This post likely contains affiliate links. By booking through these links I may make a small commission (which I am very grateful for!) at no extra cost to you.

My day started out rough before I even opened my eyes. Whether I woke up on my own, or my pounding head did the work for me I didn’t know. What I did know is that last night was coming to bite me in the butt and I clearly had way too many vodka shots.

Damn Polish vodka.

Groaning I got out of bed and stumbled to the showers, cursing myself for being such an idiot. Just like back in Rome, this was clearly another case of incredibly bad planning. For a girl who rarely ever went on tours, I had a really bad habit of partying too hard the night before the ones I took. But despite a difficult shower, and an even more difficult attempt at eating breakfast, there was no way I was skipping today. Today I was going to get a glimpse into the horrifying past of the Nazi regime in Poland. Today I was going to Auschwitz; the world’s most notorious concentration camp.

Prisoner breakdown

Prisoner breakdown

The bus tour started out rough, and although I had originally planned to sleep off my hangover, (or was I still drunk?) that plan quickly went down the drain as our guide inserted a video for us to watch in an effort to prepare us for what we would soon experience. I sobered up quickly as image after image of sick emaciated children filled the screen; the victims of the Nazi regime. Some were alive, others were corpses. Despite the poor quality of the footage and small screen, the images damn near broke my heart.

As we pulled into the Auschwitz concentration camp we were greeted by a young Polish woman who would be our guide for both this camp, Auschwitz I and for Birkenau, which is commonly referred to as Auschwitz II. The following few hours were nothing short of completely fascinating, especially since our guide was the daughter in-law of an Auschwitz survivor.

Auschwitz I

As we passed through the gates we came to stand under the iconic entrance; a gate topped with the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei which translates into Work Will Free You. What, for me, was an incredibly sobering sight, was for other’s the perfect opportunity for a ‘selfie’. I cringed as a watched three Asian girls, then a South American couple, pose with big smile and peace signs in front of the entry way to, what was for many, a literal hell.

These gates were a death sentence for many

These gates were a death sentence for many

As we crossed through those gates ourselves our guide introduced us into a world of horror. We learned the history of the camp; the largest of the Nazi death camps. Originally the ‘workers’ were the Polish people, political prisoners who were brought to the camp in 1940. Soon they were joined by Jewish prisoners who, like the Poles, were forced into slave labour. Our guide shared with us how families; parents, children, husbands and wives were torn apart upon arrival; separated by the weak and the strong which would determine who would work, and who would be exterminated.

An old photograph of Poles and Jews arriving

An old photograph of the prisoners arriving

As we walked through the halls of the buildings we looked upon endless photos of the prisoners who were murdered during their time at the camp. We passed through dark cells, and saw the remains of what had been left behind; an endless array of shoes, clothing, and personal items. Tiny baby clothes and shattered pairs of glasses. And perhaps the most powerful sight of all; the seemingly endless collection of human hair, proof that these weren’t just random items left behind, these belonged to stolen lives.

A seemingly endless pile of shoes

A seemingly endless pile of shoes

As we passed through chamber after chamber, corridor after corridor, past the walls were prisoners where murdered and the posts from which others were hung, I couldn’t help but feel like this was surreal. How could something like this ever have happened? After years of history lessons, veteran speeches, and war museum visits nothing could have prepared me for this.

But despite the jar of human ashes, the leftover items, and human hair, the most moving moment for me took place standing in front of a map of the camp.

“Where is everyone here from?” our guide asked.

A chorus of ‘England’ circled my group of, primarily, older couples. A younger couple piped up that they were from Norway, and when it got to me, the last of the group, I said ‘Canada’.

“Canada?” our guide asked. “Well for the people of the camp, this was Canada.” She pointed to two areas on the map, buildings titled Canada 1 and Canada 2. She continued to explain that these were the buildings believed to hold all the personal items and belongings of those imprisoned at the camp. They called it Canada because it was their biggest hope, and to them, Canada meant safety. It was at this point, after a couple of hours of sorrow and devastation that the tears I had been holding back let go, and streamed down my face.

