Facing The Worst Of Humanity At Auschwitz

Visiting Auschwitz was never going to be easy. It’s not exactly a walk in the park where you can tune out or share your deep thoughts with nature, or even a look around a museum where words can fill you with knowledge but not leave a mark on your soul. No, this was being faced with the worst of humanity and being unable to look away as it hits you square in the chest.

Visiting Auschwitz is feeling your body fill up with horror, seeing things you’d read about in books but had never really imagined in real life, and wondering why you’ve been allowed to walk out of there alive when millions didn’t.

But seeing Auschwitz is important – to remember those who lost their lives here, and to stop anything like this happening again.

Auschwitz I, Poland

We visited on a day tour from Krakow (affiliate link), with a journey just over an hour each way. I highly recommend doing it this way, as although you can make your own way there and then join a guided tour, it does take any stress out of the day, and the tours including transport are pretty cheap. Guided tours alone are 85PLN (over £15) but we paid about £20 each for the tour from Krakow.

(Side note: Apparently you can actually book a time slot to visit in late afternoons without a guide, but I wouldn’t recommend this. This is a place to learn, not somewhere you need to wander at your own pace. I never felt rushed at any point on our tour, and we learned so much that we wouldn’t have read on signs.)

Our guide, Lukasz, was excellent, knowledgeable and approachable. I was really impressed with how the tours were run overall. Everyone is given a headset, and the guide talks quietly into a microphone and everyone can listen at their own volume. It means in a place like this, guides aren’t shouting to be heard or talking over each other, and it doesn’t matter if there are several tour groups in one place at once. It keeps it respectful and sombre.

Arbeit Macht Frei gate, Auschwitz I, Poland

Auschwitz I

You start off in Auschwitz I, the original camp used for prisoners long before it became an extermination camp for the Nazis.

This is the most well preserved camp, with the barracks still standing and now used as museum exhibitions. It’s also the setting of the famous gate above, which says “arbeit macht frei” – work will set you free. One of the biggest lies ever told.

Auschwitz I, Poland

The stories told during the tour were gut-wrenching. There are rooms with photos of people smiling on the train platform, having no idea that they would be dead within hours. It amazed me that these photos exist at all, given that the Nazis did their best to eradicate all evidence of the exterminations.

The hardest rooms to visit are the ones with the belongings. The walls of bags with people’s names on, memorialising them forever. They thought it would make it easier to find their bags afterwards; it hadn’t crossed their minds that they would never be finding them again.

The room of kitchen pots is particularly thought-provoking. They saved things like that to take with them, with no idea that they wouldn’t need them. And the room of shoes threw me completely off kilter. It was the sheer number of them – floor to ceiling, front to back. Nice women’s shoes (reminding me of that scene in Jojo Rabbit; a fantastic, poignant film if you haven’t seen it), children’s shoes… so, so many of them.

Shoes at Auschwitz I, Poland

But the worst room of all, the room of hair, you’re not allowed to take photos in. I wouldn’t have wanted to anyway. I felt physically sick and couldn’t even look at it.

We walked past blocks that are no longer used but were originally hospital wings (ironic, really, that they would have such things in place like this, but I guess it wasn’t always a clear cut extermination camp – plus it may have been used for the notorious experimentations), signs that I caught snippets of as we passed with information, past watchtower blocks where guards would sit and make sure prisoners weren’t trying to escape, and eventually, reached an actual gas chamber.

I was really shocked to find out that we’d be going inside. My mind completely closed off at this point. I couldn’t even think. Couldn’t let myself imagine what had happened in here. And as we left, into the fresh air, all I could wonder was why I was allowed to walk out of there alive when so many didn’t.

Afterwards, we headed back to the entrance to continue our tour. We were silent. Nobody said a thing on the entire walk. Ten minutes later, my friend managed, “bloody hell”.

We had a short break to collect our thoughts, use the toilet, and grab a coffee or snack from the small tuck shop in the visitor centre, before heading out to the van where we’d be taken to the second part of the tour.

Auschwitz II Birkenau, Poland

Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Auschwitz II is the much, much larger camp, though most of it has been destroyed in the Nazis’ attempt to destroy any evidence of their exterminations. Therefore there’s a lot less to take in here.

However, the scale of the camp is mindblowing. Fields and fields of remains of buildings, blown up and torched to the ground, including a couple of gas chambers which have been left in ruin as they were found. The remaining evidence of what had happened.

