Sunday, March 10, 2013



Elizabeth Day on a visit to the former Nazi concentration camp near Krakow, now the site of a sobering museum

Any attempt to convey what it feels like to stand on this barren patch of land 25 miles west of Krakow seems desperately inadequate. Once a concentration camp, now a memorial and state museum, Auschwitz-Birkenau is where the Nazi murdered 1.1 million Jews. I arrive at 8am and for an hour I am alone, but two hours later I see a discomfiting gaggle of tourists pose for photos beneath the Arbeit Macht  Frei (Work Brings Freedom) gateway.

For a place where such destruction was wrought, Auswitz is small. Originally established as a camp for Polish political prisoners in 1940, it wa later designated for the extermination of Jews and a much larger facility was built in nearby Birkenau.

In block 4 at Auschwitz, museum exhibits include a huge glass display case filled with hair cut from the heads of some 140,000 victims. The gas chamber feels dank, unpleasantly claustrophobic: a single, guttering candle flame provides the only hint of warmth in a whistling wind. 

At Birkenau, it’s the size and complexity of the Nazi operation that hits me : the notorious Auschwitz railway line, surrounded by acre upon bleak acre of flimsy barrack rooms where thousands met their deaths.
I walk for hours over the pockmarked soil, towards the remnants of several vast gas chambers, dynamited by the Nazis before Allied troops liberated the camp. The concrete has collapsed in on itself now, and all that remains is a rubble-strewn emptiness surrounded by inhospitable vastness. That such an  inhuman place could have been built by humans is the most difficult and devastating truth of all.

Getting There

Frequent buses (US$2.60; 90 mins) travel to Oswiecim, dropping passengers in the museum car park. There are also hourly trains (US$3.80; 90 mins) to Oswiecim, from where you can catch a local bus or taxi. Alternatively, most Krakow hotels will be able to arrange a personal taxi service to and from Ausxhwitz and Birkenau for around US$100-US$135. Entry to both sites is by donation. Find out more at

No comments:

Post a Comment