A tiny fraction of the ashes of the murdered

A monument containing just tiny fraction of the ashes of those murdered

Our last stop at Auschwitz I was the gas chamber and crematorium. Inset into a small grassy hill it looked like nothing, until we walked inside. The mood became instantly more somber as we took in the lone vase of roses that was the only colour in the cold, grey room. We all notably shivered as we gazed around us, especially when we noticed the holes in the ceiling where the gas was released, and even more so when we entered the crematorium.

The gas chamber

The gas chamber

After a moment of silence, we left, slowly exiting through the gates that had trapped so many not so long ago. Because, as heart breaking as this camp was, our guide told us, Auschwitz II-Birkenau was even worse, because it wasn’t made to be a work camp. Birkenau was created to kill.

The crematorium

The crematorium

To be continued on Tuesday November, 11th: Remembrance Day. Find part 2 here.

34 Comments

  1. Kanika Kalia on November 6, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Loved the article.. can’t even imagine what those people went through..

    • Hannah Logan on November 6, 2014 at 11:11 am

      Me neither- the stories we heard in school just don’t add up to experiencing the real thing.

  2. Charli on November 6, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    Oh my gosh what a harrowing experience. We’ve just got no idea what those people went through. There’s just so many things wrong with our civilization.

  3. Ron | Active Planet Travels on November 6, 2014 at 11:03 pm

    Lovely write-up, couldn’t imagine taking in so much especially with a blinding hangover. We should be grateful every day we wake up and don’t have to go through what these poor people had…

    • Hannah Logan on November 7, 2014 at 1:32 am

      No kidding, very sobering (pun intended)

  4. Katie on November 6, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    Wow. Very powerful, frightening, heartbreaking…no words really. I have always wanted to visit Auschwitz (and I’m sure I will one day), though there is no way to prepare for how you will react once there!

    • Hannah Logan on November 7, 2014 at 1:32 am

      I hope you get there one day, it’s an incredible experience.

  5. Marysia @ My Travel Affairs on November 7, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    As a Polish I really have no more words for discussing the concentration camps tours, we all know how dreading those are!

  6. Sammi Wanderlustin' on November 7, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    I find it hard reading about Auschwitz after being there, I, too did Auschwitz and Birkenau. I cried my eyes out (our group were so emotional we had to stop for a break) there. The hair was the worst 🙁

    I actually felt better at Birkenau because most of it was gone and we were outside.

  7. Alli on November 7, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    My stomach churns while reading this post. While I have not been to Auschwitz itself, I have been to Mauthausen concentration camp in Germany and recently the Killing Fields in Cambodia and know how it feels to walk amongst the walls of such a heartbreaking and unimaginable place 🙁

    • Hannah Logan on November 11, 2014 at 1:51 am

      Yes I imagine the killing fields are a very similar experience. So emotional

  8. Chris Boothman on November 7, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    I can imagine that visiting Auschwitz is a very powerful, moving but rewarding experience and I would really love to experience this one day! It’s crazy to just even think about the history and the horrendous experiences that these people endured but actually seeing the place that it happened in person, well I can only imagine what you must have been feeling.

    • Hannah Logan on November 11, 2014 at 1:50 am

      I hope you get to see it one day Chris, It’s really something everyone should see.

  9. Britany on November 7, 2014 at 7:58 pm

    What a powerful experience this must have been. Disturbing as it may be to see in person, it’s so important to acknowledge the horrible things that happen in this world. It makes us more aware that they’re still happening, elsewhere.

    • Hannah Logan on November 11, 2014 at 1:50 am

      Absolutely- I honestly believe that concentration camps are something everyone should experience should they have the opportunity.

  10. Alejandra on November 7, 2014 at 9:56 pm

    I never thought I was going to be shocked by a pile of shoes, such a powerful display. These tours can be really eye-openers, I can imagine how walking around the camp must bring up a mix of strong emotions. I went to the 9/11 museum last month and I cried like a baby, the museum is so emotive that they have tissues in every corner.

