ARBEIT MACHT FREI
this is the main gate where all of the prisoners entered the camp, which translates to, “work will make you free.” the prisoners thought they were going to labor camps, while in reality this was camp designed for mass extermination and less than 10% who walked through these gates survived.
of all the days we were in poland, the day we visited auschwitz had the gloomiest skies and most frigid temperatures. combined with falling snow, it made an already intense experience even more vivid. i knew that visiting auschwitz would be extremely heart breaking and painful, but the sheer magnitude of it all is tough to comprehend.
auschwitz was actually split into two camps, which i didn't realize before. the first camp was originally constructed to hold polish political prisoners who began arriving in may 1940. later they built birkenau, the second camp, which was the largest prison complex built by the nazis and its size was visually disturbing. in total an estimated 1.3 million people were sent to the camps with at least 1.1 million being killed. in the 4+ years the camp was occupied, it was staffed by 7,000 members of the german SS – only 12% of whom were later convicted of war crimes. the nauseating stories, inhumane conditions and glimpse into the severity of the winters here is something i will never forget.
the experience of getting to auschwitz is fairly easy – we arranged for a shuttle/tour and were picked up at our airbnb. the ride lasts about an hour and the bus was pretty quiet and somber – gazing out the window i wondered how much the scenery had changed since the 40's. when we arrived, i was shocked by how many tourists there were. buses, crowds, a book store... that being said, most people were very respectful. the setting is such that you almost feel like you shouldn't talk, and if you do talk, a whisper feels more appropriate. there were of course a few people that make you want to punch them in the face as they take jumping photos [why, honestly, why]. we hesitated to take any photos of our own, but also wanted to share the experience with readers who might never get the chance to visit.
THINGS TO KNOW:
- book a small private group before you go, not when you arrive [there were about 12 people in ours, the guide was very knowledgable and had worked there for 14 years. $35/per person]. don't try to do it on your own.
- even if you already know a lot about the holocaust, we found it helpful to brush up on our history before visiting the camp. we also re-watched schindler's list which if you haven't seen it, is a must.