Auschwitz (Oswiecim in Polish) is one of the more popular day trips out of Krakow. It's not a very happy place to visit. In fact when we visited Cape Coast in Ghana, the slave forts were offset a bit by the jovial atmosphere that pervaded the town. In Auschwitz it was a grey featureless sort of day and the town had a somber, melancholy aura. This is the much photographed main gate of the Auschwitz "work camp". Arbeit Macht Frei translates roughly as 'work will set you free'.
It's unlikely the inmates of Auschwitz had any delusions about that phrase. The camp is extremely heavily fortified. There are rows upon rows of barbed wire fences, guard towers and sheer walls.
This is a street through the center of the barracks where prisoners lived. Tours at Auschwitz are optional but they are done in just about every conceivable language via headphones. It seems a little awkward at times but it keeps the camp as a whole relatively quiet. More than half of the barracks are museums devoted to a specific subject or one specific country. Prisoners - mostly Jews - were sent here from every corner of Europe. The camp was also used for Romany (gypsies), Catholic priests and monks, homosexuals, and assorted prisoners of war.
The restored execution wall is a grim monument even for Auschwitz. It sits outside the barracks where prisoners sentenced to death were held. Of course, nearly everyone here was sentenced to death one way or another. The wall was used for firing squads. Inside there were starvation and suffocation cells. The rest of the prisoners only had to contend with malnourishment, heavy labor, disease, and frigid winters.
The opposite corner of the camp is where the original gas chamber is located. Standing inside the gas chamber is about as disturbing an experience as you'd ever want.
Across town is Birkenau which was built because Auschwitz just wasn't big enough to hold all the Nazi prisoners and the gas chamber just wasn't efficient enough to kill them all. Birkenau is less visited than Auschwitz. We were actually stunned by how many people were at Auschwitz. This is the main gate of Birkenau.
Prisoners arrived by train and unloaded here. For the most part they were not strictly aware of just how bad things were going to be. At least that's what they tell you on the tour.
Birkenau was partially destroyed by the Nazis before they abandoned it to the invading Russian army. The scale of it is almost incomprehensible. There were hundreds of barracks here and gas chambers designed to accept whole trains full of people. There are some tours of Birkenau as well but we chose to just wander through the camp on our own with a guidebook.
Visitors can enter most of the remaining buildings. For the most part, once you've seen two or three, you've seen them all. There are two basic rooms - latrines like this one and barracks like the next picture.
Birkenau doesn't have much of a museum but Auschwitz more than makes up for that. Among the many disturbing exhibits on view there are rooms full of photographs of prisoners, personal effects including glasses, shoes, clothing, toys and luggage, and an enormous display of human hair which the Nazis used to make cloth.
Birkenau has a large multi-national monument at the far end of the railroad tracks. The plaques there are inscribed in about 20 languages and sum up the experience as well as we can.