hid rolls of film in a fence of the camp and when he was eventually liberated, he recovered the film and was hailed a hero as his photos divulged a whole new level of insight as to what went on in the camps. Unfortunately and understandably, after his liberation, Brasse never had the desire to take pictures again.
The following photos are from Auschwitz Birkenau.
Below is what remains of one of the gas chambers, which could kill 2,000 people in 20 minutes.
The exact place that millions of prisoners exited the overcrowded trains, separated from their terrified families, surrendered their precious belongings and began a new life of torture and terror.
For me, this was perhaps the most emotional piece at Auschwitz. Entering these drafty barracks where the prisoners slept six to a platform. It was 19 degrees that day and the snow never relented. I was bundled up with three pairs of socks, and I still lost all of the feeling in my feet. It was the bitterest, most bone-chilling cold I’ve ever felt, but after several hours, I got to go “home” and warm up. It completely crushed me to imagine what it was like for the millions of emaciated, starving, and ill prisoners that only had this hell to call “home” every night.
Auschwitz is a difficult place to stomach, and although it’s a piece of history I wish never existed, it offers insurmountable lessons about humanity, compassion, toleration, and the world as we know it. It’s a piece of history that I wish the whole world could witness because there is just so much to be learned from it. So much more than our history text books could ever teach us.
Anne Frank House
As lines are always long here, I recommend arriving early, or avoiding all lines and buying your tickets online in advance here. I arrived at 9 a.m. when it opened and still waited for over an hour to enter. The cost is 9 euros per person with no student rates. The tour is self-guided and takes about 1.5 hours.
How I got to Auschwitz
I used Krakville Tours to get to Auschwitz. With about 15 people, it’s an hour and a half bus ride, which includes an informative video. We arrived at Auschwitz around noon, and back in Krakow around 5 p.m. Our guide was very well-spoken, full of additional knowledge, and handled the subject matter very professionally and matter-of-factly.
The entire tour costs 79 PLN (18 euros) for students and 99 PLN (23 euros) for adults.