Tuesday, 26 July 2016

There and back again: Visiting Auschwitz

Taking the road less travelled 

I visited Poland recently and took a trip to Auschwitz, the famous Nazi concentration camp. I though I share details on getting there and getting in with those interested.

While in Poland I was staying with some friends in Wroclaw, the largest city in west Poland and fifth largest in all of Poland. Most people who visit Auschwitz go from Krakow. Its only about 65Km from Krakow and buses go up to the Museum. It take only about an hour. There are also train services from Krakow to Oświęcim. Auschwitz camp is located on the outskirts of Oświęcim (Auschwitz is actually the German name of Oświęcim). There are also several organised tours which run mostly from Krakow and some from Wroclaw. Here's a useful link for more information: http://www.beyondmyfrontdoor.com/wp/tips-for-visiting-auschwitz/ 

I was travelling from Wroclaw and didn't want to take one of those expensive (90-100 euros) bus tours. The tourist centre in Wroclaw suggested I take a train to Krakow and then a bus to Auschwitz. That would have been a long and tiring journey. Thank god I have friends smarter than the tourist centre. They suggested I take a morning bus from Wroclaw to Katowice (a city in between), followed by a local train to Oświęcim. This meant getting up at 4am, taking the bus at 5am and reaching Auschwitz around 10am. That's what I did. All in all the travel cost me 48zl (12 euros).

Reaching the bus station before 5am was easy. Trams in Wroclaw start running very early and go up to the bus station. I was a bit confused at the bus station because the bus arrived at a different terminal than advertised. The crowd of people in front of the bus and the board saying Budapest didn't help. No queue. Felt like home.

5am Polski bus from Wroclaw to Katowice. Clearly, like Indians, Polish also don't have any thing called a queue.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

In the heart of the death star: Visiting Auschwitz

Some time ago, I visited Auschwitz, one of the most famous memories and memorials of World War II. About 1.1 million people died here.

I went through an emotional whirlwind and came back mentally exhausted and heartbroken. I was guided through various barracks in which inmates were kept in overcrowded conditions with minimal facilities for sanitation hygiene. I saw various exhibits of piles of bags in which people brought their belongings to the camp, thousands of shoes, purses, pieces of utensils and corridors full of photos of men and women who died at Auschwitz. A quarter of one of the rooms was filled with blond hair taken from people who died in gas chambers.

As I walked through these rooms hearing stories of atrocities and inhuman behaviour, I was slowly getting overwhelmed. The tipping point came when I entered a room dedicated to children. One one side behind the glass was a heap of toys and the room was filled with photos and stories of children who died or had medical experiments conducted on them at the camp. This is when my eyes filled with water and a single drop rolled out. I am not trying to be poetic here. Most people who visit Auschwitz do get overwhelmed by the experience. At the end of the our guide said, "I hope now you will tell others about Auschwitz and help them understand what happened here better" (paraphrased). I thought I would take a shot at it.

As I write this post I am also reading a book I bought there. Its 'This way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen'. Its written by a Polish literary genius, Tadeusz Borowski who spent 2 years in the concentration camps from 1943 to 1945. He was not a Jew and survived the concentration camp. He killed himself at the age of 28, ironically by breathing gas from a gas stove. I will quote paragraphs from his book at places to illustrate what happened in Auschwitz.

Civilisation is a farce
Human to inhuman is a thin line
Auschwitz was the biggest concentration and extermination camp run by Nazis during World War II. Auschwitz I used to be a Polish army camp before that. The concentration camp stated in 1940 and exterminations in 1941, initially for Polish prisoners. From 1942 onwards the camp became a site where Jews from across Europe were brought to put into forced labour and extermination.

Auschwitz I 

When the camp was first set up by the Nazis local residents were forced to move out of the area and bricks from homes were used to build camp buildings. By the end of 1941, the camp was overwhelmed with prisoners and construction was started on Auschwitz II.

Work brings freedom