Budapest is a city I can’t properly describe. It is a place that somehow simultaneously has something that almost everyone will find enjoyable, and destroys all of your expectations.
It’s the middle of October, and I am on a train snaking its way along the Orava River in Northern Slovakia. I am about four hours into a five-hour train ride from Bratislava to the village of Podbiel. What’s in Podbiel? Apparently, proximity to the Western Tatra mountain range and a great deal of outdoor activities, as well as beautifully preserved heritage houses. I am going, however, because my maternal grandfather was born in Podbiel in 1911. I’m going to go further into why I decided to take the trip out to this place, but I have held one of the less rational reasons for a few years now.
WARNING: While it does not delve too deeply into the minutiae of the Holocaust, this post does handle a subject that is quite disturbing.
Before you read the title of this post and panic, let me explain why I decided to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum. World War II and the Holocaust was a frequent topic in my history classes from seventh grade onward, for a variety of good reasons. As an unintended consequence of this frequent exposure, the events that I was learning about existed only as grainy black and white photos and statistics floating between my textbooks and my memory. It was a faraway concept that had nowhere near the emotional currency it deserves, and I wanted a more tangible understanding of this history from which I now felt distant.
Put shortly, I succeeded in my mission. Visiting the former camp was horrifying. It was a slow-creeping horror, similar to the way one doesn’t notice shadows lengthening until the sun is almost gone.
As a historical refresher, the older portion of the Auschwitz concentration camp (called Auschwitz I) was a converted Polish Army barrack that functioned as a prison camp from 1940 to 1942. From 1942 until the camp’s liberation, Auschwitz’s function transitioned from a prison to the largest of the “death camps” – a facility designed for the mass murder of Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazi state. The secondary camp, Birkenau, was built during this period and was the camp complex’s focal area for mass murder . In total, between 1 and 1.5 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
As stated before, Auschwitz I is the older of the two camps, and being a former Polish Army barrack, is mostly full of red-brick buildings that look entirely innocuous from the outside. Auschwitz I is where the main offices of the Museum are, and we were obligated to take a guided tour of Auschwitz I. Entry to the museum is technically free, but there is a fee for the tour.
Our tour guide was amazing – she was very knowledgeable about the camp history, though she had to cover an insane amount of material in ninety minutes and at times was speaking so fast I thought she was speaking in Polish. Though being on a budget, I was glad in retrospect that I took the tour – there were so many things that I had not known about that place. Being able to see and walk through these things also was a more profound exercise in understanding the horrible things that happened there.
That said, it was jarring to be walking around what might otherwise be an inoffensive-looking compound of brick buildings, while every twenty feet the tour guide pointed out places where different atrocities occurred. I am not implying that this was done nonchalantly, but when these things are being objectively described by an informed guide, the sheer scale of human violence becomes abruptly and horrifyingly present in a way it previously wasn’t. Even though it all looked very different than the picture I had constructed in my head from numbers, survivor stories, old photographs, and history lessons, the visit grounded my prior knowledge in the physical experience of the place.
For example, in many of the buildings in Auschwitz I contain physical exhibits that include items confiscated from the detainees. There was a room where seven tons of human hair removed from prisoners was piled high behind a glass wall. To my horror, some of these were braids still intact and tied with ribbons, neatly snipped from someone’s head over seventy years prior. One of the things that I found most disquieting about that room was that I found a clump of hair that was the exact same shade and texture as my own. Photography was prohibited in the hair room for good reasons, but I cannot forget those sights.
Birkenau was on a whole separate level from Auschwitz I. It is a few kilometers away from the first camp, but there is a Museum-run shuttle bus that runs between Auschwitz I and Birkenau. You are not required to have a tour guide to look around Birkenau, but we were given the option to continue with our tour guide into Birkenau, which we did. Watching the rebuilt and modern town of Oswiecim pass by on the bus after spending ninety minutes in the well-preserved Auschwitz I was surreal.
Birkenau is not quite so well-preserved as Auschwitz I. It is a massive field, split down the middle by a train track and covered in long, low wooden barrack buildings. Some of these are still standing, but only the foundations of the majority of camp structures remain today. Since many of the buildings are no longer standing, you can see more clearly just how large the camp was.
A brief refresher: most individuals who died in the Auschwitz camp died in Birkenau (90% of inmates). Though building began in 1941, in 1942 the main function of the camp was the mass extermination of Jews. The railroad around the camp was extended and diverted to facilitate the unloading of train cars full of people into Birkenau. According to our guide, Birkenau housed the 10-20% of prisoners who were not immediately selected for the gas chambers.
This statistic made the total death figures for the camp and for the entire Holocaust (1-1.5 and 6 million people respectively) suddenly present in a way that they had not been before. I could look out over this vast piece of land and see that this only held a tiny fraction of those who were brought to this place. Having that small fraction physically represented, in my mind, created a horrifying visualization of the sheer mass of people who did not escape the gas chambers. If this huge area held only 10-20%, then how massive was the remaining 80-90%? Understanding those numbers in such a physical way gave a new weight to the hundreds of thousands of people who had been killed. These people had only existed in my mind as a statistic, or an anecdote, or a smaller story in what had seemed like an impossibly large and horrible historical narrative. I hadn’t realized it until then, but I had no metric or sense of scale for what “a million people” looked like. Let alone six million.
Here’s something you won’t hear in conversation very often: I’m glad I did go to Auschwitz. I am grateful that the visit gave me a better understanding of the scale of what occurred there, regardless of how uncomfortable the experience was at times. Even with study, I am unsure if I would have gained the same understanding without visiting.
Sources for specific pieces of information (not including facts from our tour guide) are linked directly in the text.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum “History” Page (accessed 4 March 2016) Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
The Museum’s historical background on Auschwitz II-Birkenau (accessed 4 March 2016).
