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Dec 09 2014

The Cold, Hard Reality of Auschwitz

The first time I was in Krakow, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to Auschwitz, having found the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia upsetting a few years before.  I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to visit another place where people had been tortured and executed.  If I was on my own, as I had been in Cambodia, I wouldn’t have gone, but I was with a fellow female traveller who wanted to go.  Because of that, I decided to go with her.

It was the day we were both leaving Krakow.  I had booked a bus to Zakopane and my travel buddy was heading to Budapest that evening, so we were limited to time.  What I hadn’t realised before I got there was the sheer size of Auschwitz.  There are two camps: Auschwitz I was the original camp, which used to be a Polish army garrison before it was taken over by the German army.  Auschwitz II, the Birkenau camp, is located three kilometres away.  Because we had underestimated the scale of the Auschwitz, we didn’t have the time we needed and it was all a bit rushed.

Because it wasn’t on my list of things to see and do, I hadn’t expected to return, especially within a six-month period.  The thing is, in October, I moved to a town close to Krakow.  That meant Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is situated, wasn’t that far away.  One of my flatmates was keen to visit and, as my previous visit was rushed, I decided to go with them one Sunday in the school’s Fiat Panda.  So, we bundled in and headed off.

Going to Auschwitz

I had gotten a bus from Krakow the first time so, this time, we arrived in Oswiecim from a different direction.  As we drove past a wall topped with barbed wire, we knew we had arrived.  We turned the corner and were waved into a car park on the opposite side of the road to the entrance.

It’s free to visit, unless you want to join one of the relatively inexpensive 3 hour guided tours.  We preferred to wander around at our own pace rather than join a tour, so that’s what we did.  The written information, which is in English, is sufficient.  To be honest, there’s only a certain amount of information I could or would have been able to take in.

I thought that being there a second time wouldn’t have the same impact as the first time I was there, but I was wrong.  In fact, it was far more chilling the second time round for a few reasons.  We weren’t in any rush, so I wasn’t clock-watching and we had the time to take it all in and try to get our heads around the atrocities that happened.  I also think the time of year had something to do with it.  It was a late, cold November day.  In fact, it was the coldest day we had had.  The trees were bare, having been stripped of all their leaves, just as the prisoners had been stripped of all their belongings, freedom, dignity and, for many, their life on this earth.

Auschwitz on a winter's day

Even though were were wrapped up, we felt extremely cold.  It was eerie, walking around this abandoned concentration camp where so many people suffered and lost their lives.  It’s impossible to imagine what life would have been like there during that time, especially in the long, cold, dark, dreary winter days.

This time round, as we walked from one building to the next, I watched a large group of people who were on one of the guided tours being led into the building we had just exited.  It was strange watching them because 70 years before, large groups of people would have been led into and out of these buildings, but not of their own freewill.

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With a digital camera and smartphone at the ready, I love to snap away and take photos that I can use on my blog and on my social media channels.  On both occasions in Auschwitz, however, I wasn’t my usual snap-happy self.  In fact, I didn’t feel the need or want to take many photos.  Quite rightly, there are restrictions.  In a few places, you aren’t allowed to take photos and in other places you can’t use a flash.  Even though it’s clearly stated, people ignore the signs and take photos as and when they wish.

On the subject of taking photos, one thing I hadn’t noticed before and didn’t until one of my flatmates pointed it out were the number of young people taking selfies.  I don’t have a problem with people taking selfies.  I take the occasional selfie, although I have yet to perfect the art of taking a flattering selfie.  Having said that, I would never have thought of taking a selfie in Auschwitz and never would.  It seems a little strange to me.  Why would you want to take a selfie in a place where people suffered and died?  When I googled Auschwitz to write this post, I found out that we aren’t the only ones to have noticed and discussed this weird phenomenon.

Just two years after the remaining prisoners were liberated, Auschwitz became a state memorial to the victims.  in 1955, the exhibition you see today with human hair, suitcases, children’s shoes, prisoners’ every day items that were confiscated from them such as toothbrushes and combs opened.  In 1979, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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We ended up spending about three hours just in Auschwitz I.  We stopped at one of the restaurants because we were hungry and cold.  By the time we had finished, it was too late to go to Auschwitz II, so we decided to go home and return another day to visit the other camp.  Because we don’t live that far away, we can do that.

Even though it was disturbing, I’m glad I had the chance to go back to Auschwitz.  As time goes by, it’s easy to forget about things that happened a long time ago, but we mustn’t.  Having a memorial and museum like this helps to ensure that we never forget and learn from past mistakes.

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Have your say

Have you been to Auschwitz?  If so, what was your experience like?  If not, is it a place you would want to visit or are you unsure, as I was?  Oh, and what do you think about taking a selfie in places like Auschwitz?  I’d be interested in hearing your opinion.

About the author

Teresa Keane

Teresa has been to almost 60 countries. She started travelling independently at the age of 38 when she gave up her job, rented out her house, put her possessions in storage and spent a year travelling the world. It changed her life. She now creates, publishes, & promotes online travel content and is an experienced freelance trainer & EFL teacher.

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