This was our earliest start to date, as we had to leave our Krakow hotel by 6:45. Luckily most people opted for bed super early the night before, myself included. I’m pretty sure I’d been asleep by 10, a new record on this trip.
We knew from the start that this day was going to be different from all the rest, considering we were visiting Auschwitz, the notorious location of one of the darkest events in world history. Our tour group was typically loud, rambunctious and giggly, but from the start of the day onward, we were nearly silent, partially due to exhaustion, partially due to our itinerary.
After about an hour of driving, our local guide started giving us introductory information about the camp, reminding us that it was run completely by the Nazi Germans, despite the fact that the camp itself was located within Poland. In fact, the Nazis were planning on taking out the Polish race once it was done with the Jewish and Roma peoples. She herself was Polish, so I can imagine that this distinction was very important to her personally.
Our tour would cover two sections of the three-part Auschwitz facility: Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz-Birkenau. To get a sense of which is which, Auschwitz 1 has the famous gate reading “Arbeit Mact Frei,” or “Work will make you free” scrawled over the top, and is much smaller, while Auschwitz-Birkenau has the brick façade and tower through which the train enters the camp, and is vast in size. The third section was the factory labor camp, which we did not visit. We started at Auschwitz 1, the original camp, which was originally purposed as military barracks for the Polish army. This was of course, repurposed as a death camp. That was another thing that our guide stressed: the purpose of both of these areas under German control was mass murder: nothing else.
This is already starting to get depressing, so I’m going to stop regurgitating every single depressing detail of the place’s history and just talk about the vibe of being there with tidbits of history sprinkled in. If you’re sensitive and don’t want to hear about the details, I’ll mark *** over the area when I’m done talking about genocide so you can skip to that part. I’m sure almost everyone has been exposed to the history of the Holocaust in one form or another. Either you’ve learned about it in history class, read a book about it, watched Schindler’s List or the Pianist, at the end of the day, you should know that Auschwitz truly was Hell on earth. I don’t need to give you a full-on lecture on the history of the Holocaust in my happy little travel blog. If you want book recommendations, let me know, I have a couple for you.
In all honesty, being there felt weird for a couple of reasons. First, a lot of the barracks had been repurposed as museum exhibits. We were walking past photographs and piles of items confiscated from victims such as hairbrushes, toothbrushes, shoes, even human hair. I was constantly reminding myself, however, that the rooms in which I walked were not museum halls, but in fact the rooms where these people were held as prisoners, awaiting their fate. It was also just really hard to process. I’ve studied a lot about this subject, so a lot of the information I was given I was just nodding, “Yep, yes, heard that before, uh-huh,” but then seeing the locations of all of these events was really surreal. It felt fake. It felt like a film façade. I know it wasn’t, but it felt like it. I think I’m still processing it. In a few days it might hit me and I may turn into a blubbering mess.
It was also awkwardly set up for tour groups. We each had a headset that our guide would speak into so we could hear her wherever we were. She was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the subject of her tour, but considering the rooms were small and weavy, if you wound up too far behind her, she’d be giving information about something you couldn’t see yet, or while you were still trying to grasp something else directly in front of you.
One thing that bothered us unanimously was when we were in the gas chamber. Obviously this was the actual place where the majority of people were murdered. She warned us before we went in to stay quiet and respect this place and the people who had died there. Well, she sprinted through and then from outside the chamber was already directing us to the next stop on the tour through our headphones while the whole group was still in this morbid location, trying to mentally and emotionally digest the horrors that had taken place there. I threw off my headset at that point. I just wanted to have a few moments to process where we were.
This is getting really depressing again, I’m sorry. This place was really interesting and unique and I want to write about it, but it’s very difficult. But eh, it’s helping me cope with it more internally.
We left Auschwitz 1 and took a seven-minute drive on the bus to reach Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was added on to the original camp as both an expansion and center for industrialized murder. What was scary about this side of the camp was its sheer size. The Nazis had blown up their crematoria, as well as burned down a good amount of the barracks before liberation, in an attempt to hide the evidence. However, you could still see the chimneys that remained from each of the wood buildings, and the brick barracks still remained. We got to tour one of the brick barracks, which, as I’m sure you can assume, was horrifying. No floors, just ground. Hard wooden bunks in which three could fit comfortably, but of course eight were typically crammed in. No flooring on the bottom bunk, they would sleep on frozen ground or mud depending on the season. Again, I’ve read all this stuff already, and seen movies, and taken classes, but seeing it was nauseating.