    • Hannah Logan on November 11, 2014 at 1:49 am

      I missed the 9/11 museum during my last visit, but hope to go next time. I imagine that will be a similar experience, especially since it’s something I was alive for.

  11. Margherita @The Crowded Planet on November 7, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    You’re right. Auschwitz is terrible, horrible, a place that represents all the evils of the whole world. But Birkenau is worse. I remember a feeling of anguish pervaded me. It still does, nearly 10 years later, as I type these words.

  12. Tam Gamble on November 8, 2014 at 8:54 pm

    To visit somewhere like Auschwitz is always going to be emotional and it still amazes me how many people want to visit, myself included, to try and take in the atrocities that took place there. Earlier this year, we visited Sachenhausen just outside Berlin and I still struggle to explain to people just how I felt wandering around areas that would have been the end of the line for so many people.

    • Hannah Logan on November 11, 2014 at 1:48 am

      It’s so hard to put into words the feelings and emotions that places like these illicit.

  13. Sarah @ A Week at the Beach on November 10, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    I remember doing this years ago. It’s a very difficult experience to put into words, which you have very eloquently done. I look forward to following your travels!

  14. Cory Lee on November 10, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    This post was really hard to read, but it’s great that you shared it. Hopefully we can all learn from the past and never repeat anything like this again.

  15. Sumit Surai on November 11, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    We should visit places like this so that we never forget our history and try to avoid whatever bad happened. Lovely article!

  16. […] ← Experiencing the Horror: A Visit To Auschwitz Death Camp Part 1 […]

  17. Jolanta on November 13, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    For me it wasn’t the shoes or the hair that shocked me the most, it was the pile of toothbrushes, each of them representing someone who had no idea he or she was soon going to die, and packing a toothbrush fully expecting to be able to continue the good habits of dental hygiene. Poor people 🙁

    Thank you for writing this post. Lest we forget… Humanity should never have let that happen.

  18. Richelle on November 20, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Wow this is incredible. I’ve studied the Holocaust and been to the DC museum more than once, but I would love the opportunity to witness Auschwitz firsthand. I’m with you- I definitely wouldn’t feel comfortable taking a selfie at the entrance. I’ve been to a few other places like the Harbin Germ Warfare Camp and the Nanjing Memorial Massacre Museum and I didn’t feel comfortable taking any pictures of myself there.

    • Hannah Logan on November 20, 2014 at 11:26 am

      I’m glad I’m not alone on that. Taking a photo of yourself is one thing (although I still wouldn’t do it ) but smiling and making peace signs? That’s just disrespectful in my books

  19. Constance - Foreign Sanctuary on November 24, 2014 at 6:17 am

    What a powerful and chilling write-up! It is so sad to imagine what went on within the confines of this space. It makes me grateful for my freedom.

    • Hannah Logan on November 24, 2014 at 1:07 pm

      Thank you for your compliments- definitely a powerful experience.

  20. The Best of Krakow - Eat Sleep Breathe Travel on December 12, 2014 at 10:55 pm

    […] Auschwitz/Birkeneau Concentration Camps: Probably the most well-known concentration camps in the world, this is a must-see on any visit to Krakow. Tours are offered through tourism centres and hotels/hostels, or you can bus on your own. Visiting the camps, however, must be done as part of a group. Both camps can be visited in about half a day. […]

  21. […] places to eat. It’s full of interesting history and is a great jumping point for day trips to Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Pro tip: Oskar Schindler’s Factory is a must visit, and […]

  22. […] Auschwitz/Birkenau Concentration Camps: Probably the most well-known concentration camps in the world, this is a must-see on any visit to Krakow. You can take a tour from Krakow city or you can take a local bus on your own. Visiting the camps, however, must be done as part of a group. It’s a depressing visit, but I’m very glad I went. You can read about my experience here. […]

Leave a Comment