How does one write about a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau? Anything that can be said seems trite and obvious. But one cannot make a trip there without coming away with something.
I’ve found it very hard to put into words how I feel about what happened. It was the most harrowing and awful few hours of my life. Yet I left. I was there as a visitor. As a tourist. The cold I experienced that day was nothing compared to how the people who were held in the camp there would have felt. I had layers, the ability to find warmth, to have a full meal at the end of the day.
I, like so many other millions, have passed through those gates and have seen those horrors. The rooms filled with human hair, the shoes, the pots and pans, spectacles, suitcases. I have walked into a gas chamber. Felt the chill of realisation. The wave of emotion. But I walked outside again. I breathed clean air. My loved ones just a wifi connection away.
The sheer scale of it renders your daily worries insignificant. You are safe.
My overwhelming feeling is that everyone, every single person in this world, must visit. Every country’s political leaders should have to go. It should be a pre-requisite to gaining a position of power. To going and seeing what power in the wrong hands can do. Comparisons to modern day situations are not helpful, but the situation in which places like Auschwitz came into existence came from a place that does not seem that far away in today’s climate. In the rhetoric used by those in power. The hatred and the persecution.
The heavy ache in my heart for the loss of so many millions will never leave. The ache may dull slightly as time passes and memories fade but it will be there as a constant reminder to fight on and stand up to anything that represents such hate and horror again.
I think perhaps the only thing I can do now is to offer some advice for a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
1. Do not book a tour with your hostel/hotel. Most places of accommodation will offer a trip for about £20-25, and while it does take some hassle out of the organisation, the extra money you are spending does not go towards anything that will benefit the preservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
2. Book a guided tour through the website. I did the 3.5 hour general tour and found this extremely informative. It will cost 45 zlotys (about £9) or 35 zlotys for students up to the age of 26. This money goes entirely towards the preservation of the site. The 3.5 hour guided tour allows for a break of about 30 minutes between Auschwitz and Birkenau.
3. Visits without a guide are free, and if you turn up on the day there might be some free spaces left in guided group tours. However, especially if you need an English-speaking guide, this is not always guaranteed so might not be worth the risk. You can obviously walk around on your own accord for free, but I think part of the experience involves the tour. I’m not a fan of them normally but would wholeheartedly recommend it on this occasion.
4. Getting there. There are two options, bus and train. Both leave from the main station regularly (at least once an hour, and every half an hour for the bulk of the day). Oswiecim train station is a 10-ish minute walk from Auschwitz. The bus drops you off at Auschwitz (but make sure the one you take goes to Auschwitz and not just Oswiecim as that will involve a 10-15 minute walk). Bus tickets cost 28 zlotys for a return (£5.50ish) and a train ticket is slightly more at £7.20. You do not need to pre-book bus or train tickets. To see a timetable and costs use this website
5. Avoid taking a bag. I took just a small day rucksack but had to leave it in the luggage area. It doesn’t cost much to store it there for the day (about 50p) so I did not mind paying that (again, going towards the preservation of the site)
6. Have some small change with you to use the toilet. It costs 1.5 zlotys (30p)
7. Just go. If there is one thing you do this year, it should be this.