It’s also the setting of the famous gate and the train tracks, used over and over again in films and seen in history books. We set off along the platform, as more than a million people had in the 1940’s. They would then be selected whether to live or die, sent to their deaths when they thought they were just having a shower before settling into the camp. They were even told to make sure they knew where they’d left their clothes and belongings so they could find them afterwards.

It’s sickening to think about. That real humans could say this to young girls, children, old men, people just like them, knowing their fate. It’s no wonder there were people trying to change the course of history – people like Oskar Schindler, immortalised in Schindler’s List. You can visit his factory in Krakow, which allegedly saved over 1,000 lives when he employed them there.

Auschwitz II Birkenau memorial plaque, Poland

We went into one of the remaining barracks, imagining what it would have been like, if you hadn’t been sent straight to the gas chamber, to lay with ten other people on one of these wooden platforms. We visited the poignant memorial at the end of the tracks, where there’s a plaque in every language of the victims here (32 plaques in total), and passed a cart that would have been used to carry deportees to their fate.

The plaque above says “for ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe”.

I can’t remember where it was mentioned – something to do with the nationalities of the victims, if I remember right – but we heard something about a Scottish woman called Jane Haining and researched her afterwards. The story of her life is inspiring but ultimately devastating – after helping lots of Jews in Budapest, she was deported to Auschwitz where she died, although supposedly not in the gas chambers. We may never know the real story.

Cart with roses, Auschwitz II Birkenau, Poland

At the end of our tour, Lukasz revealed that his grandfather was in Auschwitz. If he hadn’t made it out of there, he himself wouldn’t be alive to be leading our tour, telling these stories and preserving the memories. He works there because he feels it’s important to keep these people’s stories alive.

And this alone made the tour absolutely worth it. The human element, not just of those who perished or survived Auschwitz itself, but those who came after, only because they had the chance to exist.

Auschwitz II - Birkenau, Poland

There are lots of tours from Krakow to choose from, and we booked ours through Get Your Guide – they have plenty of really cheap ones, and I honestly don’t think it makes much difference whether you book a cheap tour or a more expensive one, as the experience you get at Auschwitz itself is separate to the tour from Krakow. Tickets to Auschwitz are included though!

(Please note this is an affiliate link, but this is what we used and paid for ourselves, so it’s a genuine recommendation. However if you do choose to book through the above link, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you.)

It’s taken a while to really form any words about visiting Auschwitz. Certainly, after standing in that gas chamber, we barely said a word for a good twenty minutes. I didn’t feel like I could even open my mouth without crying. It was a really emotionally draining day, and it can be difficult to wrap your head around everything that happened here.

And yet, ultimately it’s such an important visit. Like many other historically significant but horrific places I’ve been, like the Killing Fields in Cambodia and the genocide museum in Bosnia, it’s somewhere you visit to remind yourself: we cannot let this happen again.

Sign reading "those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it" - George Santayana. Auschwitz, Poland

Have you visited any places that symbolise genocide? Or would you?


7 thoughts on “Facing The Worst Of Humanity At Auschwitz

  1. What a powerful and poignant blog you’ve written. I can certainly understand why it would have taken you awhile to put into words some of what you were feeling. Yes I would go there because I agree that it is a piece of history that can never been forgotten. My grandfather was actually a British POW that ended up at a satellite camp close by and he remembered feeling so sorry for the “prisoners in their striped pyjamas”. I just finished reading Daughter of Auschwitz and would highly recommend it! Thank you for sharing your experience here.


  2. A very sobering experience. I went in 2017 without a guide, and even without one, it was still a lot to learn by reading the plaques. You had an amazing guide, especially his family having experienced the horrors of the Holocaust. Definitely an unforgettable place to visit.


  3. Very thought-provoking post, especially fitting for the subject. The prosthetic legs and crutches felt rather heavy to look at, among all of those displayed belongings.

    The penultimate picture (the one with the rose on the train tracks) reminded me of Schindler’s List — specifically that little girl wearing a red coat. Throughout the movie, her red coat stood out from the rest of the movie’s grayscale.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve visited a few WW2 and Holocaust related sites, I can’t say I enjoyed them as such but I do feel it’s a worthwhile thing. I was involved in a research project when I lived in Germany that brought me into contact with a few people who had family history- some survivors, some perpetrators. I think you’ve written about a tough subject with great sensitivity.


  5. Wow. I have tears in my eyes just reading this. I can see why it took you so long to put it into words, but you did a phenomenal job. I felt the devastation and horror; I can only imagine how it must have felt to actually be there.


  6. Gah, that room of hair had me sobbing as well. Your post is beautifully written Clazz. I think places like this put life in to perspective – really what we are privileged to worry about today is absolutely nothing.


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