The 2.5-hr train-ride to Krakόw was pleasant. I drifted off to sleep since I was tired from a 3-day business conference in Warsaw. I actually almost gave up on the idea of travelling to Krakόw due to the distance. But I knew I had to seize the opportunity since I was already in Poland.
The train arrived at exactly 8:30am at the central station of Krakόw Glόwny. Almost immediately, I spotted the terminal where the buses bound for Oświęcim (pronounced ‘osh-vyen-cheem’ in Polish while the Germans called it Auschwitz). Since the next trip was another 30 minutes away, I decided to find something to eat.
The bus left Krakόw central station at exactly 9am. On the way to the Nazi death camps, I marvelled at the very picturesque Krakόw countryside and wondered how a very quiet, peaceful, and beautiful place like this could have become the site of so much atrocity during the last world war.
Walking from the bus station to Auschwitz.
The 60-km distance from Krakόw to Oświęcim took around 30 minutes. Upon arriving, I was greeted by a beautiful garden walkway. I had to walk a distance before arriving at the entrance to Auschwitz. There is no longer any trace of the war. It was just all green and beautiful.
Entrance to Auschwitz.
Auschwitz is already developed. There are a lot of people visiting this place, most of whom are young students from all over Europe. Entrance is free, and you can easily book a tour guide for a group. Since I was travelling alone, I decided to just go throughout the camp at my own pace, occasionally chipping in at groups with English speaking guides.
Court of Death.
When I got inside, everything became so real. Even if the place is already clean and fixed-up, you can still feel the sadness, fear, and horror that once were there. Even the stench and smell of torture and death somehow still pervaded the air.
St. Maximillian Kolbe's cell.
While walking through the different bunk houses, and the only standing crematorium left, I tried to picture out the faces of the people during those days when this death camp was still in full operation. As I passed by the cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan priest who volunteered to exchange his life for a total stranger, I said a prayer for world peace.
As I ended my walk around Auschwitz, I thought to myself that the place wasn't really that big. But I was informed, while I was at the souvenir shop, that the real death camp was not this place, but in what is known as Auschwitz II, or Birkenau (Brzezinka in Polish) -- just 2 kms west of Auschwitz. There are buses that frequently shuttle tourists to and from Auschwitz at regular intervals.
Perimeter of Birkenau.
When I arrived in Birkenau, I immediately noticed the massive gates. That was what was featured in “Shindler’s List” (although the movie was not really shot there). I was overwhelmed at the vastness of the complex of Birkenau. It has a land area of 175 hectares.
It was actually at Birkenau that the extermination of large numbers of Jews took place. There were four huge gas chambers -- now ruins since the Nazis destroyed them all as they were fleeing from the Russian troops -- complete with crematoria which could accommodate 2,000 people each.
Bunkbeds in Birkenau.
I tried to find my way around this camp, snapping my small and trusted digital camera at every nook and corner. Most of the time, I was alone, and although the barracks were very eerie, I wasn't really afraid. I only felt sadness and respect for everyone who lost their lives here.
Walking back to the bus station and reflecting on my whole-day tour, an elderly man walked beside me and asked, in English, “did you enjoy your tour of the death camps?” That took me by surprise as I hardly talked to anyone the whole day. We engaged in a very lively conversation. He introduced himself as Henry Rzkonars, a retired history professor at a university in Krakow. He now keeps himself busy by being a tour guide for Auschwitz-Birkenau and Krakόw. He is fluent in Polish, English, and German.
Prof. Henry (he told me to call him by his first name since it’s harder to pronounce his last) was a very good conversationalist, and was a wealth of knowledge and wisdom. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take a picture of both of us. As he was nearing his stop, he wrote down his contact details at the back of my train ticket (which I have kept until this very day). He told me he would readily accompany me around Krakow the following day, if that would please me, and also, he was looking forward to visit the Philippines if and when he would find the chance and opportunity.
For more information on Auschwitz and Birkenau, please visit: http://en.auschwitz.org/m/
My trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau was something I will always treasure and remember. (I bought a lot of literature and videos about them.) I have always wanted to visit Auschwitz and I am glad I decided to take this trip. Today, I still wonder how the holocaust has happened in the not-too-distant-past. (It’s sad that there are people who claim the holocaust was just a creation of some historians, and that, it has never happened.)
A one day trip at Auschwitz and Birkenau wasn't enough. I have missed many other details, most of which I only found out as I read literature about them.
Jan 27 was World Holocaust Day. I wish and silently pray that the holocaust, or something similar to it, will never happen again.
Someday, I still hope to return.
Wall of Death. A lot of Jews were shot here indiscriminately.
Signage at the crematorium.
Furnaces inside the crematorium.
Damaged crematoria in Birkenau.
. . . . .
This entry was written by CBB. He took this trip in May 2003.
CBB is guest-posting in my blog upon my invitation to share his travels.
More stories from him in the coming weeks!
One Day in Krakow