In the spring of ’99, I went to Europe by myself for the first time. I wanted to see Germany, so three days in Berlin became the foundation of my trip. Looking at a map of Europe, I could see the options for countries surrounding Germany were simple enough. I could return to France, Italy, or Austria, but I didn’t want to do that. I first traveled to Europe the previous spring, so I was still in consumption mode for new countries. Those big three didn’t fit that requirement, so they were immediately excluded. I looked north and noticed Denmark and Scandinavia, but I was still poor at the time, so I struck those from consideration, as well. A simple maxim is that Europe gets more expensive as the traveler moves north. That left one alternative: look east.
My first trip to Europe included nearly two weeks in Slovenia. The thought of going east was an easy consideration. The former communist block was still in its democratic infancy, having been set free into capitalism less than a decade earlier. Looking at my map, I saw the Czech Republic. I knew Prague was a tourist favorite, so I looked into that briefly and realized it would be a perfect fit for my trip. I scheduled three days of Prague into my itinerary.
The largest expense on my European vacations, because I choose to stay in youth hostels, is always the airfare. At $500 with a budget of barely $1,000, the final destination would have to be cheap and simple. I would need a visa to go further east, so I looked to Poland, a neighbor of both Germany and the Czech Republic. I knew of Warsaw, but Krakow intrigued me more. Because of the guidebook information, it seemed like a perfect fit for my needs. It was cheap, full of history, and cheap. Three days in Krakow completed the plan. The triangle formed by Berlin, Krakow, and Prague had an additional benefit. Since each journey is a perfect 8-hour overnight train ride, my itinerary eliminated two extra hostel stays. I anticipated my trip with the specific focus of Berlin and Prague. It was impossible for me to fathom that what I’d witness during my stay in Krakow would be the most lasting memory.
Auschwitz and Birkenau are situated in the tiny Polish town of Oswiecim, about an hour outside of Krakow. Auschwitz-Birkenau are separate camps approximately 2 miles apart. They’re sometimes referred to as Auschwitz I and II, respectively. The sign that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” is on the entrance gate to Auschwitz, the more famous of the two camps. Auschwitz is the more famous camp, seen in news reels and photos. Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments were done on prisoners at Auschwitz. The camp has a feeling of being closed in because the buildings are large and close together. The true scope is difficult to grasp without walking around and seeing such atrocities as the tiny prison cells and the “Black Wall” where executions took place.
The scale of horror at Birkenau is obvious from every spot in the camp. It covers an immense area of land, fenced in with a railroad track leading through the front gate, continuing to the rear of the camp. On both sides of the tracks were barracks. A few still remain on each side, but most were burned when the Nazis retreated from the camps. The outlines of the destroyed barracks remain, wrapped symmetrically around the still standing chimneys. I walked through a few of the barracks still standing, but stood motionless before the door of one particular barrack. An immense feeling of dread enveloped me at the door. I tried to walk in, but was physically unable to move forward. That was the first moment in my life when I knew that there is more to our world than just what we see. Some remark that they feel a sense of holiness in churches such as Assisi. The feeling I had was the opposite.
At the conclusion of the tracks, the crematoriums remain, although one rests in a pile of rubble leftover from a prisoner uprising. A lake rests off to the side of the crematorium where the human ashes were dumped.
I had planned to spend one day exploring the two camps, but the intensity of seeing Auschwitz forced me to break it into two separate days. I didn’t want to dwell in the horror for that long, but the camps are still emotionally exhausting. Seeing the efficiency with which the Nazis encased the murder of millions of people is stunning in its inexplicable evil. That anyone survived the death camps is a testament to the human spirit. So that no one forgets the horrors, guided tours are still offered by camp survivors.
Rather than provide any more details, I’ll let my pictures tell the rest of the story.
On January 27, 1945, Russian troops liberated the death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The camps were liberated nearly thirty years before I was born. I don’t have any family members even remotely associated with the history of Auschwitz or Birkenau. I’m just some guy with a story. My only real connection is my humanity, the same connection shared by everyone. The world has changed in numerous ways in 60
years, but some of our problems have remained the same, the core of evil changing only its appearance. As we strive to push freedom’s light into every dark corner of our world, we must remember that the struggle isn’t over. But we can overcome even the most horrific imaginings of the human mind.