The Museum website’s historical discussion of the Shoah (Holocaust) and the number of victims (accessed 4 March 2016).
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum’s website, and their page on visiting are very helpful if you want to plan a trip. I would recommend reserving a slot for a tour online in advance, otherwise the wait at the museum can be an hour or two (at least).
The Museum has a comprehensive history section as well, including much more information than I provided here.
In early October 2015, I kicked off a three-month journey through Eastern Europe in Warsaw, Poland. Several people expressed surprise and curiosity as to why I was beginning in Poland. I had a few reasons!
- The airfare from LAX to Warsaw was cheap (thank you, Air Norwegian).
- Poland seemed like a geographically logical place to kick off a trip through Eastern Europe and Turkey.
- I realized I had really no idea what modern Poland was like. Poland was existed in my mind as a collage of grainy black-and-white photographs of the Second World War. I decided that it was a good idea to visit Poland, because it was horrifying to realize that was all I really knew about the country.
For the benefit of those who may not know that much about Poland, here’s a highly simplified version of Polish geopolitical history: In the modern era, Poland has been frequently partitioned and conquered by other larger European powers. There were several partitions during the 1700s, and independence movements in the 1800s from Russia. From the late 19th century to 1939, Poland stood as an independent country, before being occupied by the Germans in World War II. The country we know as Poland today became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. It is a member of the European Union as of 2004.
First stop in Poland was Warsaw, the capital. Legend goes, according to Warsaw’s Tourist Information Office, is that the city was named after a fisherman and his wife who sheltered a prince. During the surge of development during the interwar years was known as the “Paris of the North.” Finally, the city is known for having a large Jewish Ghetto during the Second World War, whose inhabitants staged an uprising against the Germans. The rest of the city, as well, staged a prolonged general uprising against the occupying German forces in 1944. Today, there is a popular museum in Warsaw commemorating the city’s uprising.
What struck me most about Warsaw was the way the city’s history was reflected and written over repeatedly in the urban landscape of the city. The ultra-modern was jammed right up against a restored older building, which gave the impression that you were never walking in a uniform neighborhood.
It was jarring to suddenly realize that a part of my mind had preserved the image of Warsaw as it appeared in 1944. It was fascinating for me to see these physical places I had associated mentally with some of the most horrifying things to come out of the Second World War had been completely altered.
Let me be clear that I would not expect these places to be enshrined in the same way that the United States and much of Western Europe preserves and decorates its own historical artifacts and buildings. If anything, it was mostly jarring to realize that the imagery and history of the Holocaust had overwritten seventy years of Polish history after WWII, as well as thousands of years of Polish history before WWII, in my own mind.
Let me also clarify that Warsaw does a very good job of giving its recent history due recognition. Though awkwardly jutted between two apartment blocks, they had preserved and monumentalized a short section of the old Ghetto wall. On a simple walk around the city after an evening out, there were many memorials and monuments related to the Holocaust and WWII. I am not implying that Warsaw is developing while simultaneously erasing these parts of its history. What was most interesting for me about the city was how these places were situated in a modern and historically rich urban landscape that I had not realized existed.
For examples, the Royal Palace and the Old Town in Warsaw are beautifully and painstakingly restored. The more modern parts of the city as well, for example the city center and the areas just below the massive Palace of Culture and Science reflect a vibrant and modern city. In sum, Warsaw is a city that I felt I would have appreciated much more if I knew how to read landscapes more effectively, and had a better grasp of the city’s extended history.
After a few days in Warsaw, I took the super-convenient Polskibus South to Krakow.
A little historical background on Krakow: there are records referring to the city dating from the 900s CE, but it was inhabited earlier. After alternating periods of outside control and independence, Krakow sees great development as a cultural center after World War I. During the Second World War, Krakow housed a large and notorious Ghetto, and was also the location of Oskar Schindler’s factory.
On first glance, Krakow is the polar opposite of Warsaw in terms of its urban landscape. Much of Krakow’s old town is carefully preserved and maintained, and ringed with beautiful (and very Victorian-era) parks. I also might be slightly biased, because there was a delicate and atmospheric snowfall when I showed up in early October. I stayed for about six nights, because there are several day trips you can take out of Krakow.
And I did take a few day trips (to be discussed in a separate post). But most of that time was spent wandering around the city and absorbing life in central Krakow. I spent a day climbing the Krakus Mound and wandering through Podgorze, one wandering all over Wawel Castle and Hill complex, all over the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz), and spent one memorable afternoon getting lost and tumbling into a farmer’s market. The city is very much walkable, and the neighborhoods surrounding the center are well worth a wander.
Nowadays, Krakow is famous throughout Eastern Europe as a nightlife hub, and this renown is entirely deserved. Notable are several bars specializing in very interesting Polish-brewed beers. But the frankly awesome quality and quantity of vodka is a blessing and well worth exploring during the evenings.
But Krakow taught me that you can learn much more about a place if you dedicate time and patience to finding what it has to offer. Just walking out the door each day and being open to what’s going on around you in the city or town or desert can introduce you to so many things that you would have never otherwise seen.
(links to the relevant sources are embedded in the body of the post, but here is a list of the sources referenced and access dates)
- European Union. “Poland” member page. (accessed 18 February 2016).
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Polish “History at a Glance” (accessed 18 February 2016)
- Warsaw Tourist Office. “History of the City.” (accessed 21 February 2016).
- US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Warsaw” entry in the Holocaust Encyclopedia. (accessed 21 February 2016)
- US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” entry in the Holocaust Encyclopedia. (accessed 21 February 2016).
- City of Krakow. “History of Krakow.” (accessed 23 February 2016).
- US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Krakow (Cracow)” entry in the Holocaust Encyclopedia. (accessed 23 February 2016)