In the back of the camp were a few memorials, written in every language of every country represented by the victims of the Holocaust as well as English (very few English speakers actually murdered there, so that one’s mostly for tourists). Next to the larger memorial were also a series of gravestones, next to one of the destroyed crematoria, that all stated the same thing in English, Polish, Hebrew, and one other language I don’t remember: “To the memory of all the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. Here lie their ashes. May they rest in peace.” It was such a simple gravestone for such a horrendous amount of death. I’ll be honest, I got a little emotional seeing it.
It had been incredibly hot and sunny while we were walking around. A good handful of us got sunburnt, and nearly all of us were parched. After arming ourselves with drinks, we boarded the coach in near silence. Thank god for Emma, who was able to talk us down, teaching us about perspective and feeling lucky for what we have in the moment. She played a song that was all about life advice, living in the moment, and guiding your life in a way that improves your future. Oh Emma, what a saint. She needs to be a teacher again.
Alright, now that we’ve stepped into a moderately lighter spot of this blog, I want to share one of the lighter moments of the day (well, for me, not for Megan, considering it was at her expense). As soon as we approached the gate of Auschwitz 1, we were all pulling out our phones to take a photo of the famous gate. Megan’s phone slipped out of her hand and it landed glass-first on a pointy rock and cracked the screen. She looked SO SAD. But the worst part about it is that she was at AUSCHWITZ. You can’t be sad about your phone breaking when you’re touring Auschwitz, home of the most depressing thing that’s ever happened EVER! She miraculously kept it together for the duration of the tour, even though it was obviously very sad. But yeah. That was super dark, and sad, and tragically funny. Props to you, Megan, for holding it together.
After leaving the sad day behind and transitioning to happier music and moods, the bus livened up a bit and we were back to our happy rambunctious selves. We stopped over to see the Jasna-Gora Monastery, the home of the famous Black Madonna painting of Jesus and Mary by Saint Luke that had been passed along through generations and somehow wound up in Poland, land of the Catholics. After taking an accidental swing through the room with all of the replicas of the painting (thanks Emma, for pointing us in the wrong, and confusing, direction) we ventured into the actual cathedral, which was gorgeous. Supposedly if you look into the eyes of Mary in the Black Madonna painting, she’ll give you protection forever, and you can see the eyes of all those she’s protected. I gave her a good look, so we’ll see if I stay safe.
After a short walk, we located the only snack shop open in town. There were many more that were just boarded up. Apparently when asked why most of them were closed, one of the shop people said, “It was too hot to work so they left.” Where is this mentality in America? I want to go home when I’m hot. Well, that one open snack shop got plenty of business, because just about everyone from our tour lined up for some more lody, (Polish ice cream, if you recall).
After another couple hours on the bus, we made our entrance into our Ibis hotel in Warsaw, our last accommodation as a group. Very sad. We settled into our rooms for a bit, then headed out for a walkabout dinner in Poland’s capital. In all honesty, I didn’t expect much out of Warsaw. I kind of thought it would be modern buildings, high-rises, standard city-looking. A good amount of the city was, but apparently Warsaw’s Old Town is certified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and my goodness is it beautiful. Much like many of the cities we visited, it was highlighted by colorful buildings lined up in rows, glinting with wrought iron and gold leaf. It was gorgeous.
Katy, Brodie, and I opted for dinner in the main square. Originally that restaurant had told us that they were full, but after a lap around the area, we saw a table for three open up, so we pounced. I ordered pineapple chicken and an Amazonian cocktail, which was some kind of tropical vodka drink. The food I ate was definitely just standard food, I wouldn’t call it “Polish” necessarily, but hey, I had vodka. The Polish are convinced they invented it, not the Russians. Apparently its oldest mention is in Polish literature, so maybe that’s right. I don’t know what to believe anymore. As someone who enjoyed visiting Poland, and has never been to Russia, I’ll go with the Poles.
We boarded the bus at 9:15 and headed once again to our hotel. It had been an emotionally taxing but incredibly rewarding day. Luckily we had our Contiki fam to help us all through it. It’s so hard to think that just ten days earlier they had all been strangers, and yet at this point, we were acting as each other’s emotional support. Good job, team.