When I first sat down to write about my experience touring the world’s largest Nazi concentration camp, I was seriously lost. My mind was panicking to write something meaningful but not too graphic, yet also sensitive … and I suppose, entertaining? But honestly, Auschwitz is not a story that can be condensed into a 1,000 word blog post. It is a completely unique experience that is a hybrid of confusing, heart-breaking and heavy emotions.
You may be asking how I ended up inside the gates of the world’s largest death camp … Honestly, I just wanted a cheap weekend getaway from Berlin. When my German coworkers found out that I was going to Poland for the weekend, a vast majority of them looked at me with a similar puzzled reaction.
“Have you ever been to Poland?” I asked?
“No, but why would we? Who goes there?” they joked.
Well, I am a fan of architecture and I knew that Krakow possessed some of the best in Europe. Also, it was only a $40 bus ticket to get there (warning: you do get what you pay for). My bus driver duck-taped his laptop to the dashboard so he could watch a soccer game. Slowly but surely men started to gather around the static-filled screen, trying to see the score while tapping their toes to the Rihanna Spotify radio station that played for the first few hours. I couldn’t help but jokingly text my loved ones that I was estimating my survival rate on this ride to be around 50 percent. Nevertheless, I did what I could to get comfortable and catch some shut-eye during the next eight hours.
I arrived in Krakow: saw the sights, met travelers, ate a fabulous meal, went vodka tasting and ended the night dancing on a stage beside the DJ. Needless to say, the weekend was off to a great start! I knew I had to cut the night a little short because I was going to tour a concentration camp the next day and thought it would be distasteful to show up hungover. Tomorrow was the Auschwitz tour.
For those of you planning to someday go on the tour, I will not give details about the information learned or what is shown. Honestly, if anyone has taken Professor Hay’s Holocaust class or any World War II History course, then you already know most of the tour guide’s presentation. I will disclose a little about my personal experience because honestly, I need a place to put these thoughts.
- The gate: When you first see the stark brick barracks from the entrance gate that reads, “arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free), your reaction is to run away. It seems almost insane to voluntarily enter a place that facilitated so much death and suffering. But then you remember why you’re there and you keep walking.
- The land: You’ll notice that the camp is nestled between large open fields of tall grass and wild lavender that sway in the wind. The red brick structures create an interesting contrast between the green earth and blue sky. Between the shuffling tour groups and light chatter, you can even hear birds chirping. Confusion sets in as your mind tries to understand the horrors that this (otherwise beautiful) land has endured. My clearest memory of this occurred when our guide showed us the demolished site where the four largest gas chambers once stood. There now lies only a plaque that reads, “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.”
I noticed that behind the plaque was a row of giant weeping willow trees. I imagined they’ve been weeping for almost eighty years now …
The tour concluded with a thank you from the guide for taking time to educate ourselves and pay our respects to the 1.5 million victims that perished inside these gates.
The bus ride back to Krakow was silent. There was no funny bus driver or Rihanna radio to laugh at. We sat quietly, absorbing the last six hours of heart-break.
After a quick journaling session and a shower I needed a little break from the depressing reality of my day so I decided to find a bar to watch the Germany vs. Italy soccer match. After three weeks in Berlin I knew better than to walk into a place and expect a view of the TV. Those seats were reserved for die-hard, local soccer fans and most certainly not to be wasted on travelers who probably didn’t even know all of rules of the game (guilty).
So I found an old sports bar with three TVs, a few mismatched couches and I stood tucked away in a corner. Immediately, an older Polish man offered me his seat on one of the best couches and I couldn’t hide my surprise! This would never happen in Berlin.
I sat down, graciously thanked him and set my beer down to claim a spot on the only coffee table. Even though I felt conflicted rooting for Germany after the day I’d had, the warmness from the locals put my mind at ease. The game ended with seven sudden death kicks. Germany won, a few last high-fives and I was off to bed.
During my walk, I was thinking about what Krakow was like before the war. Looking up at the fractured windowsills, I imagined somber faces looking down upon foreign soldiers marching through the cobble stone streets. There was serious history here and these tarnished walls had witnessed it.
The homes that, yesterday, looked tattered and beaten-down now looked charming, and beautiful. My day at Auschwitz had completely changed my perception of this old city and I was seeing it for the first time with fresh eyes. This new found beauty gave me a sense of peace and a wave of calmness fell over me. Needless to say, I got much more than just a cheap weekend getaway. I highly recommend that everyone tour a city as resilient and beautiful as Krakow … no matter what your coworkers say.
Stephanie Dunbar is an international business major. She is interning abroad in Berlin for the summer.