Tuesday 18th July
I woke up shortly after 7am today, at least 2 hours before our usual road trip wake up time. After a quick round of coffee and porridge, we drove straight to Auschwitz ready for a morning of dark tourism. As we arrived outside the Auschwitz museum, my first impression was of slight chaos, as we were greeted by a lot of official looking people in high-viz jackets standing in the road and waving batons.
“I think he’s gesturing for us to park in there…” murmured Morgan, as a man on the opposite side of the road to the museum entrance waved his baton with particular vigour.
We realised later that this man wasn’t anything to do with the official car parking; he was just a dude in a reflective jacket waving a stick to seem official. All the car parks are chargeable near the museum, and part of their business model seems to be “wave the most insistently to get the most business for your car park.”
It’s free to visit the Auschwitz museum, but tourist numbers are limited due to the high demand, hence why we needed to arrive so early. Dogs aren’t allowed in though, so Morgan and Lex went to find a shady cafe with wifi as I entered the site.
At 9am, Auschwitz was already busy. Like, seriously busy. It was hot and crowded, with tour guides shepherding huge groups around whilst speaking in a huge variety of languages. To enter the site, all the visitors are funnelled under the infamous “arbeit macht frei” (work will set you free) sign, passing the vicious looking barbed wire which surrounds the gate on both sides.
Inside the site information is given in Polish, English and Hebrew, and I spotted a few Israeli visitors taking sombre pictures of each other in front of simple buildings which held unimaginable horrors.
Many of the buildings have been reconstructed to show what the camp was like for the prisoners. Moving between displays of cramped dormitories and revolting wash rooms, the faces of the dead stared down at me from the walls, silent and tragic.
Whole buildings were dedicated to the items that the Nazis stole from their victims, including pots, glasses, shoes and even the hair off the heads of the dead, which they sold for profit.
It was a darkly illuminating morning. I felt like I already knew a lot about the holocaust from studying twentieth-century history, but the experience of actually being in Auschwitz, walking in the footsteps of the prisoners and murderers, is nothing like learning from a textbook. At the second part of the site, Birenkau, you can actually walk along the train tracks to the spots where they sorted new arrivals as they disembarked. Train loads of people were sent to the gas chambers from that very spot, marching along the long hot road not knowing that they walked straight to their death.
After 3 hours, I was done. The crowds, the heat and the sheer horror had become too much for me, and I turned to leave. There’s only so long your brain can actually focus on such unimaginable atrocities for, without switching off and turning to think of other things. I guess it’s a self-preservation technique, to stop you turning mad with grief at the fate of a million individuals and a million grieving families.
On the shuttle bus back to the main part of the site, I passed several pretty suburban houses, and couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to so close to such an evil place. Maybe the inhabitants didn’t even register the horrors anymore as they commuted to and from work and dropped their kids at school.
Reuniting with Morgan and Lex, I looked around at the cafes, pizza places and Polish souvenir shops in the Auschwitz car park with slight disbelief, marvelling at the sheer bad taste of it all. At least they had avoided the phrase “Auschwitz souvenirs,” in a small nod to common decency.
Driving away from my dark morning, the pack headed into Krakow and checked into the lovely Airbnb which would be our home for the next 3 days. The building was Very modern, clean and fancy, having been newly built earlier this year. The lift in this building was notable for two reasons:
The lift brand was Schindler. As in, Schindler’s Lift. Seriously.
Everything outside the lift looked shiny and new, but when the doors opened, we were greeted with this:
Not feeling like walking too far (nor feeling particularly cultural), we Googled “beer”, which led us to our closest pub, followed by Googling “pizza,” which led us to our closest pizza place, which turned out to be the superb find of “Mega Pizza.”
We both ordered medium pizzas for £6 each, which turned out to be big enough for both dinner and two days worth of lunches. They were indeed, mega pizzas.
It stayed hot well into the evening as we sat outside with our pizza feast, which was absolute bliss after spending the first month of this summer in cold, rainy Scandinavia.
“It’s actually the sort of weather where you’d want to sit outside, even if you didn’t need to!” I said gleefully, thinking of all the times we’d sat outside restaurants in the rain over the last few weeks.
“I know” grumbled Morgan in response. “It’s awful.”
If you want to keep up with our travels as we continue on our 3-month adventure, hit the Follow button to get updated on new posts!