When you drive from the beautiful Polish city of Krakow towards Auschwitz, the countryside is calm, serene and beautiful. It is in total contrast to the innumerable stories of horror that await you when you reach the twin sites of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.
During World War II, approximately 6 million Jews were killed mercilessly by the Nazis. Out of this number, about a million were exterminated in the Auschwitz Camp in the infamous gas chambers.
Today the remains of the camp is maintained as a museum and holds many articles – human hair, shoes, clothes, personal belongings such as spectacles and utensils, photographs, records as a testimony to those horrific times. It is a somber visit but one that is done by millions of people every year – lest we forget!
The original camp was made up of a few barracks and one small gas chamber. This gas chamber survives and you can walk inside of it – it is quite difficult to describe the wave and variety of emotions one feels while doing so. Each of the barracks has a story to tell – of random shootings, of torture cells, of fake hospitals to conduct terrible biological experiments…
You are then transported 2 miles to the second part of the camp – Birkenau. The existence of Birkenau became necessary because there were so many more Jews to kill. They were being brought here from all parts of Europe to be gassed in large numbers. Two large gas chambers were purpose built for this. Both of these don’t survive. One was blown up by a brave group of prisoners (needless to say they were immediately shot dead) and the other was destroyed by the retreating Nazis when the Russians approached at the end of the war. Many of the residential barracks were destroyed as well. The ones that stand wail out the stories of hardships of the prisoners.
Birkenau has an impressive – more in a menacing sense of the word – entrance gate from where the rail-coaches would roll in carrying the next set of prisoners. They stopped at the infamous platform where the SS guards would ‘sort’ them – some were marched straight into the gas chambers towards instant death and the healthier ones were herded into the barracks to live & work as labour until they were of no further use.
Annually, around mid-late April – Israel and the rest of the world marks the anniversary of the uprising of Warsaw Ghetto as the “Holocaust Memorial Day” (The exact date every year changes as it follows the Hebrew Lunar calendar). Thousands of Jewish youth visit Auschwitz in memory of their ancestors and forefathers they lost during the Holocaust.
They gather at the gates of Auschwitz camp – under the sign that still stands “Arbeit Macht Frei”, a horn is blown and then in complete silence the group walks the 2 mile distance to Birkenau. They carry offerings like flowers, letters and little plaques that they offer at the platform where the trains arrived. Every year, holocaust survivors (fewer every year now as many of them have passed away) also attend this march and talk to the youth, the idea being to instil a sense of identity in them.
At the end of the war, when the Nazis knew they were losing, they abandoned the camps and forced the remaining prisoners to march long distances westwards. Many of them died on these marches due to hunger, cold, weakness and starvation. For this reason it was called the Death March
The March of the Living is a symbolic act of having survived this attempt of annihilation and murder; a very heart-rending one at that!!
Practical Tips to visit Auschwitz:
- The campsite is closest from the city of Krakow
- There are many guided tours that operate from the city and include the pick up and drop from the hotels.
- The entire visit lasts approx 5-6 hours.
- The visit inside the camps is handled by qualified museum guides and is accompanied by a very empathetic commentary and explanation
- The first part is the visit of Auschwitz and later the Birkenau part.
- There is a lot of walking involved so wear good walking shoes
- At the gate of Auschwitz where the main tours start – there are some cafes and restaurants
- There is a strict baggage check & X-ray that happens before you enter the camp.
- Most importantly – have a strong heart before you embark on this tour, it can leave you quite emotionally shaken.