Yesterday I went and toured the famous concentration camp known as Auschwitz. I woke up super early after getting only 45 minutes of sleep the night before and jumped on the first bus of the day to the city of Oswiecim, Poland, which is where Auschwitz’s two main camps are located. The bus ride took nearly two hours, but when it arrived, it dropped me off directly in front of the entrance to Auschwitz I.
The entryway to the camp was filled with people. I literally had to push and claw my way through the masses in order to reach the ticket desk, where I paid 40 PLN to go on a guided tour of the camp. I was given a purple sticker and was told to wear it on my chest. Then I stood outside with 50 or more other tourists before three English-speaking tour guides split us up into three separate groups – about 15 to 19 people in each group.
I couldn’t help but feel the sick irony of the situation. Less than a hundred years ago people had come to this place, were given various identification badges, and were divided up based on race, religion and physical ability. While those individuals had wanted nothing more than to get out of this evil place, here I was (along with hundreds of other tourists from all around the world) fighting to get into it. And after getting into the camp, I was, like the Nazi prisoners, given an identification badge and divided. It was a spooky start to the day.
The tour of the camp was fast paced, yet informative. Overall, I was surprised at just how well-maintained the facilities of the camp were. Auschwitz I did not feel like a death camp, but instead, a small self-contained village. Except for the camp’s jail, shooting wall and gas chambers, the place looked like it could have once been a charming little town.
Most of the buildings in the camp were closed, but inside those that were open were several museum-like displays showing both photos of camp life during the Nazi occupation and the various collections of glasses, prosthetics, shoes, luggage, brushes, human hair and various other items collected off the camp’s prisoners.
I had expected my visit to Auschwitz to be a complete horror show. I was prepared to see hundreds of photos of starving, dying people and thousands of dead bodies, but the information on display was actually very tame. I’ve been to other holocaust museums around the world that were much more grotesque and emotionally upsetting.
Touring Auschwitz was more like going to Disneyland (the Disneyland of death) than touring a place where millions of people were so wrongly killed. There were so many people at the camp that I had to constantly push my way through the masses. In order to view many of the display cases I had to jump over a stranger’s shoulder or stand in a long single-file line while being pushed from behind by the person in back of me. Once I did find myself in front of the large shoe display, for example, I only had a second or two to look around before my tour group either moved on or I was pushed out of the way by a foreign individual. And everyone was taking photos. There were hundreds and hundreds of cameras – all out at once – each struggling to take a shot before being pushed out the way by others wishing to get a view. Any emotion created by the place itself was ruined, in my mind at least, by the sheer number of people touring the site.
After walking around Auschwitz I, our tour group jumped on a shuttle bus and rode a short distance to the site of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. This camp was much larger, but not nearly as pleasant looking as Auschwitz I. This place actually looked like a death camp… and I instantly recognized it from photos I have seen over the years and from movies, such as Schindler’s List.
It was absolutely freezing at Auschwitz II and I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a prisoner there with just a thin layer of clothes to keep me warm. I don’t think I would have lasted very long.
Our tour guide showed us one of the main gas chambers, which was destroyed shortly before the Nazi’s abandoned the camp… and we went inside several of the barracks as well, where stiff wooden boards were used to construct three-level beds for thousands of camp inmates. Our guide informed us that on each level of the beds there would be 4 to 6 people and that the top level was the best place to be, because the people on the bottom two levels would often times be shit on by those sleeping in the beds above them.
Inside the toilet facilities there were large metal cages underneath each of the toilets. I asked the guide what these cages were for, assuming they were to keep the prisoners from escaping by crawling into the sewer system. But no. The cages were on the toilets because most of the prisoners were so thin that they would slip and fall through the toilet seats if the cages had not been there. Plus, our guide was quick to point out that there was no plumbing in the toilet area. It was basically just a big trough that everyone in the camp peed and pooped in… and that some of the prisoners were responsible for cleaning out the troughs on a regular basis. I nearly vomited in my mouth when he told me that.
After several hours at both Auschwitz I and II, I jumped back on a bus bound for Krakow and slept the entire way back into the city. I was cold, tired and (somewhat) emotionally drained. Auschwitz hadn’t been nearly as shocking as I had thought it would be, but I think they presented the place in a rather respectable manner. Pictures of the dead and dying weren’t necessary. The well-preserved remains of the camp in combination with the two tons of human hair piled inside one of the main rooms was all I needed to see to understand what a truly horrible place this must have been.