When I was a kid – six or seven years old, I’d guess – my parents decided I was old enough to see a documentary about the Holocaust. With no idea what it was about, I was delighted to be allowed to stay up past my bedtime.
If my parents explained it at all, before or after, I don’t remember. I do remember how I felt, downstairs in the basement den, sitting on our old couch with my sisters: the same horror that anyone feels seeing these old films from before the Nazis built the gas chambers, when skeletal remains were thrown into huge ditches by people who were equally skeletal.
Disclosure: I received this trip to Auschwitz for free as part of an influencer conference. This has no effect on my views about the tour.
The difference for me, I think, was that I had no idea how to digest the images. The horror sat in the pit of my stomach: a heavy green lump. It’s been there ever since.
My parents were never particularly good at talking about feelings, and as far as I remember I was simply sent to bed after the documentary. I don’t remember them giving any explanation, either before or after, but they must have, since I had a vague idea that a bad man named Hitler had killed lots and lots of Jews.
I didn’t even cry; I was old enough to think that crying is for babies, but too young to understand that everyone cries sometimes. I just went to bed without complaint, and fell asleep quickly, sleeping undisturbed.
But the green lump stayed. Undigested. Unprocessed.
I ignore the heavy green lump most of the time and get on with my life, but it’s always lurking, primed to pounce, and I’m startled how easily it surfaces whenever the subject of the Holocaust comes up.
I can place the images in context now, which, of course, doesn’t make it any better. German soldiers made these films as a souvenir: something they were proud of.
I understand now that those skeletal people, dumped as if they were garbage, were my people: Jews like me. People hated me that much. As a child, that was so outside my ordinary day-to-day life in suburban Connecticut that I just couldn’t connect it with this world I lived in.
I tell this story because I recently went on a tour of Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. In this place, Nazis turned genocide into an industrial enterprise, efficiently processing, in just a few years, over a million souls into ashes.
I believe it is important to bear witness. These crimes must not be forgotten, no matter how painful it is to think about them. This is why I visit Jewish museums, synagogues, and Holocaust memorials on my travels. I’ve also visited other scenes of historical cruelty, such as Badagry, Nigeria, where so many Africans were packed onto boats to be taken to lives of slavery, Hiroshima, Japan, the site where an atomic bomb destroyed an entire city of civilians, and the KGB Museum in Riga, Latvia, where prisoners were tortured and executed for opposing Soviet rule.
As a Jew, though, and especially in recent years, with a noticeable rise in anti-semitism in Europe, I feel an urgency about bearing witness to the Holocaust.
But I didn’t want to tour Auschwitz. I felt like I already knew the story, and knew it too well. I and every Jew today carry it with us, even when, like me, we have not been touched directly by the Holocaust. So do Roma and Sinti people, homosexuals, the disabled, and any other group that the Nazis would have rated as undeserving of life.
My friend Roz is the one who changed my mind. She pointed out how moved she was, on her tour of Auschwitz, by the strength of the human spirit:
The fact that amongst the living hell, inmates still took the opportunity to celebrate birthdays, religious festivals and anniversaries. This happened in the latrines where the soldiers wouldn’t go.
I think it’s important for us to go to understand the scale of the atrocities, to value our freedom and to ensure that such a thing never happens again. Also to understand how quickly life can change if we don’t act.
So I signed up to take the tour, offered free to bloggers at a conference in Krakow. But it was largely out of a sense of obligation: to bear witness.
In the days leading up to the Auschwitz tour, I dreaded it. I didn’t want to be confronted with all of that horror again. I feared I’d burst into tears in public; I fought back tears often in the days before my tour. The green lump in my stomach awoke and felt eager to emerge.
At the same time, I was afraid of other tourists’ disrespect: the kind I saw at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Berlin. If I heard schoolkids laugh, what would I do? Make a scene? Would I be able to keep the lump down and stay calm?
