Updated: Apr 9
With a heavy heart, Auschwitz was the saddest place I’ve ever visited. No one can prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the intense emotions you feel, or the thoughts and questions that will face you as you walk the paths of Auschwitz.
As you enter Auschwitz I the gate reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” translated means “Work will make you free.”
Each prisoners that arrived here though these gates thought they were going to german labor camps, but the harsh reality was that this camp was designed for their mass extermination. Less than 10% of the people who walked through these gates survived.
Auschwitz was built for one purpose and that was for killing. It’s estimated that at least 1.1 million people lost their lives in the camps between 1940 and 1945. Only prisoners selected fit for work on arrival managed to avoid immediate death in the gas chambers. Instead, these prisoners faced years of hard labour, medical experiments, starvation all while surviving under appalling living conditions.
When the Nazis took over the former army barracks and started Auschwitz in 1940 there was just 1 camp, Auschwitz I. Within a year they had ran out of space and in 1941 they expanded to a purpose-built death camp 3 km away, Auschwitz II Birkenau, which was 20 times the size of Auschwitz I.
When arriving in Auschwitz II Birkenau first thing you see is the infamous gate house with the train track running through it and then the shock of the size of the place hits you. You cannot even see where the camp ends in the distance. There are rows upon rows of now destroyed barracks.
You then walk along the train tracks towards the selection ramp. This is where after getting out of the train car which the people would have travelled in for days and sometimes weeks, would be lined up and the selection process would take place by doctors. They were either selected fit to work or to go straight to the gas chambers.
From the selection ramp, you then walk to where the remains of the gas chambers are located. I did not take any pictures of what remains of the gas chambers as morally I do not think it would be right. Too many people lost their lives for it to be a photo opportunity, instead I closed my eyes for a few moments to pay my respects.
Each of these gas chambers held up to 2000 people at one given time. After the gassing had took place, the bodies of the deceased had then to be transported to the ovens to be burned. The Nazis did not want to do such a job themselves, and had a selected set of prisoners do it.
These prisoners were known as Sonderkommando. The Sonderkommandos lived in separate quarters from the other prisoners and each Sonderkommandos usually lived no longer than 6 months because the Nazis didn’t want the word spread about what was actually happening.
As Soviet forces began to approach Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, SS chief Heinrich Himmler orders the destruction of the gas chambers and crematoria. During this SS attempt to destroy the evidence of mass killings, the prisoners themselves were forced to dismantle and dynamite these structures.
On the 27th of January 1945 when the Soviet arrived to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camp had been evacuated by the Nazis just days earlier sending about 60,000 prisoners marching 30 miles, so they could board trains to other concentration camps. It is estimated 15,000 died during the journey, with the Nazis killing anyone who fell behind. The Soviet found 7,000 starving prisoners who remained at the camps to destroy any remaining evidence. The Soviet arrival ended the largest mass murder in a single location in human history.
Nothing can prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, no website, no history book nor can anything prepare you for the intense emotions you will feel, or the thoughts and questions you will face you as you walk the paths of Auschwitz. You won't come out as the same person you went in. It’s not about remembering what happened there, it’s about never forgetting the countless people who lost their lives. Everybody’s experience is different. I can say one thing for sure – you will leave full of anger and sadness.
Unfortunately though people use Auschwitz as a photo opportunity and are so disrespectful, they take selfies and lack empathy in places that saw the murder of thousands of innocent people. I just can’t wrap my head around that, so be prepared for the lack of empathy that will surround you.
ALWAYS REMEMBER WHERE YOU ARE.
For anyone wanting to do the tour I did, it was a full-day tour to Auschwitz-Birkenau with Get Your Guide. There are headphones provides for the tour of Auschwitz I, as it is a guided tour. Birkenau, you follow your guide but there isn't a guided tour as such, the guide provided all the information to each part of the camp and answered all questions, but a lot was walking around silently absorbing the scale of the camp. The tours is approximately 7 hours long with a pick up from a certain meeting point.
Any questions or further information I can provide you with, feel free to pop me an email