I visited Krakow in June 2016.
OK. Deep Breath. This was a tough day. I’m not going to include as many photos as usual out of respect.
I read Elli as a teenager. From memory it was a year 12 book, which meant I read it several times and wrote essays about it. It stayed with me, maybe because I could relate to her age, probably because the horror is so palpable. Revisiting it these many years later I relate differently, now as the mother of teenage girls. The horror hasn’t changed. My heightened sense of social justice makes me even more angry.
Visiting Auschwitz is a big industry in Krakow. Most people go with organised tours but it is possible to do it yourself. Tickets are booked online but only at certain times of the day can you self guide. They are free. That meant getting up early to catch an early bus for the about 2 hour trip to Auschwitz. The bus stops just outside the visitor centre. Big tip for Auschwitz, the website tells you how big a bag you can take in. Measure yours. Although I only took my cross body bag it was a big one, and well, am grateful I wore pants with many pockets that day. They won’t let you take in a large bag but they do provide storage for them.
The walk up to the visitor centre passes many large signs recounting stories. I spent a lot of time at the end of the day reading them, with tears freely flowing. I wasn’t the only one.
Visiting Auschwitz self guided meant that we could visit whichever barracks we wanted and spend as long as we wanted. As the tours began we saw them visiting only certain displays and were grateful that we had the time to see them all. Another thing I found was that despite being a committed solo traveller I was really grateful to have a travel buddy this day. The stuff we were seeing and reading was really full on and the ability to debrief from time to time throughout the day was valuable.
We spent several hours at Auschwitz I. Each barracks is set up to display a different aspect of the camp’s history. For instance one is dedicated to the experience of Hungarian Jews, another to the Roma people. Across the course of the morning we learned so much about the impact of the camp on so many different demographics. The barracks at Auschwitz I were more solid than I had expected, on reflection once I got to Birkenau (AuschwitzII) my expectation of the style of barracks was much more like they were there.
From the same bus stop we were initially dropped at we were able to catch a bus for the short trip to Birkenau (Auschwitz II). This was the much larger camp and the site of the mass killings in the gas chambers. It is expansive. The train line leading through the entrance paints a picture of the efficiency of the process.
We spent a good couple of hours exploring this camp as well. Stopping frequently to reflect on what we were seeing. By the end of the day we were both quite exhausted and emotionally shattered at seeing what humans can do to each other.
The day we visited Auschwitz was stunning. The sky was a vibrant blue with scattered puffs of cloud dotted across it. It seemed wrong.
I think we both fell asleep on the bus back to Krakow. A day never to forget.