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Tour of Auschwitz
A small group of bloggers and Instagrammers, we were picked up by our Krakow Shuttle van early in the morning for the hour and a half ride. Resigned, passive, I went along. It felt necessary. I tried to shut my brain down, think about other things.
On the way in the van, they showed a documentary about Auschwitz and its sister camp, Birkenau. Some of the bloggers slept; others watched. To avoid tears, I looked away often, letting my eyes wander between the screen and the peaceful country scenery passing by out the window. Brilliant green springtime fields, sleepy farmhouses. It was hard to believe that the scenes on the screen happened here.
Arriving at the first part of the Auschwitz complex, called Auschwitz I, now used as the primary Auschwitz museum, our driver handed us over to a guide employed by the Auschwitz museum, named Lukasz. We all wore headphones so that he could talk quietly into a microphone and still be heard. Giving a tour this way keeps everyone respectfully quiet: the guides don’t have to speak loudly and the visitors keep quiet in order to hear the guides. So equipped, we move through Auschwitz in near silence.
It’s pretty here.
I flushed guiltily when I caught myself thinking it. But it was. The barracks are simple brick structures set in neat rows, and on my visit in early May, the trees among them stood bright with the green of springtime growth. Flowering bushes guarded some of the entrances. The only thing that gave away their true purpose was the tidy fencing of barbed wire.
Auschwitz I was the first camp, built around 22 already-established army barracks in the Polish village of Oświęcim. Starting in 1940, it was used as an internment camp for various Russian and Polish political prisoners and criminals. In 1942 it became a concentration camp, meant to work mainly Jews, along with homosexuals, political prisoners and Roma/Sinti, to their deaths, and, soon after, to serve in their efficient extermination in the gas chambers.
Passing under the cynical “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work sets you free) gateway that greeted the doomed deportees, our guide led us into several of the barracks buildings, one at a time. Some showed general information about what happened at Auschwitz, with photographs, explanatory signs, maps, examples of Nazi documents and a single urn of ashes meant to memorialize all the victims. We didn’t see all the exhibits on this tour. We missed, for example, one barrack devoted to the story of the Roma and Sinti who died there.
Having crossed the threshold and begun, the heavy green lump lurking in my gut threatened to escape, but I kept trudging along among the hordes of tourists.
Material Proofs of Crimes
The hardest exhibit to view, for me and probably for everyone who tours Auschwitz, is called “Material Proofs of Crimes.” It shows ordinary items of everyday life, found at the camp after its liberation.
A massive pile of eyeglasses.
A much bigger pile of human hair, much of it neatly braided. I tried not to think of the ordinariness of that: We’re getting transferred to a camp until the war is over. I’ll braid my hair so it stays neat on the train. The hair was used to make cloth, and we saw a sample of that too.
An equally large pile of shoes. Again, I fought to keep the green lump down. Some of these shoes were 1940s stylish: wedge heels, colorful straps. I pictured people trying on shoes in a shop, eying their feet in a mirror, making a choice.
A long case of prosthetics: things like fake limbs and crutches and braces.
An entire roomful of discarded metal bowls and pots. These were used in the camp by those who weren’t killed immediately and who provided the slave labor that the Nazis needed for their extermination machine.
That heavy green lump finally escaped at the long display case filled with a haphazard pile of luggage. People packed their most precious possessions to take with them in these battered suitcases, and some had written their names and addresses in large letters on the sides. One of them proclaimed “HELLER”. Could this have been family?
In that dense crowd of people, I was the only one crying, as far as I was aware. Noticing the ugly sounds I was making, they turned, stared, and turned quickly away again. Sobbing, but at the same time trying to hold it in and not make a spectacle of myself, I pushed my way through the crowd toward the door.
Rushing past the next few cases, I reached my group in the relatively less emotional section of the museum that showed the living quarters of the prisoners. Here I started taking pictures again, focusing on how to use my camera to pull myself together; figuring out the best way to set it, using it as a screen between the horrors I was witnessing and me. It kept the green lump at bay.
