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You will have seen photos, you will have seen documentaries, you may have been taught in school. Some people will be compelled to visit here, some feel they must, but perhaps everyone should do so that the horrors of yesterday never again become today. A place where 1.1 million people, mainly European Jews were systematically dehumanised, tortured, experimented on and murdered. Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. 40 miles west of Krakow, Auschwitz Birkenau is now a UNESCO world heritage site, a museum, a memorial, with a meaning.

Auschwitz gate entrance. Work sets you free.

 

It’s a museum of two parts, from two of the remaining camps. Our tour guide takes us through Auschwitz 1 camp and it starts with the sign above the gate entrance; ARBEIT MACHT FREI – work sets you free. Horrendous irony that meant exactly the opposite for those who came here, a site where the greatest mass murder in history took place, genocide, the holocaust.

We are reminded that Auschwitz was originally a Polish Army Camp at the village of Oświęcim, the layout, the barrack blocks remind me of my former RAF sites. But what happened within the electrified fences of this concentration camp was state sponsored slave labour, slow death, starvation, shootings, worked to death,  hangings, gassing, suicide, torture, disease, destruction and death.

Auschwitz electric fence

 

It might be difficult to comprehend the sheer scale of the savage destruction as you are guided around but the barrack blocks now house the exhibits, the stories and the material evidence. Zyklon B canisters used to gas people, mounds of shoes, children’s shoes, baby shoes, suitcases, spectacles, human hair. Early on, before the number got too large, the Nazis kept a record at Auschwitz, the walls are lined with photos of those that were murdered by being worked to death, their name, nationality, birth date, deported date, their death date. The faces of Auschwitz.

 

We’re taken to Block 11, the block used solely to torture, starve, the isolation cells, and where the first attempts to gas using Zyklon B were made. 600 Russian prisoner’s of war and 250 Polish prisoners were crammed into the basement where Zyklon B was released. At 15-20 minutes, not a quick death but an efficient one for Nazi purposes.

 

We walk past the house where the camp commandant Rudolph Hoss lived, the same house where Rudolph Hoss’s wife stayed after he was back in Germany and which his wife described as paradise while on the other side of the fence was exactly the opposite. And not far from where he was hung in 1947. Just a few metres away, the gas chamber and the crematorium. We get to go in, we look up to see the holes where the Zyklon B was dropped through.

The 2nd part of our tour takes us to Auschwitz camp 2, Birkenau, the death camp, the extermination camp. Birkenau is at the end of the train line, and the very last stop for 900,000 people. Its bleak and barren, the buildings and guard towers punctuate the flat landscape.

Birkenau train tracks
Birkenau

 

It was here where people arrived from all over Europe.  Arriving off the cattle train, they walk on to the The Ramp. This is where selection took place. The elderly, the infirm, those under 15 walked with their mother walked straight to the gas chamber. They didn’t know they were going, it was orderly. Once there, they stripped for a shower. A shower that never took place. They were gassed, hundreds at a time. After, the Sonderkommando, were forced to clean up the chamber. shave the hair and remove gold fillings and false teeth.

Today the gas chamber and crematorium buildings remains as they were found, partially destroyed by the retreating SS. Our last stop is Block 25, the block of death where female prisoners deemed unfit for work were kept until they were sent to the gas chamber.

Something to remember as the right wing rhetoric and nationalism that builds up here and across the world where people are rejected by politicians building up walls and fences. Never again.

We’re in Poland’s second city spending four days in the quaint, cultural, crazy Krakow for city break. A curious mix of communist, medieval and modern buildings wrapped around an old town square. It’s hard to miss, old town is dominated by St Mary’s Basilica where the bugle calls out each hour and the old town splays out from the Cloth Hall to old streets.

We had a hotel (Hotel Maksymilian) that was a 7 minute stroll from the centre than we then explored the city from. We’ve had to dress for the November weather, we’ve had snow, mist, fog, rain, clouds and its been freezing everyday and even I have sworn we’ll go somewhere warm for once. Krakow is not a massive city centre but we certainly clocked up some kilometres that we broke up with regular food and drink stops. Initial impressions are that its very much like Budapest and Prague, perhaps too similar to each other.

 

The main square was gearing up for Christmas with lots of work going off and in a way we were disappointed we were a little too early for the Christmas market but then again, I suppose it would have just been the usual fair of tourist tat. With its very own fire breathing dragon, Wawel Castle is a busy junction with views over the Vistula river a hilltop castle. The castle is a mish-mash of medieval, Baroque and Renaissance. Its free to enter though there are some areas you have to pay for but it’s cheap.

 

No visit to Poland is complete without sampling the food and drink. Seems rude not to engage in the national Polish drink so tried Vodka at Wódka vodka bar, beers in The Tram Bar. On a a cold winters day when the cold air has bitten, a plate of Pierogi, fried or baked Polish dumplings, from U Babci Maliny restaurant is a great comfort food.

 

We also managed to squeeze in a few other things including a day trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, and shooting guns including an Uzi and an AK47!  Its easy to become crazy in a Krakow city break, its cheap as chips and we much preferred being there mid week. Our last day was Saturday when the tourist hordes descended in large numbers making the streets and bars a very busy Krakow city break.

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