Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps - Poland

Trip Start May 18, 2007
Trip End Jul 18, 2007

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Hi everyone -

Our little travel egg alarm clock woke us early today so that we could prepare for a full day of touring Poland. We began the day with a typical Polish breakfast - ham and eggs, and for those who are anxious to hear - the coffee is wonderful in Krakow!
Our tour bus met us a few yards down from our hotel to begin our journey. We knew it would be a very sobering day. The 6 hrs touring the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau while not a pretty place, it left vivid travel memories for us.
The bus drove us through the beautiful countryside, lush, green rolling hills, dotted with beautiful cottages and manicured gardens. The Poles take great pride in their homes and in their city with no litter and very little dirt.
Only an hour away from the beautiful city of Krakow is a place where true horror took place and the few hours we spent at Auschwitz only scratched the surface of the human destruction that occurred so many years ago.
First stop: Auschwitz. We walked just a few yards into the camp through the infamous iron gate that all prisoners walked through with the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" = Work will set you free.  The gates were surrounded by heavy barbed wire with another electrically wired fence, followed by one more barbed wire fence. All parts of the camp that we saw were as they were in 1945 and well preserved.
Inside the camp we saw many of the blocks where unimaginable things happened to the prisoners. For those who attempted to save fellow prisoners they were tortured and quickly put to death, by firing squad or lethal injection.
The most sobering areas of Auschwitz were the Extermination Block and the one remaining gas chamber. The artifacts which were collected stopped us cold - thousands of suitcases with hand written names and cities, hairbrushes, combs, toothbrushes, baby clothes, shoes and eye glasses. The worst was when Ryan and I were walking into one of the rooms and we smelled this odor which we could not pin point. As we walked into the last room we realized what that odor was and as we wove our way through to a glass case approximately the size of a single car garage, we saw the remains of the hair of over 40,000 prisoners whose heads were shaved immediately after being gassed to death. It was horrifying. The odor was the preservative to keep the hair preserved.
We finished the Auschwitz portion of the tour at the gas chamber, where three ovens remain intact; all others were destroyed at the time of liberation. What remains in this chamber cannot be described and walking through the same room where so many thousands had lost their lives was an experience we will never forget.
Second stop: Birkenau. As if Auschwitz was not enough for the day, we then traveled 3 miles down the road to Birkenau, which contained the barracks where the selected few who were strong enough to work, "lived". The famous rail station is here where the prisoners truly believed this to be the beginning of a new life. Originally there were over 300 barracks and only 60 remain today and we visited several barracks which were untouched.
Our tour guide was fantastic and her 20 yrs of time spent as a guide at Auschwitz-Birkenau was a treat. Dorota shared sad stories of survivors who continue to visit and share their personal experiences with her.
While the visit was a difficult one, it was important for us to experience the most meaningful yet horrendous piece of our history.
We returned to central Krakow and we walked our legs off, starting at Wawel Castle enjoying lunch at the top of the castle, overlooking the city and the cool breeze was welcoming. We toured the Jewish quarter where our hotel was located, and saw lots of remaining synagogues and cemeteries, one which was completely destroyed after WWII to wipe out all memories of what happened during that time.
We came back to our base camp in the Jewish quarter, right after a heavy thunderstorm hit and enjoyed dinner in the where the famous movie, "Schindler's List" was filmed, and the bus loads of tourists streamed in for over an hour.
Tomorrow's journey is to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and off to catch a long night train to Prague...

Today's walk: 7.4 miles
Total for the journey (37.6 miles, 6 days)

Ryan and Laurie
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