The Gas Chambers
Auschwitz I was where the Nazi scientists experimented with using Zyclon-B to kill inmates. The large-scale exterminations happened at Auschwitz II, but the Nazis destroyed those gas chambers and incinerators toward the end of the war. For that reason, the experimental one at Auschwitz I has been preserved.
We walked through the room – not furnished with fake shower heads like the ones at Auschwitz II were – where the Zyclon-B pellets were dropped through a hatch in the roof. Here they perfected the procedure using political prisoners as their guinea pigs, figuring how much Zyclon-B it would take to kill everyone in the room within 20 minutes.
In the next room stood a few ovens for cremations. If they were going to exterminate so many people so fast, they would need to dispose of the bodies quickly as well.
Apparently, the ashes were either spread on farm fields or dumped in the river nearby. The beautiful farmland we passed on the way here had been fed by the bodies of the victims.
Auschwitz II Birkenau
Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, is only three kilometers away. We were herded onto the Krakow Shuttle van to the entrance and met the same tour guide, Lukasz.
This camp was much bigger than Auschwitz I. It was where most of the prisoners died. The famous pictures of the train pulling in and the Nazis separating out the Jews into two lines – the strong to work as slave labor, the weak to go straight to the gas chambers – happened here.
What remains is the entrance gate, the train tracks, some intact barracks and many ruined barracks. The gas chambers and ovens are heaps of rubble. A large memorial stands nearby: an abstract concrete form in a brutalist style.
At its foot is a row of plaques, each in a different European language:
We walked through an intact barrack where prisoners slept on shelves. The famous photos taken at the liberation that show the starved faces of people lying on the shelves were taken in similar barracks. Built to house 40 prisoners, it wasn’t unusual for a barrack to house 700.
The slave laborers generally only survived for a couple of months, victims of starvation, cold, and/or disease. With inmates sleeping in these packed dormitories on too little nutrition, little heating, and too much work, diseases spread quickly.
Auschwitz II, while less confrontational than Auschwitz I, with its piles of personal objects, emphasizes the enormity of the project through its sheer size: 140 hectares, about 1.4 square kilometers, with 300 barracks and buildings.
What if Holocaust deniers visit Auschwitz?
We walked through the entrance gate and along the train track to the far end of several fields of ruins of barracks. The heavy green lump inside me had receded by this time, soothed by walking and a certain numbness that had set in. I asked Lucasz what he did if people showed up on his tour who approved of “the Final Solution.”
“Well, there are really two kinds. First, the deniers. No matter what I say, they won’t be convinced. They can dismiss everything as faked. But generally they don’t say anything.”
“The second kind is the neo-Nazi. They don’t say anything either, but I can tell who they are. They smile, but try to hide it.”
I wanted to ask if he kicked them out of the museum, but we were interrupted.
At one point as we were walking, two of the other bloggers were talking. I didn’t hear what they were saying, but one of them let out a small laugh. The guide immediately told them sternly to be quiet. I was pleased not only that visitors are told to show respect, but that someone was calling them on it when they didn’t.
Problems of Auschwitz tourism
I have some issues with how the tours of Auschwitz are conducted. I’m not criticizing the Krakow Shuttle’s conduct: their part of the tour was clear and efficient. Nor am I criticizing Lucasz, the tour guide; given the difficulties of the large crowds at Auschwitz I, he did a competent job.
I am criticizing how Auschwitz tours are organized at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. The problem is the crowds. We visited on a Sunday, and Auschwitz I was ridiculously crowded. I understand that the idea is that as many people as possible should see Auschwitz: bearing witness is important, and learning about genocide should help prevent future genocides.
This was really extreme, though. I was supposed to be in a group of perhaps 15 people. The problem was that some large number of other groups were passing through the same barracks buildings at the same time.
We shuffled along in an unending stream of people. I often could only partially see the display cases because of the depth of the crowds. If I took the time to worm my way nearer, I lost sight of my group. Lukasz kept walking while I struggled to see and stay within earshot of him. His voice becoming crackly in the headphones was my signal that he’d moved one or more rooms ahead of me, so I would hurry up to avoid losing the group entirely.
This is the only picture I took of the crowd, but you can see how very few of the people had a chance to take in the photos on display. I took this picture in the hopes of being able to zoom in and read the signs later, which only worked for the nearer ones. My guide was somewhere at the far end of the room; I couldn’t pick him or the rest of my group out of this crowd.
What I fear is that this crowding detracts from the effect of the items and information on view. If people are busy worrying about keeping up, or can’t hear what their guide is saying, they may miss the essentials of the experience.
And that’s the point of visiting: to get a visceral, emotional understanding of what happened there.
The organization that runs Auschwitz needs to do two things:
- It needs to extend the exhibits across more different barracks to spread out the crowds, and
- It needs to set lower limits on the number of tickets it issues, and control the timing too, much as the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam does. Allowing groups to enter at fifteen-minute intervals would prevent the crowd from becoming overwhelming, even if they did end up bunched together by the end of a tour.
Another option would be to dictate routes through the barracks museums, in addition to timing entrances. There could be three or four different possible routes so that they wouldn’t impede each other.
Free speech and Auschwitz
I don’t feel like I can write about Auschwitz without discussing the new Polish law that regulates how we speak about Auschwitz, making it illegal to accuse “the Polish Nation of participation in, or responsibility for, communist or Nazi crimes.” Passed by the nationalist Law and Justice party that has gained power in Poland, it prohibits the use of phrases like “Polish death camp.” Instead, we have to call it a “Nazi death camp.” This “crime” is punishable by up to three years in jail.
When I mentioned the new law to a Polish member of our group visiting Auschwitz, he said “Three years isn’t enough.” I dropped the subject.
This emphasis on “It wasn’t our fault!” is disingenuous. Yes, the Nazis were responsible. They conceived of and built the camps. They planned and carried out the genocide. The camps are on Polish soil but were not their creation.
However, the new law ignores the fact that, while some Poles resisted the Nazis, some either acquiesced or actively collaborated.
Take the village of Jedwabne, for example, where in 1941 Poles herded hundreds of Jews into a barn and set the barn on fire while the Nazis looked on. (See Stefan Zgliczynski’s article summarizing Poles’ complicity during the Holocaust.)
A law that does not allow us to speak of this history strikes me as pretty Nazi-like in itself.
Anti-semitism in post-war Poland
This denial of complicity is also happening in a country that even carried out “anti-Zionist” campaigns in the Communist era after the war, when few Jews remained in Poland. As a history major at Yale, I studied this period of Polish history. Immediately after the war, in the general anarchy of the Soviet takeover, many remaining or returning Jews were killed in individual attacks or pogroms. Sometimes this was due to anti-Communist feeling, conflated with the fact that some Jews from Russia settled in Poland after the war. Sometimes it was due to “blood libel,” the belief that Jews kidnapped Christian children in order to use their blood in rituals. The most famous of these pogroms based on blood libel happened in 1946 in Kielce, and frightened the remnants of Poland’s Jewish community enough that many left the country.
Later, the Soviet-controlled Polish government suppressed any rebirth of the Jewish community. In 1967, when Israel won the Arab-Israeli War, a series of show trials and dismissals of Jewish officials and the discovery of a supposed Zionist plot to take power was essentially a side effect of a power struggle within the government. (Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism in Historical Perspective).
When the 1968 student anti-government demonstrations in Warsaw broke out, a rise in nationalist feeling much like what is going on today in Poland scapegoated the Jewish community through an “anti-Zionist” campaign. Jews working in government, Jewish teachers, students and their parents, were ousted from their jobs. The purge spread to the army, the government and the Communist Party. This led about half of the remaining 30,000 Polish Jews to leave the country.
Note: I’m not saying that how Poles have addressed their own wartime history is particularly worse than in other countries. Many other European countries honor their World War II resistance fighters while conveniently ignoring their collaborators.
The difference here is that Poland now has a law forbidding people to speak about complicity. I fear the slippery slope, and what other statements will become illegal.
Auschwitz Tour Guides
More controversy has broken out in Poland recently about the tour guides at Auschwitz. Nationalists criticize the use of tour guides who are not Polish, even to the extent of a vandalism attack on the house of an Italian guide. The Nationalists fear that the non-Jewish Poles who died at Auschwitz will be left out of the story.
I can categorically state that this is not true.
The museum exhibits report quite clearly that 1,100,000 Jews were killed, 140-150,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 prisoners of war from the Soviet Union, and 25,000 others. Our tour guide particularly told the story of the earliest people interned and killed there: Polish prisoners of war. The Nazis, in the first years of the camp, photographed their prisoners, and one of the barracks is lined with these stark photos, mostly non-Jewish Poles.
Given that so many more Jews were killed there (90-95% of those killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau were Jews), it makes sense that they would get more attention in recounting the story, but the non-Jewish Poles are certainly not ignored.
While I feared a biased approach, given my general knowledge of anti-Semitism in Poland, what I heard was a balanced, respectful, factual recounting. Kudos to the museum and to Lucasz for keeping their integrity in the face of sometimes violent nationalistic pressure.
You can visit Auschwitz-Birkenau individually or with a group. If you go as an individual, reserve a ticket for free at visit.auschwitz.org. You can join a group tour, or else explore it on your own. If it’s a busy time, you might not get a ticket if you just show up.
Auschwitz offers two kinds of group tours. The three and a half hour version that I took costs 70 zloty (€16.50/$18). They also offer a six-hour study tour that costs 110 zloty (€26/$29). The tours are offered in English, Polish, French, German, Russian, Spanish and Italian.
To get there without a tour, either drive or take a train or bus. Driving from Krakow takes about an hour and a quarter. You can take a bus or a train from the Central train station in Krakow to Oświęcim, which should take a bit more than two hours. From Oświęcim either walk the two kilometers to the camp or take a local bus. You’ll then need to walk the three kilometers from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II Birkenau, or else take the museum’s shuttle bus.
The easiest way to get to Auschwitz is with a tour, which will cost about €40 or $44. Krakow Shuttle did a good job for us, but there are other companies offering similar tours. They arrange the entrance tickets for you, and they drive you from Auschwitz I to Birkenau. You might get other individual tourists added to your group when you arrive, since the museum arranges the tours inside the camp.
I might have preferred to visit Auschwitz on my own. It would have allowed me to take my time, absorbing the museum at my own speed. I would have been able to take breaks, standing outside, surrounded by the springtime green, escaping the pressure of the crowds for a few moments. On the other hand, perhaps it was good that I was rushed along. It muted the effect of the horrible things I was seeing, or rather shortened my exposure. It allowed me, most of the time, to keep the heavy green lump contained. Make your own judgment about which would be better for you.
Hours vary depending on time of year. It opens at 7:30 every day except for January 1, December 25 and Easter Sunday. In the summer it’s open until 19:00, but at other times of year it closes earlier. Check the museum’s website for information.
Some advice for your tour of Auschwitz:
- Bring tissues.
- Only carry a small bag. They won’t let you take bigger bags in.
- No food, no cigarettes. A bottle of water is okay.
- Wear good walking shoes. Especially at Birkenau, you’ll walk a lot.
- If it’s likely to be good weather, put on sunscreen. Much of the walking at Birkenau is outside.
- Follow instructions in terms of where you may or may not take pictures. Sneaking pictures is disrespectful. So are selfies.
- Don’t take children under 14.
- Dress decently, not showing too much skin. Again, it’s disrespectful.
- Keep your voice down.
- Visiting will take most of the day. Don’t plan anything big for after the tour. You won’t feel like doing much.
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